Stella McCartney: A Big Name in Fashion in Her Own Right

It is very rare for celebrity designers to go far. Need proof? The marketplace is rife with lifeless celebrity-centric fashion ventures that burned out as fast as they came. Lindsay Lohan’s leggings line comes to mind, as does Mandy Moore’s Mblem collection, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Bitten brand, and former reality star Heidi Montag's Heidiwood. Stella McCartney, whose last name is one of the most famous in the music world thanks to her father, Beatles' member Paul, is not such a tale. The British-born designer’s celebrated eponymous label turns 17 this year.

A graduate of London’s prestigious Central St Martins, McCartney has built an empire on her own name, but not before taking the reins at Chloé in 1997. Just two years out of design school, McCartney found herself at the helm of an established Paris-based brand. And she had big shoes to fill. Her predecessor was, after all, Karl Lagerfeld, who had left to join Chanel.

McCartney would remain at Chloé until the spring of 2001. As the Telegraph noted upon her departure, “Miss McCartney has been a success at Chloe, where her designs are considered sexy yet sophisticated. She has brought kudos to the label: clothes sales are said to have quadrupled in the four years that she has worked for Chloe, although it remains unclear whether it is a financial success.”

The British paper went on to note in early April 2001, “Speculation has grown in the past year that one of the big fashion houses would try to poach Miss McCartney. Her contract with Chloe, where she is said to have become unsettled, is believed to expire in June.”

Rumors abound that she would join the Italian Gucci Group (now Kering), and she ultimately did so, but not to direct design at its marquee brand. Instead, McCartney entered into a 50/50 joint venture with the luxury goods conglomerate to launch her own fashion house under her name. (Earlier this year, it was announced that McCartney would buy out Kering’s half of her business, thereby creating one of the relatively few independently-owned established brands in the fashion industry).

But her start was less than seamless. Her first collection, for instamce – which was devoid of any leather, fur, skins or feathers (in line with McCartney’s position as “a lifelong vegetarian” – hit the runway in Paris in October 2001 to an array of poor reviews.

One review of McCartney’s first-ever collection – Spring/Summer 2002 – published by Style.com read, scathingly, “Stella McCartney's debut collection after leaving Chloé fell far short of expectations.”

It continued: “McCartney's flashy, boisterous parade featured risqué slogans, sometimes in Cockney rhyming slang, printed on practically all of her looks … Apart from these artless wannabe shockers, McCartney offered uninspired electric blue sequined pieces, mini-slips with trailing sleeves, and dresses with dotted-face designs courtesy of artist Gary Hume.”

And finally, in closing, stated, “Although some of McCartney's T-shirts and accessories could be commercially viable, her show clearly did not live up to the technical and creative standards expected of a major Gucci Group label.”

Fast forward to 2018 and not only are the reviews of Ms. McCartney’s efforts striking more favorable (in part, one might argue, because she has advertising money to spend in the publications putting forth such reviews) but her footprint in the fashion industry is undoubtedly significant.  

Vogue Runway (nee Style.com) would write of her Fall/Winter 2018 outing nearly 20 years later, “McCartney’s woke approach to sustainability, especially her animal-free policy, is her biggest contribution to the fashion of today, followed closely by her commitment to practical chic. The Stella effect, let’s call it, can be observed at brands up and down the price spectrum.”

But more than merely courting the kind words of critics, McCartney has gained cred where it matters the most: In the minds’ and wallets’ of consumers. Her brand, as we speak, consists of women’s ready-to-wear, menswear, accessories, lingerie, eyewear, fragrance and childrenswear, and her retail network consists of 51 freestanding stores with locations in New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Shanghai and Beijing. Beyond her brand-owned and operated stores, her collections are distributed in 77 countries through nearly 900 stores, and e-commerce capabilities serving as many as 100 countries.

While Kering does not break out the revenues of its smaller houses, and McCartney’s label has not commented on revenue, market sources estimated in 2015 that the brand’s annual global sales were somewhere between $150 million and $200 million.

Driving sales are, of course, some of her traditional industry money-makers, such as her non-leather goods, such as bags, other accessories like footwear and eyewear, and her fragrance ventures. But the brand’s apparel also appears to sell, which is something of a rarity in fashion – believe it or not. Suiting and lingerie, which have been staples in McCartney’s collections since she emerged from Central Saint Martins in the mid-’90s, are main draws for consumers, as are the brand’s knits.   

As the Telegraph rather aptly put it, McCartney may have been able to build her own, long-lasting and successful brand, at least in part, because she “has never tried to capitalize on her famous parents.” When asked in an interview early on what her parents did for a living, her understated reply was this: "Well, my mother is in food and my father is in music."

Today, it would be difficult to find individuals within the fashion world who doubt that Stella McCartney is a big name in her own right.