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Subversive Stella

The vegetarian designer opens her first shop in New York's meat-packing district.

October 15, 2002|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writer

New York

British fashion designer Stella McCartney's sweet, heart-shaped face and innocent round eyes make her salty language and wicked wit seem as if a ventriloquist should be standing at her side.

McCartney's earthy humor isn't just for shock or for show, as is so common with the privileged children of celebrity. She is, after all, the daughter of a Beatle. Many things about the 30-year-old designer reflect her yin-yang, naughty-nice approach to life and fashion.

Start with her designs. Her latest collection, shown Oct. 7 in Paris, featured extra-slim pants contrasted with flowing, oversized tops. A utilitarian bomber jacket was rendered huge in golden silk to become an elegant strapless dress. She weighted a little mini and tiny tops with wiggling strands of metal chains, giving fringe a punk edge.

A year ago, for her debut signature collection, McCartney commissioned a print that looked like a pastoral toile de Jouy of the type that has been the rage among sentimental interior designers. Closer inspection, however, revealed that the central figures weren't milkmaids or musicians but horny monkeys with bad manners. That print strained even the Botox-smoothed brows of the fashion community, yet McCartney installed it on the walls of her first boutique, which opened last month on 14th Street in the meat-packing district, a location that's especially controversial for her.

After her father, Paul McCartney, she may be one of the best-known vegetarians on the planet.

"Infiltrate from within," McCartney said with a wink as workmen scrambled to ready her eponymous store for its opening-night party. She didn't dwell on the subject or begin an animal-rights tirade. Instead, she discussed her appreciation of the city's latest trendy neighborhood, which also houses the chic Jeffrey store and Markt restaurant as well as boutiques for designers Yigal Azrouel and Alexander McQueen.

"I love the area," McCartney said. "It has a fantastic feel and there's amazing space. It's not really closed in here."

Although the meat-packing district is decidedly more fashionable than it was five years ago, the air carries a stench and the sidewalks on her block are still slick with the greasy byproducts of the meats shipped and processed at such enterprises as Lamb Unlimited. When she walks to her shop, she picks a path past the pleasanter-smelling bakery the Little Pie Co.

"My landlord here used to deal in meat, and now he's a landlord," McCartney said. "That says it all. It's a changing time. I don't think [the meat industry] is going to be around much longer. I feel bad for the meat industry."

But she feels worse for the animals. Her refusal to carry any product derived from a dead animal could have prevented her from finding backers for her own company, because leather accessories historically are cash cows for luxury firms. She prevailed, however, having won notice during her years as the head designer at the French house of Chloe. Soon, the Italian luxury-goods conglomerate Gucci Group, which specializes in leather accessories and even furs, came courting.

A little more than a year ago, McCartney launched her namesake label in partnership with Gucci Group, which also backs Sergio Rossi, Boucheron and fellow Britisher McQueen, whose nearby boutique opened a few weeks ago.

Both McCartney and McQueen are scouting locations for stores in Los Angeles, although neither will say exactly where. She will be in L.A. on Thursday to launch Absolut vodka's new fashion collection ad campaign, which will feature her.

No matter where she settles, McCartney promised that the store would have a distinct personality sensitive to its West Coast environment. "Everything we put in here we designed ourselves," she said as she led a tour past the hammering carpenters.

"The fabric on the wall was hand silk-screened and designed," she added, indicating the monkey print. Elsewhere, a seemingly static wall of mirrors is actually a grid of mirror-faced drawers, each lined with a surprise of colorful fabric. Contemporary tiled walls contrast with antique fixtures. A spacious dressing room contains astonishing marquetry panels that reflect her love of nature and that of her mother, the late Linda McCartney.

"These were my mum's favorites," she said, indicating a delicate hummingbird. The boutique may be her most personal project yet.

"I really got involved with this store," she said. "It really reflects what I like to do in my work: Contrast interesting opposites; take a pristine tailored jacket and mix it with a pair of really distressed stonewashed jeans and a delicate chiffon pink top."

It has taken fashion awhile to appreciate McCartney as a designer, not just a celebrity. Some insiders seemed disappointed that the Beatle didn't attend last Monday's show in Paris because he has been a front-row supporter since her days at Chloe. (She said he was on tour last week.) He missed her best work yet.

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