Stella Nova

Looking ahead: Now backed by the Gucci Group, Stella McCartney has her sights firmly set on her future plans.Photo: Donald Christie

Maybe it’s her marked youthfulness – she’s 30, but with her round, candid face and puppy eyes, she doesn’t look it – or perhaps it’s her ebullient touchy-feeliness, but Stella McCartney is awfully approachable – for a fashion designer. During our tea in the ultra-discreet bar of Brown’s, a very English hotel off Piccadilly in London, a procession of people wander right up to the table to tell her how much they like her work. (Would they dare do this to Karl Lagerfeld? Would they even recognize Nicolas Ghesquière?) At one point, McCartney actually blushes. Only when one of the fans tells her she recently saw some portraits by her late mother, Linda McCartney, does she relax. “This honestly never happens,” she grimaces after one interlude, delving into her bag for a photo of the current love of her life, Blanket, her Appaloosa. The dog-eared snapshot is a diversionary tactic, but it’s also instructive – and not just because Appaloosas, an old Native American strain, are the horses her mother bred. McCartney may be an international designer, but she is also a country girl: Even when she worked in Paris re-creating Chloé – and before that, when she was studying fashion at Central Saint Martins – she caught the train back every weekend to her parents’ farm in Sussex, South England.

The past few years of Stella McCartney’s life have been a breathtaking ride. Appointed designer of Chloé at the tender age of 25, she resurrected the line in less than four years. Her cult must-haves, like air-brushed T-shirts and rhinestone-studded sunglasses (as well as some impressive tailoring), made the hippie if not hip label, which had been static under Lagerfeld, credible for a whole new generation. Then a year ago, with the help of the Gucci Group, she left to start her own line and embarked on what turned out to be a roller-coaster year. Her first collection, for spring 2002, was panned across the media with malevolent gusto. “I was really freaked out,” she says, taking a slow sip of water. “People think I’m strong, but actually I wanted to crawl away. I thought, I’m going to live in the country with my horse and I’ll get a nine-to-five – I don’t need this.” But she didn’t. Instead, she pulled herself together to produce her (much-better-received) fall line, work on a perfume, and plan her first flagship store, which opens this fall in the meatpacking district. If McCartney had been your average rich-daughter-of-someone-famous looking for a way to capitalize on her name, there are easier jobs than being an International Fashion Designer.

And there you have the rub. Until Gucci offered to back her, she says, “everything I’d ever accomplished, including getting into Saint Martins” – the London fashion college also attended by John Galliano, Hussein Chalayan, and Alexander McQueen – “I thought was because of my name.”

It certainly hasn’t hurt. At Saint Martins, she was the sole student in the school’s history to coax Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss into modeling for her graduation show. She hangs with a celebrity crowd; indeed, the only other designer who comes close in terms of registering the same kind of personal recognition with the non-fashionista public is Donatella Versace – and she’s had to work for years at cultivating her high-profile “rock ‘n’ royalty” friendships.

McCartney is too savvy not to realize how valuable her fame is when it comes to building a fashion label from scratch, but she genuinely longs to be judged on her own merits. Part of it is the way she was brought up; her parents insisted on a surreal normality for their children. “I have been struggling furiously all my life to be independent,” she says. “I don’t come from a family where if you borrow £500, you can just forget about paying it back. In my family, it’s like, ‘Excuse me, you’ve got £500 of mine.’ That can be a way of people controlling you, and I don’t like that feeling.” Her parents’ decision to send her to the local public school taught her that name-dropping wasn’t endearing. When Stevie Wonder popped round for dinner, McCartney’s classmates didn’t hear about it. Consequently, she is almost weirdly normal – which only seems to grate more with those who see it as disingenuous. McCartney knows this but is at a loss as to how to counteract it.

“I know if I say I hardly ever bought Vogue when I was a teenager because it was like £12 a year, they’re all going to say, ‘Oh, shut up,’ but it’s true.” From an early age, she was aware of people “clocking” her parents. “I always spotted the fans before they did. I would be like, ‘Okay, in two minutes that person is going to come over and say something.’ ” But she says she had no idea of their wealth: “For years, the six of us lived in a two-bedroom house.” She may be overcompensating (she also says that she hated missing the school bus because it meant she got taken to school in a Mercedes), but you have to like her for it. She didn’t finally compute how famous her parents were until she went on tour with them in Wings. “I was in this stadium with 200,000 people looking at my mum and dad. That was mind-bending.”

So here she is on a Friday evening – she has a business meeting after this interview – explaining why she’s so exhausted. She’s juggling three separate architects for, respectively, her new house in Worcestershire, her new headquarters in a dilapidated church in Notting Hill, and the new store. “I literally have meetings at eight o’clock in the morning, and I finish at nine o’clock at night,” she says. “It sounds pathetic, but I don’t even have time to go shopping.”

Other than looking a little tired around the edges, McCartney comes across as warm, funny, and stylish (today in white silk bloomers of her own design). Her face, freckled and pretty, with those preternaturally large McCartney eyes, is almost devoid of makeup, her dark gold hair twirled up in a makeshift twist. “I can honestly say this industry hasn’t made me neurotic about my looks, except maybe my weight,” she says. “I hope my clothes kind of reflect that. They’re meant to make you feel good, not give you more hang-ups.”

Though the constant gaze of the press – the Greek chorus in her life – would be enough to give anyone a few. “I’ve known Stella for years,” says Gwyneth Paltrow, a friend, whose family knows the Eastmans, Linda McCartney’s family. “She’s very smart and grounded – and private.”

Her reserve is another facet of the McCartney enigma. It doesn’t require a degree in Freud to trace this to the hard time her mother was given by the media in the early years of her marriage to Paul McCartney. “My mother was so cool in the way she dressed,” she says at one point, tearing up at the memory. “She wore whatever she liked – and the press gave her shit for it.”

