OPINION: Stella McCartney on challenging conventions and creating solutions one leather-free shoe at a time

British designer Stella McCartney is renowned for being at the forefront of ethical and sustainable luxury fashion–proving the detractors wrong. Here, she shares her struggles, strengths and hopes for the future.

OPINION: By STELLA MCCARTNEY — DESIGNER on MAR 16, 2018 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.
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If you do anything different or outside of the box, or if you're an agent for change, people often feel unsettled. When I started out, the concept of not using leather or fur in luxury fashion was met with shock and a lack of understanding. I would go so far as to say I was ridiculed.

We were questioned whether we could have any type of healthy business and appeal to anyone on the planet. If I didn't sell leather, how could I have a fashion house? Because the majority of fashion houses are really just selling leather handbags and leather shoes, not clothing. So we are quite rare in our industry on every level, because we sell ready-to-wear and have a healthy accessories business that is not made out of dead animals. That is still unheard of within luxury brands.

From the beginning, the design and the following that we have of women–and now men–ruled out the detractors. At the end of the day design is always king. So if I'm designing something that's crap, it doesn't matter if it's the most sustainable thing on the planet–who cares? Nobody wants it. I'm also not perfect–not at all! So the things that aren't perfect I try to challenge, and they're on my agenda to tackle. So I have to take it one step at a time. Because the minute you make something, you're damaging or using something–water, metal …

I have four children and if I panic or if I look too closely at the fact that we have a limited period of time on the planet then I'll just give up. So you have to have a glass half-full personality to wake up and get out of bed. I am, by nature, a more positive, productive person.

What I have done over the years is show people that you don't need to sacrifice anything to be more mindful, more responsible and more conscious, both on a business level and on a product level. There's another way of doing business that moves us forward. A more modern way.

I imagine the future of fashion to look different to how I dream it to look. I'm also quite realistic. I dream the future of fashion is one of total modernity, and people designing outside of just a silhouette or a colour, and thinking, challenging, creating change and making it modern. This fashion industry is fundamentally meant to drive itself from modernity to actually being modern, but for me it's actually one of the most old-fashioned industries on the planet.

There are very few houses that exist that are relatively young in the luxury fashion world and so there are very few female-founded ones. The fact that we still have a business in an industry where you see so many brands is a massive achievement. So we use that traction to have a department that solely looks into innovation, technology and sustainable manufacturing and sourcing: not using animal glues or PVC, or looking at organic cottons so it doesn't involve cutting down 150 million trees a year. We're all briefed so every single person in the company is working alongside them. We've invested heavily at Stella McCartney and shall do forever. At the end of the day, we're working in an area of the fashion industry that hasn't been explored. We're challenging the luxury side to that conversation so that no matter what it's made out of, it doesn't become landfill.

Because there are so many different types of ingredients to the conversation, it is not about changing your mind but a constantly shifting kind of field. For example, you can say that you want to use organic cotton sourced from elsewhere, but if you look at the environmental footprint of shipping it around the world, it might be more harmful than just using conventional cotton. Or it could be about yields and how one method is a better use of land than the other, or it could be about the dyeing process. So when you're starting to try to manufacture and design with a responsible mind, you have to respond to nature, which is forever changing. You have to keep refining new information and ask yourself questions like: is bamboo better than corn? Is corn better than something else? Luckily with technology … hopefully the next generation will find solutions in the laboratory.

All my stores have natural materials in them. With lighting, if I can use solar energy, I will. If I can use wind energy, I will. But there are some parts of the world where we can't access these renewable energy sources. It's complicated and it's a commitment. I mean, I can see why people don't do it; it's much, much easier to not conduct yourself and business in this way. And I think that's why we've arrived with these alternatives for the mass production of power or the mass production of product; it's easier. But with that ease comes a lot of damage.

We are gaining information every day and we have better access to better information. We have more choices and I think humans are now realising that if we don't work with our fellow creatures and with our planet in mind, we will destroy the thing that keeps us alive. We're selfish creatures and when we see that we could be in danger it is the moment that we stop and reflect and try to take responsibility.

This conversation, I hope, will be redundant in a few years. The next generation has more vegans and more vegetarians. The idea that we're killing billions of animals and cutting down trees to make fabric is just ridiculous. It's ridiculous that we use boiled down animal bones and we're raping our oceans of their life! It's so old-fashioned and medieval.

I was brought up with very mindful parents. There were so many people that I looked up to in music who had suchan adamant and strong position, like Chrissie Hynde and Morrissey, who were very similar to my mother and father in really being change agents. They're not afraid to be different and they're not apologising for their beliefs. We were brought up on an organic farm and my parents had to work very early on to establish what an organic farm meant.

It's really important to work alongside my dad and my sister for Meat-Free Monday, which is a simple campaign of awareness that has had such massive impact. Giving up meat one day per week is equivalent of giving up all transport for an entire week; it's very simple steps. The important thing is to not preach to the already converted. The fear needs to be removed and we now have so much more information that make it a little bit more palatable for people.

I once had very, very high-up people questioning whether a woman could actually have a fashion house. And, a British woman. It was the last attempt to plant a seed of fear, which luckily, fell on deaf ears. That conversation has changed; there's been a very slow shift in women's equality over hundreds and hundreds of years. There are a million things that need to be done, but I think come at it with a positive approach and with solutions, and in all the darkness to see the light.

I'm very aware of my position of privilege. But to not use that privilege to do something good, to just sit and live off somebody else's success,was never really my place. And so I think I've always had to provemyself to a certain extent. My personality is that of a survivor.

At the beginning of my career, my first challenge was: 'Why should anyone with a famous heritage like mine have a job in their right?' Then my second was to be a woman, and my third is to be the one with some kind of message beyond that–a commitment to something. I'm challenging conventions and creating solutions for people and I'm trying to bring awareness. Shaking up the industry is something that I'm proud of. And essentially, I'm all up for proving people wrong. But now I think I'm trying to prove it in another way and get real benefit from it.

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