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Stella McCartney is future-oriented. So much so that on her brand's tenth anniversary, and then on its 15th, she didn't do much in the way of retrospective rumination, landmark years be damned.

But this year, her brand turns 20, and McCartney admits that this landmark feels significant. 

"In our industry, it's actually quite an achievement to still be around after 20 years," she says on a Zoom call after the release of her Fall 2021 collection. "Most houses are much, much older than that." Either that, or they don't last long enough to hit the two-decade mark.

That Stella McCartney is an exception to this rule is unsurprising — her brand's entire existence has been built around being the exception. She stood out from her peers in the design world as soon as she entered it, launching her senior thesis show at Central Saint Martins in 1995 with supermodel friends Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell walking the runway, all while an original song by her father, former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, played in the background. As if that wasn't unusual enough, McCartney proceeded to make something else she had inherited from her parents — an emphasis on animal rights and planetary wellbeing — core tenets of her design approach at a time when such concerns were foreign to most of the fashion industry.

For all the advantages of growing up in a family like hers, McCartney sees the greatest gift as something her parents didn't need to be famous in order to offer: unconditional support. 

"I always knew if shit hit the fan, I'd be able to go home and be like, 'I've screwed up. I know you won't judge me,'" she says. "That is a gift that enabled me to be fearless."

Even if it wasn't coming from her family, McCartney still felt pressured to prove herself as the child of extraordinarily successful parents. The fact that she's now a household name in her own right is an indication that she turned that pressure into a kind of fuel. But the hindsight that makes her success look inevitable today belies how big of a leap she was making when she first took the helm of French label Chloé as a 25-year-old, and then when she created her own eponymous brand just a few years later.

"I was terrified," she says of walking away from a prominent position at a well-known house to start her own thing. "Like panic-attack scared." 

That McCartney calls herself "fearless" and "terrified" in the same breath is typical of how she describes much of her 20 years in business. On one hand, she was the privileged child of a celebrity; on the other, she was the underdog, one of very few young women in the male-dominated world of French luxury houses. She spent much of her life feeling like "the freak in the room" for being obsessed with what we'd now call sustainability, but lately, she has found herself lauded as a leader and a visionary for those same commitments. 

"Everything I say, I'm the opposite of it, too," she says, with a wry smile.

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One significant tension in McCartney's work has been refusing to take herself or fashion too seriously, while simultaneously treating it as the matter of life and death that it is for so many of the workers, animals and ecosystems involved in the supply chain. The let's-not-take-this-too-seriously impulse is perhaps best exemplified in her 1999 Met Gala appearance, when she flouted traditional dress codes by customizing irreverent Hanes T-shirts for herself and Liv Tyler to wear. 

The flip side of that — an instinct to treat fashion as deadly serious — is no less strong. It inspired her to painstakingly build out a sustainability-focused team and supply chain long before sustainability became a buzzword, even though she describes the work of focusing on ethical production as "never-ending" and says "every single bit of it is difficult."

Liv Tyler and Stella McCartney in custom Hanes T-Shirts at the 1999 Met Gala.

Liv Tyler and Stella McCartney in custom Hanes T-Shirts at the 1999 Met Gala.

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Both instincts trace back to her mother, in one way or another. In addition to being a photographer and musician, Linda McCartney was an animal rights activist whose respect for the life of more-than-human beings shaped much of the outlook now so thoroughly enshrined in Stella's brand. But when Linda passed away while Stella was still in her 20s, it shifted the young designer's priorities for good.

"When I started my label, she only saw two of my shows. The majority of my career, I've done without her here. When you lose someone that close to you, there is a level of 'fuck it, none of this matters anyway,'" McCartney says. 

That hasn't turned her into a nihilist so much as someone who moves through the world like she's got nothing to lose, even when the stakes are high. 

When McCartney first started trying to make clothes in a way that minimized harm to people, animals and ecosystems, her approach was so unusual that even her employees seemed to think her obsession with working with organic fabrics, for instance, might be a phase she'd eventually move past. Her own CEO pulled her aside at one point to ask if she was absolutely sure she didn't want to start making bags and shoes out of leather: She recalls him saying, "'We'd have a really good business if you did; you'd be 100 times bigger.' I was like, 'Fuck off.' He was right, of course — my business would be 100 times bigger if I just did it like everyone else."

Stella McCartney at her Spring 2020 presentation in Milan, Italy.

Stella McCartney at her Spring 2020 presentation in Milan, Italy.

But even without leather, McCartney's business continued to flourish. She points to this growth as perhaps one of the most significant sustainability contributions she made in her longtime partnership with Gucci Group, which was later absorbed by luxury conglomerate Kering

"We were growing very fast there as a vegan brand, and you couldn't not pay attention to that," she says. That growth proved that her way of approaching fashion was viable, and helped mark her as a sustainability leader within Kering until she exited the company in 2018. She's now taken that expertise with her to LVMH, the largest luxury conglomerate in the world, where she's been serving as chief executive Bernard Arnault's "internal right hand" on sustainability since 2019. 

While twenty-something McCartney probably wasn't looking at her future as an opportunity to influence how two of fashion's biggest luxury companies approach environmental issues, it's hard to deny that she's done so. Which brings us to one of the other tensions that marks McCartney's work: the knowledge that unchecked capitalistic growth is fueling the destruction of the planet, and her sense that she can't have a positive impact on fashion unless she's playing the game on some level.

"I'm in a big machine of an industry, and I'm a small player," she says. "One side of my brain is like, 'If I don't grow, how can I show them that what I do can be a replicable business model?' They're never going to do it unless they see somebody do it... But I have an allergy to that kind of growth too."

McCartney taking a bow at her Spring 2019 show in Paris. 

McCartney taking a bow at her Spring 2019 show in Paris. 

For now, McCartney's focusing her efforts on continuing to build a business that allows her to invest in innovative materials like lab-grown "spider silk" and mycelium leather, make new clothes out of old scraps, work with regenerative farmers to grow raw materials, partner with resale sites to promote secondhand and create the kinds of goods people love so much that they'll never throw them away. In short, she's doing what she's always done: trying to lead by example and hoping the industry will follow suit. 

Some days, it may not seem like enough, but McCartney's watched remarkable change sweep through the fashion world since she first got started. So even though she's horrified by what's happening to the planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants, she remains stubbornly, relentlessly optimistic. 

"It's horrible what really happens," she says. "But I don't think anyone is going to shift if they're bullied or terrified into doing so. You've got to give people solutions, and you've got to encourage them with some level of hope."

It's perhaps the greatest tension of her life and work, and it's one she intends to inhabit indefinitely.

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