Stella’s Focus on the Future
She has always eschewed leather, fur, and feathers in her collections. Now she is going even further. Will luxury fashion follow?
Designer Stella Mccartney is agitating to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental footprint. Her latest passion: bioengineered thread.
Consider your favorite T-shirt. Maybe it’s soft and worn, or fitted and new, or a recent pickup from a Kanye West or Taylor Swift tour. Whatever the style, chances are good the shirt contains polyester—a significant environmental pollutant that takes 200 years to degrade. If you don’t want the shirt to spend those years in a landfill, you could try passing it on for seven generations; maybe in two it would be fashionably retro. Even then, as you wash Kanye and Taylor (though never together), they will be shedding synthetic microfibers into the oceans. Now think about all the people in the world doing the same thing—humans consume 80 billion pieces of clothing a year, as reported in the 2015 documentary The True Cost—and you get a sense of how the apparel industry has become one of the most polluting on earth.
Thoughts like these keep designer Stella Mccartney up at night. The lifelong vegetarian has never used leather, skins, fur, or feathers in her products, a remarkable achievement given the hefty profits made from accessories and clothing created with those materials. That was a radical stand when she landed her first big job, heading the French house Chloé, at just 25 years old, in 1997, before sustainability was even a topic in fashion—and an even bigger one when, in 2001, she launched her eponymous label, a 50-50 partnership with Kering, one of Europe’s two powerhouse fashion conglomerates. Two years later she introduced organic cotton to the runway, which quickly evolved to organic silks and wools, regenerated cashmere, and recycled polyester. Today, roughly half of every collection is made with sustainable materials, something no other top label can claim. When it comes to sustainability, “Stella is currently running laps around the other luxury designers,” says Nicole Rycroft, the founder and director of the environmental nonprofit Canopy.
She is looking ahead again. Mccartney’s latest venture is a collaboration with Bolt Threads, an eight-year-old startup that has created a product called Microsilk, which is bioengineered to mimic the chemistry and strength of real silk created by spiders in nature. The resulting material will be a triple win if it can be produced at enough scale to be used in fashion: No insects are killed or harmed, the use of petroleum is limited, and manufacturing it does not require resources like land or water.