Interview: Stella McCartney & Stephanie Gilmore / Buffalo Zine

Interview: Stella McCartney & Stephanie Gilmore / Buffalo Zine

At first glance, designer to the stars Stella McCartney and six-time world champion surfer Stephanie Gilmore might seem an unlikely pair – but a shared passion for the great outdoors and stylish sportswear has led to a cross-continental friendship between this high achieving duo. In an exclusive interview for Buffalo, they discuss polluted oceans, sexism in sports and why unshaven legs are cool.


Stephanie Gilmore: Stella! How are you?

Stella McCartney: I’m good, babe. There’s a pretty hardcore echo in here.

Stephanie: It sounds like you’re in the bathroom.

Stella: We might be in the bathroom, you never know. I might be naked right now and you have no idea. You might be naked now too – we could FaceTime and find out?

Buffalo: Let’s start with your earliest memories of the ocean? In Britain we tend to think of it as..

Stella: Cold?

Buffalo: And the stereotype of all those twee seaside towns. Fish and chips, rock candy. In Australia, I suppose it’s more..

Stella: Beach babes!

Buffalo: Hunks in trunks.

Stella: My relationship with the ocean is unusual, because I was lucky enough to travel a lot. The British side of me is Scotland, and actually where we have our farm in Scotland is one of the best surfs in Britain.

Stephanie: Yeah it’s supposed to be great. I’m coming.

Stella: It’s freezing cold. It was the power of the ocean that made me respect it, watching my family surf. But then on my American side it was probably a more luxurious experience, all holidays. My memories of the ocean are just being in awe of it. For me it’s none of that seaside-y, Brighton stuff – it’s the power of the ocean and the waves. And that respect again. [laughs] Respec’! Big up the ocean.

Buffalo: What about you Stephanie?

Stephanie: I think everybody in Australia grows up at the beach. I have really fond memories of being there with all of my family here in Kingscliff. In Australia, we really look after our beaches, clean sand, and my parents drove combis, so we’d basically just pitch a tent next to the car and hang out on the beach all day. So I have lots of really fun, beautiful memories of that. I think when I first really understood the power of the ocean I was around 15 years old, and it was this huge tsunami that hit the coast of Sumatra. There must have been 250,000 people died, just an earthquake off the coast and the tsumani hit the land. I remember seeing it on TV and just being overwhelmed.

Stella: Don’t fuck with the ocean.

Stephanie: It can literally wash us all away, one big wave and we’re all done. It’s a humbling experience, every time I surf I feel it, whether I’m scared for my life or having so much fun, being out on the oceans is an emotional rollercoaster.

Buffalo: What’s your perception of the British seaside, Stephanie? [the telephone line crackles]

Stella: She doesn’t understand. [laughs] The.. the.. what?!

Stephanie: I went to a contest in Newquay once. The water was really cold and you really feel out in the elements. I felt like a salty old pirate. And I remember seeing a deep-fried meat pie which also blew my mind.

Buffalo: It’s interesting to have Stella in conversation with an athlete, because obviously you were a very early adopter of luxury sportswear.

Stella: And I’ve done two Olympic games! For which, by the way, they don’t have surfing in.

Stephanie: It’s happening for the first time in Japan 2020.

Stella: Oh my God, that is so cool! Can I make your wetsuit?

Stephanie: Um, yes..

Stella: So glad we’ve just nailed that in five minutes. Brilliant. That’s a deal, I’m shaking your hand virtually.

Stephanie: Me too.

Stella: It’s funny because obviously I know a lot about you, but every time I see an image of you I just think, ugh, I want to dress her! And make all those rashguards. I want to make a surfboard for you as well. Obviously I’ll make it in collaboration with your board supplier, don’t worry.

Stephanie: You’ve made wetsuits before, haven’t you?

Stella: Yeah, we did some on my Adidas collaboration years and years ago, and I made a paddleboard as well, so it was a bit more mellow. But I’m definitely doing this. I’ve got you done babe. You’re in safe hands.

Stephanie: Epic. I will look so chic at the Olympics.

Stella: Can we not tell anyone? You’re going to have to hold on that now in this interview, because that needs to be a top secret project that only we know about. Where are you based now Stephanie? California or Queensland?

