How Chloe got its groove back

The fashion world jeered when a Beatle's daughter took over the house of Chloe. But now everybody wants Stella McCartney. So will she stay or will she go?
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Stella McCartney reminds me of the whip-cracking, brash-talking character Doris Day plays in the movie Calamity Jane. When I point this out to her, rather than slap down my impudence, she acts like she's won the lead role in a Hollywood movie. "I love Calamity Jane. Which one am I? Doris Day?" squeals the designer, who has been head honcho at Chloe since 1997. How refreshing. Seems the grey carpets and executive furniture weren't the only things she binned the minute she set foot in the formal Parisian atelier three years ago.

Stella McCartney's a mucker. It's the first impression she wants you to get. This is the girl who beat 40 other designers to Chloe's top job. Barely out of Central St Martin's College, it was fashionable to say she couldn't cut it, even if you'd never laid eyes on her stuff. At her degree show, some mischief-maker even spelt out "Daddy's Little Rich Girl" in the Scrabble letters she had incorporated into her exhibit. The Daily Mail accused her of using "her connections, her name - and some say her talent" to get the Chloe job; and Karl Lagerfeld stuck his oar in by saying he could understand Chloe employing a famous name, but shouldn't it be one in fashion rather than pop music?

Stella was the daughter of a Beatle, so she knew she was going to have to suffer for it, but still she found the press interest shocking. "I was so naïve," she says, looking back. "I thought it wouldn't be a big deal, I could just slip on in without anybody noticing. But I got given a hard time by everyone. The general consensus was 'she's too young' and 'it's just for press'. I'm sure every designer would think that - I mean, I would. It's what you do."

So in many ways, hers was an unenviable task. When Lagerfeld upped and left Chloe, he took all his staff with him; then Stella arrived, amid a storm of controversy, to head a team of people who were all new to the place. And all the while, of course, she had to deal with the fact that her mother, Linda McCartney, was dying slowly of cancer. "I'm still in denial," Stella says. "At the end of the day I separate things; my life is my life and my work is my work."

While worrying about Linda ("my favourite person in the whole world") and suffering herself from panic attacks ("I thought I was dying - I couldn't breathe"), Stella was constantly having to fight her corner at Chloe's headquarters. She fought for the "no fur or leather" clause in her contract; she fought not to use tights in her collections; she fought for the air-brushed T-shirts and bikinis that were a hit last summer, and the cotton fabric of the summer before (which she was told was too cheap to use). "You've got to be true to yourself in this industry," she says, "whether it's about leather or fur or a T-shirt. If I hadn't been true to myself about those airbrushed T-shirts, you wouldn't have seen them because Chloe was freaking out. And the cotton - people just weren't using fabrics like that."

But despite the criticism, Stella's first collection proved that creatively she was indeed a breath of fresh air. The girl who said she knew what made "chicks tick" mixed vintage and high street with something shussy and designery from her own wardrobe. Her trademarks quickly became known: a mix of antique-inspired slip dresses, trashy T-shirts and slick Savile Row suiting. In short, she turned the flimsy bourgeois frock-wearing Chloe of old into the Chloe with chutzpah and attitude we know today.

No doubt, Chloe's backers were worried at first about losing the "luxury" tag with which the house had always been associated. If you can't sell fur or leather, the argument went, you aren't going to go the luxury route. But thankfully, and more by gut instinct than experience, Stella quickly took the label to the top of the list of must-haves - the must-have T-shirt, the must-have jeans, the must-have sunglasses (those aviators with the little diamante heart) - and now the Chloe look is everywhere.

Stella McCartney's success in transforming Chloe led in turn to a major job offer from Tom Ford at Gucci, though this is not something she seems keen to discuss. When I venture to suggest her morals about fur and leather could have scuppered her chances, she explains: "I don't think it's particularly professional of me to sit and talk about other jobs. I mean, I'd love to, I want to because it just makes me feel wanted and loved." But she does concede that she got headhunted a while ago by a major label. "It was the first time I'd got headhunted and I was like, 'Wow, this is because I actually design well and sell things'."

Tom Ford is still ebullient in his praise. An old hand at turning a tired brand into a money-spinner, he gushes when asked what he thinks of the young designer. "I think Stella has great style and great taste but she also has everything else it takes to be successful. She has the drive. She has the will. She has the intelligence. She worries about sales. She thinks about the brand as a brand. She also has incredible charm. She's beautiful and very sexy."

As a private company, the House of Chloe keeps its financial results a closely guarded secret. "They're not very good at giving out that sort of information, are they? I sometimes ask them and they won't tell me," Stella says jokingly. "They're like 'keep her down, keep her down', but every collection sells more and more. As far as I know, it goes up about 20 per cent each time."

Marching optimistically forwards, McCartney has for this year's autumn/winter collections followed a military theme with bands of ribbon adorning calf-sweeping wool coats and her newest must-have, a high-heeled cream boot. The butterfly-sleeve silk shirts and star-sign T-shirts fluttered down the runway on top of crucially tight jeans. Lovely touches included a faded diamond print on silk dresses and a slim wool coat with matching trilby, and McCartney's off-the-shoulder T-shirt worn under a delicate lace shirt was a particularly cute mix of sex and sass. Although Suzy Menkes reported in the International Herald Tribune that she still couldn't cut a dress, she was forced to admit that "the upbeat feeling about Chloe comes from McCartney's instinctive sense of a sexy, glamorous young look".

As strong and confident as she sounds, you can understand why, as Paul McCartney's daughter, she also claims still to feel incredibly vulnerable. "You do have a built-in insecurity being the kid of someone famous. You automatically think 'Oh I got into St Martin's because of that' because other people think it. All you really want is 'tell me I'm good, tell me I'm better' but it always just hits the surface. At the end of the day you know if you're good. You wouldn't have the balls to do it if you didn't think you were good."

The real question now - and the one on everyone's lips - is whether or not she will stay with Chloe. Her contract was up for renewal in mid-March, but Chloe is keeping strangely silent about whether she's up for another term. "She has made a tremendous contribution to the rebirth of the house and established a very strong identity," says Ralph Toledano, the house's CEO. "The brand is definitely a strong trend-setter." But Stella McCartney admits to being a confused being, and refuses to let on too much. "Part of me wants to achieve and prove myself," she says, cryptically. "And I'm constantly trying to prove myself. Then the other part of me says: 'You know what your favourite person in the whole world would have told you? Look, it ain't worth it. Just enjoy your life while you're around.'"

A longer version of Lucy Ryder Richardson's interview appears in the latest edition of 'i-D' magazine, which is out now