Em Poncia takes a look at the fashion house where sustainability is ‘it’, and what place the cruelty-free brand has in 2022.

‘Sustainability’, ‘greenwashing’, and ‘cruelty-free’ have all become buzzwords for the fashion industry in the last couple of years. High-street chains have clamoured to claim customers with often-empty promises about ethical and sustainable practices.

Comparatively, in luxury spheres, it is often the unsustainable products that drive up the prices. Shoppers expect real leather, or sometimes rarer animal products like crocodile, if they’re going to be paying top dollar.

Stella McCartney’s brand, established in 2001, has breathed fresh air into luxury fashion with her sustainable values and refusal to use animal products. However, although innovative in her ethics in 2001, McCartney’s sustainability factor no longer allows her a competitive edge in a world where going green is a trend. So what, then, has kept this fashion house in the forefront of peoples’ minds for over twenty years?

Although she has professed in multiple interviews that she hates her success being tied to her family, the fact that the ‘McCartney’ name has made waves in virtually all areas of popular culture has had a significant impact on her fashion house. At the same time as admonishing people who see her background as the reason for her success, McCartney credits her mother for imbuing her with a strong sense of right and wrong when it comes to the treatment of animals.

Linda McCartney has become a household name for being a purveyor of vegetarian meat alternatives, and McCartney’s use of plant-derived materials only follows this example. Her father, Paul McCartney of Beatles fame, has said in interviews that Stella showed an aptitude for fashion from a very young age. He details a black suede jacket with a hot pink lining that she designed and made as her first foray into the fashion design world and how she had always been determined to ‘make it’ in this chosen field. After graduating from the prestigious Central Saint Martins School in London in 1995, McCartney caused a commotion through her choice of models for her final degree show. Being friends with supermodels of the time like Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, she says that it felt logical for her to ask them to model for her. Her debut caused a storm because of their high profile and she was thrust into the limelight.

After a stint working as a designer at Chloé, McCartney left to properly establish her own brand, operating under her name. She remembers being discouraged, told that, as a woman, she would struggle to be successful in luxury fashion without the brand name of Chloé. Defying her doubters, McCartney still left, earning her the title of what Anna Wintour saw as the only female designer operating on a luxury level at the time.

In 2022, the McCartney brand is perhaps most iconic for their accessories, namely what McCartney self-described as an ‘It’ bag: The Falabella. This bag, instantly recognisable, has been seen on countless celebrities, especially during its heyday of the late 2000s/early 2010s.

The concept of the ‘It’ bag itself is one that has remained in place for much of modern fashion history. The fact that Stella McCartney’s Falabella entered the ranks amongst classic and long-standing luxury accessory brands such as Louis Vuitton and Dior is testament to her design acumen.

However, I am not convinced that the upturn in McCartney’s popularity in this era was a result of increased awareness about animal cruelty and its damages. McCartney’s designs were interesting in their own right, and she earned her place as a designer rather than as an ethical option for luxury shoppers. Although McCartney’s ethics were a plus point to her designs, they were not the only selling point, nor the reason that she became a household name.

This appears to me to go against Stella’s own design for her career. In interviews, she often steers the conversation towards her sustainability, perhaps showing what her priorities are. Perhaps it was a valiant effort to bring attention to the harmful nature of production in the fashion industry. In one interview, she highlights how she recently spent much time and money developing a sustainable replacement for Rayon that is derived from wood.

This vision of herself as an activist who shows her views through her fashion production continues in her advocating for animal rights campaigners PETA. Appearing in many of their promotional videos, McCartney’s self-styling is, as she says herself, that of ‘designer’ in a very broad sense, rather than as a ‘fashion designer’. To pigeonhole her as a fashion designer feels diminishing to her other achievements in the climate activism sector.

In slight contrast to her other work, the ‘Mushrooms Are the Future’ SS22 collection McCartney released seems to take a far more visible stance on promoting sustainability. Where previously McCartney’s viewpoint seemed to be that using sustainable materials was not a matter of having clothes that looked or felt any different from other luxury brands, ‘Mushrooms Are the Future’ leans into a mushroom motif that keeps her ethos of vegetarianism highly visible.

The stand-out pieces in this regard are those made in the mushroom print. Several dresses, tops, and trousers were cast in a fabric of a repeating, almost dizzying, mushroom design. As the colours are bright and almost psychedelic, the collection appears also to cater for the increasing trend of tolerance and legality for psychedelic drugs, with the mushroom motif serving this double meaning. From some of the items, long spore-like tassels made the pieces look almost plant-like or wispy as the models walked around a runway carpeted like grass.

This extra-visibility of her ethos appears to me to be McCartney’s answer to the increasing number of brands catering to the ecologically-discerning consumer base. Having ruled the roost in sustainable luxury fashion for years, McCartney’s brand is threatened by the surge in sustainable luxury.

Brands such as Reformation, Maison de Mode, and People Tree offer a similarly ethical shopping experience, but often at a competitive price. Because of the technological developments it requires, sustainable fashion is often more expensive, but many other brands are undercutting Stella whilst still remaining in the ‘luxury’ category.

Thus, the turn towards making her penchant for mushrooms easily readable in this particular collection is perhaps an attempt to recast the sustainable fashion market by creating a niche for visible sustainability.

A striking aspect of Stella McCartney, both as a woman and as a brand, is its personal nature. When watching interviews with her, the passion she has for both designing and sustainability is utterly palpable. How this translates to her brand is the instant recognisability of her accessories, particularly her bags. Most have the iconic ‘Stella McCartney’ emblazoned very large onto their side.

Perhaps more than other brands, even those where the company carries the name of the designer, Stella the woman feels intimately tied to Stella the brand. Because she was so young when she was thrust into the limelight, looking into the history of her brand almost feels as though you are watching her grow up through the evolution of her design.

Because vegetarianism and cruelty-free practices are so crucial to the brand-building of Stella McCartney, her ethics feel genuine and personal. There is no sense, as is the case with other brands, that morals are used as a selling point, rather that sustainability is a non-negotiable aspect of her personality, and by extension her creative practice. One gets the sense that, if she had not become a designer, McCartney’s strong sense of ethical purpose still would have filtered down to all aspects of her life. It’s a heartening prospect in an environment where greenwashing feels much more like a trend than a result of conscientiousness on the part of fashion houses.

You can read more of Em’s work on her Twitter @emponcia

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