Her ethical stance made her a fashion outsider. But now, the industry is finally getting on board. She talks about how she is reclaiming her name and what it means to be a naturalist, as well as the difficulties of fast fashion.

Stella McCartney can be described as a designer, businesswoman, and environmental activist. But fashion, she insists, will always be first. “It has to. Because the only way for me to start the conversation I want to start is by making a product that you want to buy and that you are going to spend your hard-earned money on. A poor product will not lead to a conversation. If I don’t have a business that succeeds, then I’m an environmentalist, who happens to be Paul McCartney’s daughter. This conversation lasts approximately three seconds. Nobody is going to return for more of this conversation.”

McCartney was a powerful and independent voice in fashion last month. McCartney bought out half of Kering’s company to become the sole owner. This was a “crucial patrimonial decision”. A Citigroup analyst estimated that the label’s sales were around EUR260m (PS226m). This figure, combined with a lucrative Adidas partnership makes Stella McCartney a major brand but still a small player compared to Kering’s flagship brands, Gucci and Saint Laurent. Stella McCartney has become a proud independent brand, instead of being a minor Kering brand. Stella McCartney, 46, is now a proud indie. This move comes as a result of the fact that the Beatles are disappearing from pop culture history. She says, “Owning my own name changes my mindset.” “It’s about legacy. Lee Eastman, my grandfather, had a motto that he called “staying power”, and I have always believed in the long-term.”

McCartney will be at the V&A London to launch Fashioned from Nature. This exhibition, which opens on Saturday, examines the complicated relationship between fashion and nature. McCartney is referring to the very axis she has been obsessed with for over 20 years. Although she was considered an outsider when she founded her cruelty-free, sustainably-minded brand in 2001 in the United States, she has seen the centre of gravity shift in her favor. “When I was younger, it wasn’t easy to say you were vegetarian at someone’s dinner table. I learned how to navigate these conversations early and learned that there were many ways to introduce a different mindset.”

She is glamorous in a camel sweater, elegant white trousers, and very high-heeled, vegan court shoes. This is far from the eco-fashion cliche, which she calls “crochet your sweater and carry a  hemp handbag”. She expresses a passionate outrage at fashion’s environmental footprint, stating that “only 1% of clothing is recycled. Only 1%! How wrong is that!”

“I approach fashion with lightness of spirit. My last ad campaign was shot in a landfill to illustrate a point. The models were happy. There was lightness and colour. McCartney’s message isn’t going to make anyone feel bad about themselves or panic. Everything comes from nature. You mean, where does the colour of the seasons come from? Every fabric we use is inspired by nature. Nature is… Oh man, it is magnificent, isn’t it?”

Many fashion’s greatest artists were obsessed with nature. Christian Dior was an enthused gardener and channeled his passion into pieces like his 1952 Vilmorin gown, which was hand-embroidered by Rebe with thousands upon thousands of tiny daisies. Alexander McQueen wore women in razor clam shells, antler headdresses and shoes based on armadillo hooves. The relationship also has its dark side. It includes the fur trade and the massive environmental impact of a global fashion sector that uses the Earth’s resources to produce clothes that are not needed. Barnardo’s conducted a survey of 2,000 British women last year and found that the average piece was worn seven times before it was thrown away.

grayscale photography of mannequins wearing shirts

Stella McCartney’s pieces were chosen to reflect the contrast between clothes and natural beauty. One of last year’s catwalk outfits features a horse print taken from Stubbs’ Horse Frightened By a Lion. This is a reference to McCartney’s love of the countryside and animals. Stella still has a strong connection with Linda McCartney 20 years after her death. Another display case is the Mylo Falabella Prototype 1, a handbag made in collaboration with Bolt Threads. It is made from mycelium which is the root structure a mushroom. “Please don’t refer to it as mushroom leather,” pleads a V&A spokesperson. “Mycelium can be completely different to mushroom leather.”

Fashion is caught up in the moral storm, from what feminism looks on the red carpet to how it should be dressed. Fashion is the most visible manifestation of the ideology of our time. It is the primacy of individual choice that is the ideology of our times. Famous designers have taken a stand against fur and declared their brand fur-free last month. Donatella Versace joined Michael Kors and Gucci in declaring her brand furless. McCartney is pleased to see the shift, even though it has been too slow from her perspective. She sniffs, “Fur…it’s so medieval.” An ideology that was deeply rooted in animal rights evolved into “being mindful about the impact that fashion has upon the environment and led to a discussion about how this industry is the second most destructive. You can’t ignore this fact if you love nature and life.”

Fashioned From Nature is the latest show in a series of fashion-related museum exhibits. It features an Azzedine Alaia retrospective at Design Museum, and the V&A’s interpretation on Frida Kallo’s wardrobe. Edwina Ehrman, curator, said that the central theme of it is the need to “get away from the idea sustainable fashion should be quirky.” Stella McCartney is a leader that can help scientists see the future.

An exhibition tells a story about the time it was staged, and not just about the past. Fashioned from nature spans the time period from 1600 to today, but it’s a completely different show than it was a decade ago. The environmental impact of fashion has been gaining attention at an alarming rate. It produces greenhouse gases emissions of 1.2bn tons per year. This is more than international flights and shipping combined. Ehrman says that in order to tackle this problem, it is necessary to rewire fashion’s hierarchies. She says that the mindset that a dress made of rare materials from far-flung corners is first put in a museum is being challenged.

Ehrman says that those who dismiss the idea that modern consumers might be able to read labels and be impressed by flax – a sustainable fiber because it doesn’t need irrigation when grown in the right conditions – should be encouraged. “The modern consumer’s behavior around food – reading labels, being knowledgeable about ingredients, and wanting to be identified as someone who makes informed decisions – is a sign of what is possible.” However, “reconnecting with fabric” is necessary. “Modern fashion is all about decoration and surface. We might feel fabrics again and engage with them on a tactile, sensory level. This could help us to start to value them enough to sew buttons or hems.”

Animal rights have long been the emotional trigger for ethical fashion. McCartney refuses to use fur and leather. This is the only thing everyone knows about McCartney. Fashioned from Nature contains many shocking examples of animals suffering. For example, a pair Brazilian red-legged honeycreeper bird earrings with their tiny bodies hanging like pompoms would have been a valuable accessory for a fashion woman in the late 19th century. The 1860s dress features embroidered flowers with about 5,000 iridescent green honeybeetle wings.

Fast fashion is now the main focus, as fur has been reduced to a minor topic in fashion history due to increased awareness about animal rights. Fast fashion is a scourge due to its poor worker rights, convoluted supply chains and environmentally reckless dye processes, as well as the short life expectancy of cheaply made garments. McCartney has partnered up with RealReal, an online resale company to promote the circular economy. The issue can’t be addressed on a large scale until it is addressed with those who don’t have the means to purchase designer clothes or their relatives who are unable to afford them.

Fashioned from Nature only has one garment from fast fashion labels, a dress made from recycled plastic from H&M’s Conscious range. McCartney’s sophisticated ethics go beyond most people’s means. Although she says that she would rather people save money and purchase one item at Stella McCartney than the 20 they buy from fast-fashion labels, I’m not sure that this is how most families budgets work. McCartney’s London label is taking a leap forward this year, with the opening a new flagship. She has been “like a bat outta hell” on it, which is located, symbolically on Bond Street. Her previous store was located just off London’s main luxury drag.

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