HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE; Famous label aside, designer McCartney earns her own raves with Chloe spring show in D.C.


WASHINGTON -- Her face is an almost fifty-fifty blend of her father's kewpie-like mug and her mother's earthy tones.

But her sequined, snakeskin-print cummerbund is 100 percent Stella McCartney.

At a fashion show Wednesday at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, she enthusiastically slung an arm around the shoulders of any admirer eager for a photo. The Beatle's baby flashed a cheeky smile and took care that the photographers got what they wanted.

The strawberry blond fashion designer, hair tucked Marcia Brady-style behind her ears, mastered the moment, betraying none of the pain accompanying her mother Linda's recent death.

But the designs in her spring line, which is dedicated to her mother, are an ode to two of Linda's passions: vintage clothing and animal rights.

McCartney, the 27-year-old head designer of Chloe, looked to thrift-store styles for house dresses with old-fashioned lace and small flower prints and used animal prints like the blue leopard design on a form-fitting Oriental-flavored frock.

There were no cutting-edge starlets at the Washington show. Instead, the celebrity progeny rubbed shoulders with the likes of executives from the Wolftrap Foundation.

For a cosmopolitan it-girl like McCartney, the glitz reduction must have been a bit strange.

Why Washington for one of only two United States displays of her spring collection?

Laughing, McCartney said this part of the country is the best, though she used a far cruder term.

And while she may indeed think the Mid-Atlantic is marvelous, she confesses that she was informed of the booking, and simply came.

Relatives and friends of McCartney rounded out the well-appointed crowd. Paul McCartney was not one of them. The Liverpudlian legend did get a few subtle nods, however. At one point, the frizzy-haired models sashayed or shuffled (depending on how constricting their skirt or awkward their heels) down the runway to "Hey Jude." And as the darkly dressed attendees enjoyed coffee and decadent desserts following the show, a jazz trio offered up its rendition of "Yesterday."

"I think they [the Beatles] are great, but that's not why I came," said Kelly Thorinberg, 30, who works for Paine Webber in Washington. "I came here to see fashion."

While Thorinberg came to see the designer, fashion naysayers initially thought it was the stellar surname that snagged McCartney the job.

"It helped her get recognized, but it didn't keep her there," said William Calvert, a New York designer from Baltimore. "She had to prove herself and she did that. Her name doesn't make beautiful clothes."

To the rescue

McCartney took over the nearly half-century-old Paris fashion house two years ago and has been credited with revitalizing the house, which has been going in and out of style in recent years, according to Mary Lou Luther, fashion columnist and editor of the International Fashion Syndicate.

"Chloe went from being fabulous in [Karl] Lagerfeld's early time to like what a design student would do for a senior project. They [the clothes] were just weird; too experimental. A lot of these old, established houses realize they need a breath of fresh air," Luther said.

And, with a little help from McCartney, who's no fashion flash-in-the-pan, it's in again.

At 15, she worked with Christian Lacroix in Paris. She received her fashion design degree at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and, from there, she apprenticed on London's Savile Row. In 1995, she started her own vintage and boudoir-centered brand in London.

Not long after, she was approached to revitalize Chloe. Such a distinguished position while in her 20s may seem a bit premature, but young stars in the fashion world are fairly common. Louis Vuitton's Marc Jacobs and Givenchy's Alexander McQueen are only two of several luminaries who hit it big as twentysomethings.

"She really knows what she's doing and she's connected to her generation," Luther says.

A generation that doesn't have to sacrifice sex appeal or conform to the cult of the little black dress.

Pistachios, dusty roses and luscious lilacs were part of the Easter basket of colors adorning her sexy tea dresses, ruffled skirts, come-hither camisoles, finely tailored Savile Row-esque suits, fairy-tale bustiers, tulle capes and other exclusively X-chromosome fare.

"Wearable" is one of the overused adjectives, joining fresh, light and fun, used to describe McCartney's clothing.

"They were beautiful," Nancy Gertner, a 48-year-old lawyer from Pikesville, said of the clothes. "I don't think they were in my size, but they're gorgeous."

The models

As at most fashion shows, the creations were sported by delicate and lanky, yet well-endowed models. And it would be difficult to imagine anyone genetically inferior pulling off many of the pieces, such as cinch-waisted skirts and body-hugging dresses with the same flair.

"Of course, you're going to have the very slender models, but there were some pieces that I thought maybe if you didn't have a Size 2 body, you could still wear," Thorinberg said.

And don't forget, this is couture, darling. Clothes are ordered and then fitted to the fortunate customer. Plus, if a camisole is too close for comfort, throw a blazer over it, advises Joyce Ann Burman, a sales consultant at Nordstrom in Towson who attended the event.

(McCartney made a personal appearance at the Nordstrom in Tyson's Corner yesterday.)

The blazer, by the way, may put you out $2,000. Again, this is couture, not Contempo Casuals. McCartney is planning on making her clothes a tad more accessible for the common folk, however, with prices that may be below $100 for some airbrushed pieces.

These tacky tourist-store prints of the exotic bird and bleeding sunset variety added an '80s retro-beach twist to a collection mostly reflecting a '60s and '70s sensibility.

"The '80s are too close to go retro," said Steve Fontaine, 30, an artist, photographer and aspiring designer from Virginia. Fontaine was among the unimpressed, calling her line too commercially conscious.

Popularity does have a tendency to dilute a vision.

But not in every case.

A certain band comes to mind.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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