Stephanie: I’m sort of half and half. I basically live out of my suitcase and my board bag. I live part of the year here in Byron Bay, and then I live over in Malibu.

Stella: Your dad was a big surfer, right?

Stephanie: Yeah. He’s still the keenest surfer you’ve ever met, he’s 64 and he surfs all the time. He gets all the waves and just smiles constantly. Surfing has such a special – it’s unique in the way that, even though it’s our job and our career, I still go out there to be refreshed and to have a moment to myself. Even on our holidays, we’re always going surfing.

Stella: I suppose it’s not like you’re working in a bank. I don’t think any of us feel sorry for you. But, you know, it’s similar to me – I feel blessed to be able to do what I do for a living. It’s amazing. We are so lucky, even if we’re doing completely different things. We’re doing what we chose to do and we managed to make a career out of it. It’s incredible.

Stephanie: Exactly.

Stella: It’s the same for my dad – while we’re on the subject of dads – if you sing every day, you live longer, and apparently they say with comedians if you laugh every day, you live longer. Although I’m not sure being a fashion designer helps you live longer. [laughs] But definitely surfing, singing and comedy I would say are the three best careers if you want to live a long life, if anyone’s reading this and trying to figure out what to go into.

Buffalo: And Stephanie I know you’ve got an interest in fashion, you’ve been featured in Vogue and have gone to the Met Gala. How do you feel what you’re wearing impacts your performance, whether in a practical sense or how it makes you feel?

Stephanie: Well you know I grew up surfing with the boys, so I was a big tomboy for most of my life. I had hairy legs, and I was just in my boardshorts, I didn’t really care what I looked like. Then I started blossoming into a young woman and I was like, wait a second..

Stella: I hope you still have hairy legs! It’s cool not shave your legs.

Stephanie: I always had that tomboy approach to fashion. But I think I’ve grown to appreciate that mix of fashion and function when it comes to athletics – I’m there to do my job, but I want to look good as well. When I was setting out, I didn’t really care about it, but once you have that confidence, you can wear anything and feel good. That’s always been my approach, but obviously with surfing you need something pretty functional, otherwise you’ll end up flashing a bunch of people.

Buffalo: Were you ever a tomboy Stella?

Stella: Yeah, I was actually. I was a tomboy as well. But that’s an interesting question, because when I was doing the Olympic Games, when I first did Team GB in 2012, we worked on it for about 3 years, and the first thing I asked the athletes was: does what you wear affect your performance? And 99% of them said yeah, absolutely. If they felt they looked better then it improved their performance. There were very few of them that said, “I don’t care what I look like as long as it makes me faster”. But at the end of the day we did come second in the leaderboard on the two occasions I dressed them – not that I take any credit for that, of course. [laughs] But I do think it’s linked on a lot of levels, we’re funny creatures, aren’t we. We care about what we look like, it’s so connected to how we feel.

Stephanie: When I’m performing, you have to go through and cancel out the things that might stress you out – if you’re wearing something you like and feels good on your body then that’s one thing you’re not thinking about. So you can avoid that distraction and when you’re performing focus purely on your instincts, not worrying about those little things.

Stella: I was thinking about talking to you today, and the whole suffragette movement, as its the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote – I look at your profession, and like most industries, it’s very male-dominated. How does your femininity link to your performance and how you hold yourself in competitions? How aware are you of that and how has that been for you as a female surfer? It feels rare and there’s such a stigma attached to women in the water and swimwear, and you’re a beautiful blonde surfer chick – there’s often a kind of sexualisation of what you do for a living. How does that sit with you? Do you notice it?

Stephanie: Yeah. As a young girl, I was definitely aware of how few girls there were in the water, and I know that older generations of female surfers who were competing, they really had to have a certain aggression about them and a masculine approach to everything because they were striving for respect and for the same platform the men were already getting, so they felt like they had to compete with the men and have a kind of friction with them. As that generation passed and I started coming through, and the other girls my age, there was a lighter feeling around us. I feel like they let us blossom into young girls who loved surfing in the same way men did. We’re competing with them, and of course we don’t have the strength that male surfers do, but when you think about the most beautiful male surfers they have a certain gracefulness – it’s a feminine touch. If you ask any male surfer who their favourite surfer is, they’ll probably say Tom Curren, or another male surfer with a style that’s fluid and magical and graceful. To me, that feels like a feminine thing, and it’s about having this connection with the wave and the equipment and the ocean.

