Stella McCartney: A big name in the shops

Madonna showed up at Stella's basement flat years ago, paid retail and became a firm friend and client
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Except the hungry female hordes swarming Oxford Circus first thing Thursday morning weren't there to touch a pop idol. Instead, they were after clothes designed by Stella McCartney for the Swedish chain H&M. Released to the public at 9am on 10 November, sold out minutes later - in scenes repeated across Europe and North America, the merchandise was hotter than tickets for the Beatles gig at Shea Stadium. STELLAMANIA, blared the London Evening Standard.

There may well be a McCartney gene that predisposes its possessors to whip fans into a frenzy, but H&M actually pulled off the same feat a year ago, when Karl Lagerfeld designed a one-off collection that was similarly hyped off the racks in an instant. (The killjoy rumour that outlying branches of the 1,100-store chain had plenty of stock left scarcely dented the company's robust bottom line.)

Still, it says a lot about Stella McCartney that H&M felt she had the recognition factor to follow in such illustrious footsteps. The family name that has at times been a curse at last became a blessing. It's not the first time she's played tag with Kaiser Karl. In 1997, McCartney got her first big break when she succeeded him at the French fashion house Chloé. "I think they should have taken a big name," he sniped at his replacement. "They did - but in music, not fashion." Later, he took another potshot at McCartney when he described her as "just a designer of T-shirts". (In the interim, Chloé had grown from the $2m or so in sales it was generating under Lagerfeld to an annual gross of more than $35m.)

These days, Lagerfeld isn't so riven by the saveur of sour grapes. "I think the idea's genius, a perfect match," he told fashion industry trade paper Women's Wear Daily when H&M announced its deal with McCartney in May. "She's got a name, a face and a story," he went on. "Today she's proved that she has real personality."

If that's true, it's been a long time coming. There has always been a prevailing sense with Stella that she was part of a much bigger story: her father's band, her parents' love story, his remarriage and all the other baggage that attaches itself to a living legend and his offspring. As Stella herself so memorably complained in January 1999: "I'm so sick of this 'my parents' thing. It's not my fault. It's been that way my whole life. When I would make a good drawing in primary school, it was because my dad was famous. Or if I got a part in a school play, it was because Dad was a Beatle. What do I do? Do I become a smackhead and live off my parents' fortune, or do I have my own life?"

Decadence was never really an option, given the rock-solid upbringing she got from a mother and father who were determined to shield their kids from the spotlight. There was even one bizarre moment in the early 1990s when Paul and Linda were taken to task in the Italian tabloids for being too protective of Stella, then 23. Keep a child on a short lead and you're asking for trouble, the ever-hopeful scandal-mongerers assumed. Which was somewhat underestimating the closeness of the McCartneys.

Stella was the third child, born in 1971, right after the break-up of the Beatles, and what she remembered most about those early years was self-sufficiency - the little farmhouse in the woods where the family lived (two bedrooms, one bathroom), the drives up to the house in Scotland, where everyone helped with the cooking and the garden. At school, Stella was "the funny one, always uncool".

She originally had her heart set on music as a career until fashion took over in her teens. When she was 15, she took herself off to Paris to work as an assistant on Christian Lacroix's first couture collection. Stella's more formal fashion education took place at Central St Martins where she was just like any other student until her eight-piece degree show, delayed for an hour till her parents arrived and modelled by Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Yasmin Le Bon.

Such memorable incongruities continued to stud her career. The sight of Paul and Linda McCartney holding each other, singing along to the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" in the midst of the runway madness as their daughter took her bow after her second Chloé show in March 1998 was one of them.

The reviews, however, were bad. They re-aired the accusations about family connections greasing the wheels for Stella, about her not being up to the job.

Then, a few weeks later, Linda died from breast cancer. This double whammy - professional and private - would have knocked anyone less grounded for six. But for Stella, it seems to have posed a double-headed challenge that her subsequent career has struggled to meet.

She's served her principles well, masterfully keeping her mother's flame, as a patron of the Vegetarian Society, a member of Peta and a vehement anti-fur and anti-leather campaigner. (Her H&M range included a T-shirt in organic cotton, 25 per cent of its sales being donated to animal rights organisations.)

"I will never do leather," she once insisted. "Nothing dead walks through my door." McCartney was famously offended when one of her old paymasters at Chloé brought the huntress Camilla Parker Bowles backstage after a show. As for inking the deal for her own label with a business as fur and leather based as Gucci Group, she has taken the Trojan horse approach - change from within.

