Nice on Stella

Labour wants her advice, women want her clothes, but critics claim that Stella McCartney is little more than a Beatle's daughter. Ian Phillips discovers the truth

IT WAS QUITE fitting for the daughter of a former Beatle. The atmosphere at Stella McCartney's second collection for Chloe last month was more like a pop concert than a fashion show. Photogra-phers gathered around the entrance to the large tent which had been erected in Paris's Trocadero Gardens. Inside, fashion's aristocracy waited eagerly on their front-row seats at the end of the catwalk. American Vogue editor Anna Wintour looked as if she was being strangled by her fur collar. Patrick McCarthy from the fashion bible Women's Wear Daily sat a few places to her right and the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes sported her trademark quiff. A good 50 metres away, hordes of television cameras and sound mikes were squashed like sardines around the VIP section, where Elvis Costello and Kristin Scott Thomas were seated. One thing was certain, McCartney was big news.

The buzz around her had started five months earlier, in October, with McCartney's first show in the gilded setting of the Paris Opera. Stiletto- shod editors had fought for tickets and the reaction had, on the whole, been positive. At the end of the show, Dawn Mello, president of the American department-store chain Bergdorf Goodman, had declared Stella "one of the greatest talents for the future".

Now everyone gathered in the Trocadero tent was keen to see whether she could live up to that promise. At last, mum and dad (Linda and Paul) were escorted in through a side entrance, accompanied by a blinding burst of flash bulbs. The show was ready to start. Helena Christensen strode out in a slinky purple silk dress.

The VIP section, where McCartney's friends and family were seated, applauded as wrap dresses went by. It cheered as the Prince of Wales jumpsuits swept past and was even enthusiastic about the studded punk belts and a jacket with "NICE ONE CYRIL" inscribed on it in sparkly studs. The rest of the audience was rather more subdued. While there were some nice touches, the show was far too long, and the reaction from the press far from laudatory.

Menkes declared that the collection "looked trashy". The Guardian said that "what once looked cute is beginning to look cheap and cheesy," and the Independent's fashion editor, Tamsin Blan-chard, said that "she's not a great cutter. I mean, how many women want to walk around with their cleavage hanging out?"

However, make-up artist Linda Cantello, who worked on the show, defends McCartney. "I think she's done a good job," she says. "It hasn't been easy for her because Karl Lagerfeld took lots of the studio staff from Chloe with him, so she had to start from scratch. Also, she's so young that it's normal that she doesn't yet know how to edit a collection properly." No doubt McCartney is intelligent enough to learn from her mistakes, but that didn't stop one pre-eminent English-born editor proclaiming, rather over-dramatically, that she was ashamed to be British.

Fortunately for McCartney, Britain, or at least Blair's Britain, is proud of her. Indeed, she has been given the official stamp of approval. Ten days ago, she was named by the government as a member of Panel 2000 - a group of celebrities, politicians and business leaders who will advise on style issues and on the promotion of "Cool Britannia" abroad. The 25- strong "Committee of Cool" will propose ways in which the diplomatic corps can best help to project Britain's image and suggest changes to the way our embassies are run. They may advocate new styles of furniture, the modification of letterheads - and maybe McCartney will even throw in a few fashion tips.

JUDGING FROM the changes she has made to the house of Chloe, she is a wise choice. Since she arrived a year ago, out have gone her predecessor Karl Lagerfeld's grey carpets and gloomy lights. In their place, in the design studio, McCartney has put down a parquet floor, rummaged around flea markets for a turquoise tear-drop chandelier and covered the walls with a collage of such famous faces as the Queen, Donatella Versace, William Hague and Diana, Princess of Wales. She has also hung a Union Jack outside the window. However, the 1970s chairs she bought had to be thrown out because the material of which they were made kept coming off on the seats of visitors' trousers.

In spite of the criticism surrounding her latest collection, she has also turned Chloe into a hot fashion ticket for the first time since Lagerfeld's initial reign as the house's designer in the Seventies. During the late Eighties, the label fell from favour under the French designer Martine Sitbon. Even after "Kaiser" Lagerfeld returned to the helm in 1992, he failed to revitalise either its image or sales.

Now, however, the Chloe shop in Paris reports that the turnover for McCartney's debut collection has been "very healthy". This year the house is running a $15 million advertising campaign and planning the opening of a new flagship store in New York for sometime in August.

"She's doing exactly what Chloe wants," says Tamsin Blanchard. "She's achieved their aim of attracting a new, younger customer and has brought the house more attention than anybody else ever could."

Blanchard took a taxi during the Paris shows. "The driver knew nothing about fashion," she recalls. "The only designer he knew was Stella McCartney." He also knew about the preconceived theory behind her nomination at Chloe: "The only reason she is doing it is because of who her father is!" he said emphatically.

