LONDON, United Kingdom — Stella McCartney says she’s known Sean Ellis forever. “When I was living in Paris, he was one of the guys I’d hang out with.” They stayed in touch, but it wasn’t until he showed up at the launch of her menswear collection at Abbey Road Studios last November, with Cillian Murphy, star of "Anthropoid," the movie Ellis was directing at the time, in tow, that a light went on. “Guys, we’ve got to do something together,” McCartney cooed. She laughs at the memory. “Two weeks later, we’re filming in a forest outside London. That’s how we roll at Stella.”
"Black Park," the result of that encounter, is a short film which highlights McCartney’s collection for Autumn/Winter 2017 in a haunting, elliptical way. Murphy appears trapped between two worlds, flashy disco tech and spooky cabin in the woods. It’s unsettling and mysterious, which means it’s a perfect vehicle for the actor, as well as being absolutely in keeping with the dark, edgy tone of the pictures Ellis used to make for magazines like The Face twenty years ago, or the visually arresting movies he’s been making ever since.
But if it’s not a surprise from Ellis, it is a surprise from Stella. She’s the last person you’d expect to go all David Lynch on us. “There’s a beautiful precision in Sean’s work,” she explains — sort of. “I don’t like that much precision. Most things I do, I really rebel against that. But with Sean and the menswear, it just felt right to respect the level of quality in the manufacturing.”
There’s another surprise in "Black Park." Stella’s dad made the soundtrack — and it’s as ominous as the movie. It’s not the first time they’ve collaborated. “He did my degree show,” she says. “But I didn’t tell many people about that.” Here, it was a case of her and Ellis sitting round wondering about that tricky reconciliation of sound and vision, and her making the call on the off-chance Paul was between things. The brief was stark: “I want weird shit, which you can do, Mr Sgt. Pepper.” There was a dummy run, too up-tempo, then a trio of other options. When you hear the one that made it, you need to remember that the Beatles put Karlheinz Stockhausen on the cover of "Sgt Pepper." Paul McCartney knows musical avant-garderie. “He’s got loads of that stuff,” Stella says.
There’s a beautiful precision in Sean’s work... It just felt right to respect the level of quality in the manufacturing.
Regarding the Beatles, the media celebration of "Sgt. Pepper’s" fiftieth anniversary has taken on a rather Olympian tone. It was all so before Stella’s time that I suggest it must be a little like waking up one morning to find your dad was Mozart. She insists that it’s something she’s always been aware of. She laughs when she remembers the tentpoles of her musical education, her father giving her "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys (a huge influence on "Sgt. Pepper") and her mother giving her Ashford and Simpson’s "Solid." But the anniversary has refreshed McCartney’s sense of how extraordinary that moment was in terms of style, especially as she develops her menswear. “They wore those clothes,” she says, a note of wonder in her voice. “The bollocks they had to do that.”
In her new collection, there’s a tailored jacket with a red lapel which she adapted from one of her dad’s old jackets. “For the boots, I went to Olivia Harrison’s house and found five pairs of shoes in a box.” McCartney has never had access to John or Ringo’s stuff, but what amazes her is the size of anything else she’s seen. Remember those boys were all raised on wartime rations, when good nutrition was a luxury. “Malnutrition Scousers,” she marvels. “So tiny! I can’t fit into dad’s clothes.”
There’s certainly the spirit of a slender something or other lingering in her new men’s collection. It feels boyish, where McCartney’s womenswear reflects her own maturing as a woman, from wayward party girl to mid-forties mother of four. Maybe there’ll always be something of that disconnect when a woman designs for a man, though she doesn’t necessarily agree. “I think we celebrate the relationship between our women and our men. It’s a true friendship, with a great deal of equality. There’s fragility in both, strength in both.” Still, it strikes me that the woman has the power in that exchange. And, when it comes to Stella McCartney’s clothes, that feels like it couldn't be any other way.
Which is why the real value of "Black Park" is that it adds a different kind of weight to the men’s collection, something extremely adult, beyond fashion. Sean Ellis has isolated an unambiguous man’s-man masculinity in the clothes that McCartney herself, with her stated curiosity about “all the different angles of a man” hasn’t seen until now. She's loving the learning process. And, on a more pragmatic level, she accepts that her challenge is to get the film to as wide an audience as possible.
“I enjoy all the new platforms, the playfulness,” she says. "I have never taken no for an answer. I feel like we can do anything.”