But her career in fashion has been much less consistent. Reviews have continued to be iffy, though the plunge in prices for the 45-piece H&M range seemed to remove some of the resistance. McCartney called it "the best of Stella" and it was, appropriately, a "greatest hits" collection: the chunky cardigan from 2001, the Prince of Wales check from her degree show, the menswear influence of her Savile Row training, the Eighties-style narrow jeans with zipped ankles she's always loved, the vintage flair of gem-studded chiffon.

These blasts from McCartney's past were the bait for her original dream clientele. It never hurt that the rock chicks Stella had in mind when she designed really were rock chicks: Chrissie Hynde, Liv Tyler, Sharleen Spiteri, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kates Moss and Hudson, consorts to the bands; and of course, über-rock chick Madonna. She showed up at Stella's basement flat years ago, paid retail and became a firm friend and client. (Stella designed The Wedding Dress.) The guest list at McCartney's H&M launch party, which took place two weeks ago in an old schoolhouse in south-east London, included Paltrow, Dita Von Teese, Jasmine Guinness, Liberty Ross, Camilla Al Fayed and Peaches Geldof, offering up a new wave of style stalwarts to sport her clothes in the celebrity mags.

Which goes a long way to explaining the anticipation in Oxford Circus on Thursday morning. But "greatest hits" collections tend to be golden opportunities to wave goodbye to all that. Once upon a time, even as she ladled on the up-for-a-larf ladette routine, she was always insisting on the side that she'd rather be in the country, riding her horse Blanket in the woods.

Now she's a wife (of the entrepreneur Alasdhair Willis) and mother (of Miller, born February 2005), and her paymasters at Gucci are looking for a return on their investment, not just in her, but in their other satellite businesses such as Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga. The designer who always claimed she was "keeping it real" is confronted by new realities on all fronts. By the end of last year Gucci had committed £25m to McCartney's label without seeing any return in profits.

"The one thing I have going for me is that I'm exactly the age bracket of the person who buys my clothes," McCartney sagely noted in the past. Conversely, what she had against her was that she didn't share an income bracket with a lot of people who wanted her clothes.

In fact, the clothes that hung in her boutiques in London, New York and Los Angeles were notoriously expensive, overpriced, even, for what they were. She seemed to acknowledge as much when she told Suzy Menkes, the International Herald Tribune's redoubtable fashion critic, that she always felt "there was something wrong about making high-priced clothes". And, "There is a merit to having clothes that are not so precious."

In May, McCartney called the H&M deal "one of the most exciting and innovative ways to introduce my clothes to a broader range of women". Crunch the numbers - H&M's $7.8bn in revenues vs the comparatively measly $30m generated by her own company last year.

H&M promoted the Lagerfeld collaboration with a huge advertising campaign, including an extraordinary Helmut Newtonesque mini-movie set in Monte Carlo.

With McCartney, there was so much publicity generated by the real-life drama attached to the firing of her close friend Kate Moss, the original face of the new campaign, that there was barely any need for advertising at all. The travails of Moss have reduced not a whit the fascination she exercises over millions of young women around the world. In fact, Thursday morning suggested H&M had done such women a huge favour by giving them the opportunity to buy Moss's look (or at least her look as defined by her friend) for mere pocket money. But not all H&M's shoppers that day were so partial.

Jewellery designer Jacqueline Rabun dropped by the Oxford Circus shop around 1pm on Thursday. A few denim jackets hung forlornly on racks torn apart by shoppers. A hundred or so women stood around, hungrily waiting for a new delivery. When it came, they fell on it in a frenzy. "I thought, 'What am I doing here? This is horrible'," said Rabun. "It was overwhelming, a kind of Beatlemania." Even so, she snatched up two pairs of trousers for £39 each and a cream satin dress for £35. "I only shopped today because the clothes were so cheap but the fit and quality are amazing and the clothes look exactly like the main line."

Later, at lunch, she found herself sitting next to a trio of Japanese girls, H&M bags bulging. Someone had had a good day. But how did Rabun feel McCartney herself would emerge from such a roaring one-off success? "Well, I guess she'll just have to go much more couture with her own collection."

But can she? After Thursday's Beatlemanic moment, will Stella find her wings?

A Life in Brief

BORN 13 September 1971 in London.

FAMILY Married to Alasdhair Willis. The couple have a son, Miller.

EDUCATION Thomas Peacocke comprehensive, East Sussex, and Central St Martins College of Art and Design London.

CAREER At 25 became chief designer at Chloé. In 2001, resigned to launch her own label under Gucci. In 2003, opened her first store in London and expanded into perfume.

SHE SAYS "The name recognition is there for me, but people don't always know what I do."

THEY SAY "Oh, please. How can she be in business with Gucci while posturing in this dramatic way? If she finds their reliance on fur and leather so objectionable, why does she take their money?" Karl Lagerfeld