Lunch with the FT: Stella McCartney

In the game of New York restaurants, designer Stella McCartney gets a gold medal. Generally, even in a city as full of dining establishments as New York, when someone is deciding on a place to go for lunch, they tend to choose between a handful of similar places: the Four Seasons for power lunches; Michael’s for media lunches; the Mercer for fashion lunches. Sometimes they venture a bit further afield (the Modern) but, even then, I usually recognise the name and what it signifies (society, art, etc).

When McCartney says she wants to go to the luncheonette at the Lexington Candy Shop, however, it leaves me stumped. I Google it. I get the address and not much else. I think about the address: 83rd and Lexington. It is geographically generic: a residential neighbourhood on the Upper East Side (but not the high-end avenues such as Park and Fifth) with a few small shops. When I ask about a reservation, I am told the diner doesn’t take them but that it doesn’t matter: the luncheonette won’t be busy anyway.

Even for someone as competitively normal as Stella McCartney, who somehow manages to take the position that – despite her status as a 40-year-old international fashion brand/Olympic outfitter/daughter of a Beatle/friend of Madonna, Gwyneth, Cameron et al/mother of four – she is Just Like Everyone Else, this seems to be going to extremes. Maybe it’s a Garbo thing? She wants to be alone?

Turns out she’s just out-planned me. “I used to come here all the time as a child,” she explains after finding me in a forest green leatherette booth, sitting in front of a pink formica table. There are menus slotted into a holder near the wall, with big type proclaiming “established 1925” on the front, atop a short history of the diner.

McCartney slides into the booth wearing faded jeans, a matching blue washed silk shirt with quilted epaulettes, and plops a sapphire blue faux-croc bag next to her. (I know it is faux, even though it doesn’t really look faux, because McCartney is very publicly anti-animal skins, even leather, and has made it a tenet of her business that all her products are vegan.) Her strawberry-blonde hair is loose and long around her face, and she isn’t wearing make-up; hunched across the table, she looks much tinier than she usually does, and very young. Though in the past she has often seemed to have a chip on her shoulder about her heritage and her famous friends, she is as relaxed and quietly confident as I’ve ever seen her.

“When my dad [musician Paul McCartney] met my mom [activist and photographer Linda McCartney], she was living around here in a little L-shaped apartment on Lexington,” she says. “They used to have a picture of Dustin Hoffman in the window because they filmed part of Kramer vs Kramer here. I couldn’t remember the address, so we had to do an online search through the film.” She smiles. “I always got the pancakes.”

I tell her the diner reminds me of places I used to eat in when I was younger and used to meet my grandmother for lunch. My grandmother always got the cottage cheese plate, which at that time was usually called the diet plate, and I often got tuna.

“Do they have a cottage cheese plate?” cries McCartney, grabbing a menu. I say yes, and that I think I will have it.

“In honour of your grandmother,” she says, pleased. “We are both revisiting our past. This will be like therapy for us: therapy with the FT. Except I think I won’t get pancakes this time. You know, pancakes are one of the few foods you can make with soy milk and wheat flour, and they taste good because you just load them up with butter and maple syrup, so my kids will eat them.”

McCartney and husband Alasdhair Willis, a design entrepreneur, have two boys and two girls, aged between one and seven. Their youngest daughter, Reiley, was born four months before McCartney had to stand on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum next to Anna Wintour as a co-host of last year’s Met Ball. “Gosh, that was complicated,” McCartney says. “Anna asked me when I had just found out I was pregnant, so I couldn’t tell her but, of course, you have to say, ‘Yes’. But in the end it was fun doing it: [co-host] Colin Firth and I were standing at the top of the stairs, and every once in a while we’d go sneak some vodka shots behind the curtain. When it was over, I went home and ate everything under the sun.”

This is a typical McCartney sleight of hand: taking a unique role – hosting the “party of the year” in New York – and making it seem somehow down to earth and normal (those vodka shots). Even as it happens, and you recognise the verbal and emotional gymnastics, it’s hard not to admire her skill.

Just then the waitress, who is wearing a red apron with the name “Deborah” embroidered on the front, materialises with a pad and pencil like someone from of a period film and asks for our order. McCartney decides on a spinach and cheese omelette, and some water. I get the cottage cheese. She laughs: “What’s that going to be like?”

She and her husband have come to New York without their children for their first break in what has been a carousel of shows for McCartney. They have been going to the theatre a lot, and out to dinner. “January was New York pre-fall,” she recites, “February was London ... and then in March we did the main line in Paris and April we showed the Olympic uniforms.”

McCartney is the first high fashion designer to be named “creative director” of a country’s Olympic team, responsible for 590 different pieces of clothing for 900 athletes. Traditionally designers sign on as sponsors and get to make the outfits for the opening and closing ceremonies – Ralph Lauren designs these for the American team, for example; Armani for Italy – but the actual competition gear is created by companies such as Nike. Because McCartney has had a long-standing relationship with Adidas, designing its activewear, she was asked to do the entire Olympic kit – excluding the opening and closing ceremony outfits, which will be designed by high street brand Next. (“I’m terrified people will think it’s me,” she says, looking sort of embarrassed, not because of the anticipated confusion but because she is exhibiting the sort of designer elitism she tries hard to avoid.)

“The athletes get handed a bag when they arrive, and it’s all their kit,” she says. “What they wear in the village, to hang out, to practise ... ”

To sleep? I ask.

“No,” she says. “They can sleep in whatever they want.” Making the rest of it, though, most of which features a deconstructed British flag placed off-centre on items to emphasise the geometrical, aerodynamic nature of the lines, rendered in two shades of blue with red trim, took two and a half years. “I never do anything for two and a half years,” she says. “The fragrance that we just introduced, Lily, took two years but I normally start collections two months beforehand.” Showing the Olympic kit was, she said, stressful – much more so than showing her regular ready-to-wear line.