She groans at the mention of another tabloid obsession, her alleged discomfort with her new stepmother, Heather Mills. “It’s immoral that people make money out of writing crap,” she says, “but I try not to obsess about it. I don’t want to spend my life being angry.” Recently, the British tabloids have speculated that McCartney’s a lesbian (“I think that’s hilarious”); that she’s engaged to her boyfriend, publisher Alasdhair Willis; and that she’s pregnant (on the latter two points she refuses to comment).

The first item Stella McCartney designed was a jacket when she was 12. “My mum was a huge influence,” she says. “The true fearlessness in the way she held herself, in life and in every way. To me, it’s the most modern way to be a woman – a very real kind of femininity. My mum was like grunge before it happened. She never wore makeup. She used to cut our hair herself – really short and uneven.” She rolls her eyes. “Thanks for that, Mum!”

She organized a stint working for Lacroix when she was 15 (“I don’t think I got anywhere near holding the pins – I was lace and shoes”), and during her time at Saint Martins, she did an apprenticeship at Savile Row, inspired by the men’s suits her mother had worn. In the process, she acquired an aesthetic that subsequently charmed the fashion world. “That thing that Stella does, mixing soft, drapey tops with masculine tailoring, has been extremely influential. And she has a great feeling for the street,” says Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice-president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s. “It’s absolutely how women want to dress,” agrees Ana Abdul, of Language, in Nolita. “You put on a Stella creation and you feel really feminine.”

If she’s not Yves Saint Laurent, as her critics like to point out (Lagerfeld, in his inimitable way, called her “a T-shirt designer”), then she doesn’t claim to be. Not being avant-garde is part of the point. Despite costing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars, McCartney’s clothes seem youthful and somehow accessible, as well as hugely desirable. Paltrow pinpoints the appeal of McCartney’s trousers: “They’re fabulous – the fit, the cut. They’re just very sexy.” At Chloé, McCartney increased turnover 500 percent. The creative director of Gucci, Tom Ford – no slouch when it comes to taking commercial bets – will be counting on a similarly impressive performance at her own label.

That, in part, was why the grim reviews for her first eponymous collection were so unnerving. Either in the hope of doing something memorable for her new label or out of sheer panic, McCartney, who’d become a reliable source of lovely, easy-on-the-eye garments, chose this moment to replace her stock-in-trade flirtiness with something more hard-core. Though it was hardly her fault, the timing was terrible, too: a month after September 11. She showed tiny panties with the word wet picked out in glitter across the crotch, together with suits with TROUBLE AND STRIFE (Cockney rhyming slang for “wife”) stenciled down the sides. For musical accompaniment, she chose “Give Peace a Chance,” instructing her models to give peace signs to the audience – who subsequently looked as though they’d had vomit dished over them.

“It was badly presented,” she says with the benefit of hindsight. “I was scared and trying too hard.” In some ways, though, the criticism was an odd compliment: She’d created such a demand for her aesthetic that there was hell to pay when she didn’t deliver what was expected. But it wasn’t an ideal start. Some orders were canceled, though as Linda Dresner, of the trendsetting uptown boutique, notes, “The press aren’t as influential as they think. You can have terrible reviews, but sometimes it just makes customers more curious. They want to see for themselves.”

These days, McCartney isn’t taking any chances. Her last show, in March – the labors of which are filtering into the stores now – saw a return to what she does best. For at heart she’s a people pleaser (she says throwing parties terrifies her because she can’t cope with being responsible for everyone’s good time). And it’s easy to forget that setting up a global business is a weighty matter for a young woman of 30. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” she acknowledges. “I’ve got employees.” James Seuss, her CEO, says it was her employees McCartney felt worst about when the reviews appeared after the show last September. According to Seuss, she apologized to them all the next day. And then, says McCartney, she went to see Ford: “He was really sweet. He’s become a good friend, and he gets it.”

Ford’s support must have seemed like a godsend after Chloé, where McCartney felt underappreciated (and, according to industry rumor, underpaid). “There were a lot of things I didn’t get credit for,” she says of her time there. Certainly, the press has had fun pitting her against Phoebe Philo, her onetime collaborator and successor at Chloé. “Part of me would love to talk about the jobs I’ve been offered, but it would piss everyone off even more,” she continues. “But the first time I got headhunted, by a famous house, it was six months into Chloé, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not just my dad – I am actually getting headhunted.’ “

It may be that McCartney has never fully come to terms with her famous name, but perhaps she won’t have to. “She’s fresh, and women love her clothes – and that has nothing to do with who her father is,” says Dresner. “What Stella has to figure out now is, where next?”

“I’m working on it,” says McCartney.

For his part, Ford knows exactly where she’s going. “She has everything it takes to be successful – the drive, the will, and the intelligence,” he says. “She has great style, great taste. And she worries about the sales and thinks about the brand as a brand.”

The brand is what’s making planning the flagship store so difficult and so engaging for her. “It would be so easy for me to do a pretty shop with a chandelier and a vintage, upholstered chair,” McCartney muses, “but I want to do something more interesting. I have to move forward.” She won’t divulge exactly how this will manifest itself in the store, only that it will surprise people.

That her first store is in New York is serendipity, she says: “We didn’t plan it. That’s just where a site came up first, but I’m thrilled. I spent a lot of my childhood here, seeing my mum’s family. We even pronounced some words in American – all very exotic.”

It’s very useful, too, this birthright of those born to an international lifestyle. Unlike those of many European designers, McCartney’s clothes work as well here as they do anywhere else in the world. “I feel very American,” she says. “I have two passports – British and American.” How chic, I say. “How expensive,” she retorts quickly. “It means you pay twice as much tax!”

Stella Nova