Indeed, when it was announced that she had been appointed, Lagerfeld quipped that Chloe "should have taken a big name. They did, but in music, not fashion." The accusation is one that obviously still riles McCartney. "When you actually start thinking about it, it's like: get real," she declares. "They're not going to ring up Liv Tyler just because her dad's famous and go, 'Ah Liv, you look good, you're young, come and design a collection!' " Apparently Lagerfeld has since seen the error of his ways - he had been showering McCartney with dinner invitations in the weeks preceding our meeting.

McCartney says that she has always deliberately distanced herself from her father. Still, she realises that she's in a no-win situation: "The press slags you off when you have anything to do with your father and yet, that's what they want to write about." A huge number of column inches were, for example, devoted to her decision to incorporate "All You Need is Love", and a snippet of her father's first classical symphony, into the soundtrack for her debut collection. "It's a total double-edged sword being the child of a public figure," she laments. "Obviously it does help growing up because you meet amazing people and you have certain advantages. But it's much more of a dis-advantage." One childhood friend still remembers a 12-year-old Stella rushing off to hide with embarrassment in the toilet at the local disco when the DJ played the "We All Stand Together".

She has certainly always stressed the normality of her childhood - she shared a bedroom with her two sisters and brother when she was young and attended a comprehensive school - and on meeting her, you are struck by how grounded she is. Dressed in a low-cut T-shirt, black trousers and trainers, she is friendly and has no airs and graces.

She has often spoken about her predilection for football - or rather, footballers - even though she has only been to one match. "It's not even so much a specific guy," she admits. "It's the running up and down, drinking beer and being a lad." Indeed, Stella is a bit of a female "lad" and regales me with an account of how she once spent the early hours of the morning persuading motorists to wind down their windows and then firing snowballs at them.

She is quite a wit and mocks the way journalists write up meetings with her. "She has two copies of Women's Wear Daily on her desk, which she tosses aside without even reading them," she says in a deliberately affected voice. For the record, there is also a bunch of flowers, a pile of unopened mail and a card addressed to "Stella and Nick".

One thing which that strikes you is her great confidence. A friend says that "the McCartney children were brought up to believe that they were the best," and it is telling that she did not feel inhibited about following in Lagerfeld's shoes. "I'm pretty confident," she admits. "But not in a sort of 'Ooh, I love myself' kind of way. But I don't see the point of being on the planet and not feeling good about yourself." Yet she can be self-deprecating. "One thing we're not hot on is spelling," she admits. "We spent three hours yesterday trying to spell 'Chrysler Building'."

Her parents have not only instilled her with a sense of confidence. She has adopted their views on animal-rights, too. She firmly believes that being a vegetarian "makes me a better person" and talks about the revival of fur as "such a sick, twisted little fashion moment. You see women in huge fur coats with poodles and you think, 'Where's the difference between a poodle and your coat?' It really gets me down, but you feel like an idiot caring about it. It's kind of like listening to a Barry Manilow album or something."

She claims that she can't remember when she started to care about fashion but was already designing at the age of 12. At 15 she spent several weeks - as "the skivvy" - helping Christian Lacroix as he prepared his first couture show. She went on to study at Central Saint Martins where she spent most of her free time training with Savile Row tailor Edward Sexton. "Saint Martins was kind of fashiony and then I'd leave there and be in this basement in Savile Row with guys speaking cockney rhyming slang, smoking fags and drinking beer," she recalls.

After graduation, she considered going trek- king with a rucksack. "I'm half-American," she says, "so I've always had this image of when you finish college you go to Thailand and you take drugs off in the mountains and you shave your hair off." Instead, she kept her locks, borrowed some money from her parents and set up her own label out of a Notting Hill studio. "We were working in the garden and sunbathing doing the production," she remembers. "We were the brownest fashion people in the world."

She quickly became one of the hippest fashion people in the world. Supermodel friends Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss wore her clothes. Robbie Williams came to the presentation of her first collection and American Vogue was soon vaunting her merits. Then, the people from Chloe came calling. "One of the reasons I took the job at Chloe was that my own company was running away with me," she says. "The press wanted more. The buyers wanted more. I was having to think of employing people full time, or getting the right studio or maybe getting a shop. And I was like, 'Jeez, I really don't want this now'. So when it came to the crunch it was like, 'I really don't mind giving up my own business if I can make Chloe Stella McCartney.' " And she insists that the powers that be at the fashion house have, more or less, allowed her to do that. "They've been supportive. They let me do tailoring, which is something Chloe has never done before, being a softer suit company."

Still, her attitude towards fashion remains ambiguous. "Are you really into fashion?" she asks at one point. The tone of her voice suggests that a positive reply would immediately classify anyone as a sad idiot. She adds that she does not intend to be a designer until her retirement. "Fashion is like the biggest treadmill,"she laments. "Season after season. And they create more seasons. More collections. If the industry had its way, you would never have a holiday."

Still, she's not planning to quit yet and consoles herself about her career choice. "One of the things that makes me feel okay about doing something as trivial as fashion is that it can make people feel better about themselves. I'm just trying to make women feel more sensual, more confident." !

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