“Designing for athletes – enabling them to perform at their highest level – was a level of pressure I’ve never felt,” she says. “You don’t ever want someone to say, ‘My clothes didn’t function perfectly.’ But at the same time, function has two meanings: they have to work at the performance level but they also have to work to make someone feel good psychologically. And then you have a whole country that has their own thoughts about what looks good.”

Indeed, the kit received a mixed reaction when unveiled, with the general criticism, as expressed via Facebook, along the lines of, “It doesn’t look like the flag!” (That is paraphrasing politely.) McCartney, who responded to the reviews on her Facebook page, is relatively relaxed about it. “It’s not my usual audience,” she says.

The latter is something of an understatement; if I had to describe McCartney’s usual audience, I would say: cool, international women aged between 25 and 50, who don’t want to look as though they are trying too hard. Additionally, though she is known for her tailoring, she had never made menswear before. Would she be interested?

“Maybe, one day. But my approach to my business is sort of like having children: you want one line out of nappies and running before you launch another, and we have a lot in nappies now. It’s just my character, I think.” Deborah suddenly appears next to our booth with our plates.

“Isn’t that beautiful?” she says, placing McCartney’s omelette in front of her. It’s the same size as the plate. “Oh, it is,” McCartney agrees. Deborah then hands me my dish – a scoop of cottage cheese on top of some iceberg lettuce with a few tomato slices – without a comment. “Mine looks better than yours,” says McCartney.

“You know, the first thing I did when we started the Olympic collection was ask the athletes, ‘Do you care what you wear? Does it make a difference?’ They were surprised: most people don’t ask them questions about what they wear. Ninety per cent of them said feeling good about their clothes helped with performance. And they said they wanted to look like a team when they walked into the Olympic village. The nice thing was many of them were clearly excited to have a designer involved; there was a sense it gave them something of an edge. Then I also asked them how often they worked out.”

I ask if she works out – aside from horseback riding, one of her favourite activities. “Well, my main thing is to feel healthy, and not get out of breath running after my kids. I use to ride my bike but I stopped when I had kids because I got worried about something happening to me. I just started getting back into it though.”

Are you going to the Olympics?

“I’m going to try to go,” she says. “I want to go to the opening ceremony to see what Danny Boyle does.”

She slices through some omelette and adds: “We really wanted to take away any anxiety associated with getting dressed, so we made a look book the way we do for our regular collections, and then colour-coded the clothes to show what goes together. That’s really how I approach everything. I want people to feel welcome when they come into our stores. Because I think if you’re not happy in what you are wearing, it makes a massive difference to how you feel. And if you are happy, you can keep your clothes for ever.”

She puts her fork down suddenly and plucks at her blouse to demonstrate. “This is three seasons old.” Then she points at her leg, and then her shoes. “These are two seasons old; these are new.” We both stick our heads under the table to look at the shoes. They are very high and spiky, with rubber soles, and were in her last show.

At this point we have been talking for an hour and half, and McCartney has only eaten about half of her meal (I have finished my cottage cheese), but she pushes the rest away. We say no to tea or coffee, so Deborah totals up the bill on her pad by hand and places it with a flourish on the table.

“Am I your cheapest date ever?” cries McCartney with glee. “I am, aren’t I?” She edges forward in anticipation. And I have to tell her, Yes. The prize is hers.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s style editor

Style Olympics special

Lexington Candy Shop

1226 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10028

Spinach omelette $9.95

Cottage cheese plate $5.95

Diet Coke $2.30

Total $18.20

Stella career: From rock royalty to fashion favourite

1971 Born September 13 at King’s College Hospital, London, the second child of former Beatle Paul McCartney and wife Linda, a photographer (below right, in 1998, with her parents at Chloé).

1983 While a 12-year-old pupil at Thomas Peacocke Community College in Rye, East Sussex, designs her first piece of clothing – a pink bomber jacket in fake suede.

1988 At 16, before college, interns for French fashion designer Christian Lacroix.

Early 1990s Completes art foundation at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communications before doing a degree in fashion and design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where she becomes friends with Phoebe Philo, who is in the year below.

1995 Completes apprenticeship with her father’s Savile Row tailor, Edward Sexton. With Sexton’s help, develops a tailored collection for her graduation show. The show itself is modelled for free by her friends supermodels Naomi Campbell, Yasmin Le Bon and Kate Moss. A song written for the occasion by Paul McCartney, “Stella May Day”, provides the backing music, and the whole collection is purchased by London boutique Tokio.

1997 Appointed creative director of French fashion house Chloé in March, following in the footsteps of fashion great Karl Lagerfeld. He says of her appointment: “I think they should have taken a big name. They did – but in music, not fashion. Let’s hope she’s as gifted as her father.” Hires Phoebe Philo as design assistant.

2000 Designs wedding dress for Madonna’s marriage to Guy Ritchie.

2001 Launches her own fashion house as joint enterprise with Gucci Group (now PPR luxury group). Her first eponymous collection is presented at Paris Fashion Week in October, with Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Damien Hirst, Chrissie Hynde and her father in the audience.

2003 Marries Alasdhair Willis, a publishing director of the Wallpaper* group. Later that year releases Stella, her first perfume.

2004 Designs collection of sportswear for Adidas, beginning a partnership that continues today.

2005 Designs range of clothing and accessories for H&M, which sells out on the day of its November launch.

2007 Creates Care, an orga nic skincare line.

2009 Launches her first collection of childrenswear for Gap Kids in October.

2010 Appointed Team GB’s creative director for the 2012 Olympics by Adidas.

Compiled by Peter Leggatt

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