Stella McCartney on What She Didn't Learn at Central Saint Martins and that Gucci Job Offer

The designer spoke about her career at Monday night's CFDA/'Vogue' Fashion Fund dinner.
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The designer spoke about her career at Monday night's CFDA/'Vogue' Fashion Fund dinner.
Stella McCartney speaks at Monday's CFDA/'Vogue' Fashion Fund dinner. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Stella McCartney speaks at Monday's CFDA/'Vogue' Fashion Fund dinner. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

While an undeniably glamorous affair, Monday night's CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund dinner was the type of event that makes you think that, hey, maybe these fashion people aren't so bad. It felt like guests, from Anna Wintour to Karlie Kloss to Seth Meyers, were genuinely there to support the industry's next generation, rather than to get their picture taken or pat themselves on the back.

The finalists for these awards are given some amazing opportunities, from interacting with people like Wintour and Jenna Lyons, to attending events like this one and getting to hear a legendary designer talk through the trials and tribulations of his or her fashion career. Last year it was Tom Ford; this year it was Stella McCartney.

In her keynote speech, an endearingly nervous McCartney detailed the early stages of turning an interest in fashion into an obsession and a career.  When she was a child, she said, "All of my energy went into working out how I would have a career in fashion." She "sketched and sketched" and designed her first garment when she was 12. Next, she needed experience in the industry and she got it, admittedly thanks to the connections of her parents. "At my 15th birthday party, a PR friend of my parents gave me a slip of paper that said, 'I’ve got you work experience with Saint Laurent, Ungaro and Christian Lacroix.' It was the best present imaginable.'"

Later, she interned for more commercially minded brands Joseph and Margaret Howell to get a sense of the business side of things. "Dip your toe into these sides of the industry," she advised, "and see how they’re related to each other."

It was the commercial aspect, she said, that was missing from her education at Central Saint Martins, long regarded as the best of the best when it comes to a fashion design education. "You were really encouraged to look outside the box and to challenge yourself; it was really about making dresses out of spaghetti, and the more weird and wonderful and unwearable your clothes could be, somehow, the better you were," she explained. "I was always made to feel less of a designer because I was designing clothes that women could wear."

Still, she stayed true to herself right up to her degree collection -- "The biggest thing is to be true to yourself in life, to be an individual and have a point of view, to try to lead and not to follow." Still, she felt she left Saint Martins unprepared. "At college, there was nothing to prepare you for a real life working environment."

So, when she launched her own line and showed it illegally out of her Notting Hill apartment, and people wanted to buy it, she had no idea how to produce enough to fulfill orders. She ultimately took the creative director gig at Chloé because it was "a nice way of putting what I was doing on hold because it had become overwhelming."

She ultimately left Chloé, she says, because she wanted to return to London, and that's when she got that famous call from Tom Ford to design womenswear for Gucci -- which Ford later denied. In a 2012 story for the New York Times Magazine, Ford told Cathy Horyn, "It was never a conversation about taking over at Gucci."

But on Monday, McCartney found a way to bring up the conversation with Ford again. "Tom said, 'We’ll stop doing fur for you,' and I said, 'That’s great Tom but I don’t do leather either.' His response was x-rated. He was undaunted and he tried to talk me into it. His strategy involved taking me to his studio in London, where he had every kind of fur laid on the floor. He proudly showed me these little hamsters that had been shaved to look like corduroy and he’d pick one up and be like, 'Isn’t it beautiful, isn’t it gorgeous?' I said, 'Yes Tom it's gorgeous, it’s amazing material but I just prefer it on the animal.'" So, she didn't take the job.

The story was meant to drive home the message of her speech: to stay true to yourself and not sacrifice what you believe in for a job, because shortly thereafter Ford asked her if she wanted to do her own label with Gucci Group.

Now, in "an industry based on selling leather," she has a luxury accessories business on top of everything from childrenswear to lingerie to fragrances to activewear, all while maintaining a focus on producing things ethically. She encouraged all of the designers present to modernize their manufacturing processes and at least make an effort to do the same.