Stella: It’s a sensual sport, for sure. [to Buffalo] Sorry, I’m going to let you ask all your questions soon, but I can please ask her just one more?

Buffalo: Of course! Take it away. I think you should just take over. If you ever wanted a second career, you’d be a great chat show host. The next Graham Norton.

Stella: Honestly, that has come up before. I would love to. I read that there’s a pay disparity between men and women in the surfing world – what’s your take on that Stephanie?

Stephanie: It’s come a long way. We never had equal pay before. Currently the women’s tour, if you split the prize money across the number of participants, which is more men than women, then it works out equal. So in a roundabout way, we get equal prize money, but first place for men and first place for women at an event don’t get the same, if that makes sense. That was a choice by the women though, as we wanted to spread more money to the girls who were down the back and weren’t winning events as much, because they didn’t have as much support through sponsorship. But I feel like we’re doing well – we’ve come a long way in the past few years, and the World Surf League are paying attention to it. They see the potential in women surfing and they have a vision for the sport, which is what gets me the most excited, as before it was just a sideshow to the men. They respect the fact that there’s this whole movement of women who want to get out there, and believe that strong is the new skinny. Being out there and being active and feeling confident in yourself and what you can achieve physically is so empowering, and I think female sports is really where it’s at. I’m sure it will only be a few more years before we reach the same point as the guys.

Stella: Going back to what you were saying about ‘strong is the new skinny’, that makes me think about diet and nutrition and all of that. I’m a vegetarian and I have a massive respect for all life on earth, and marine life is critical and what I’m really focussing on right now – plastics, and water and microfibres. The destruction of our oceans by humans, essentially. By 2050, it’s projected that there will be more plastic in the oceans than sea life. How has your connection with the ocean changed, which is the place where you probably spend most of your time?

Stephanie: I’ve got an amazing relationship with the ocean of course, but I’m also learning so much all the time. As a sportswoman I’m very conscious about what I’m eating and what I’m putting in my body to make sure I’m performing at my best. One question I always get is: are you scared of sharks? I think what people don’t really understand is that these creatures are actually endangered, they’re almost fished to extinction. Maybe a couple of sharks have attacked humans here and there by mistake because they’re hungry, but the whole ocean is overfished and the giant predators of the ocean are looking for food, so they’re more likely to come into coastal areas – it’s a self-made recipe to see more attacks. It’s so interesting because so many people are terrified of sharks and would love to cull them or kill them, but realistically it’s just about controlling the fishing and making sure that it’s sustainable. I think people should be able to eat fish as long as it’s done responsibly and we’re not going backwards, ending up in a direction where the ocean life will be completely dead to us in the future.

Stella: Which is sadly where we’re heading. There’s a great book by a friend of mine, Jonathan Safran Foer, called ‘Eating Animals’. There’s a page where it talks about how when fisherman do one trawl and they’re only looking for one type of fish, it lists in that trawl the hundreds of other species of marine life that are killed or impacted by that. It’s a brilliant book, you should read it. Of course, ultimately, if everyone could eat meat and fish in a cruelty-free, sustainable way then that would be ideal, but the reality is that we’re just overfishing and overkilling to the point where it all becomes landfill at the end of the day.

Buffalo: Can you tell me a little more about what you’re doing with Parley for the Oceans, Stella? Is it a challenge to take recycled plastics salvaged from the oceans and repurpose them in a luxury context?

Stella: I think my connection with the planet is one in which I’m trying to live in harmony with it on a personal level, but at the same time I’m trying to be conscious and mindful and responsible in the way I conduct business. Fashion is the second most harmful industry environmentally and there is a level of responsibility that has to be taken, in my mind, if I’m working within it – especially as I’m in a privileged position where I have a voice and can implement change. So plastic is a big conversation for me and for us as a house, not only with our collaboration with Parley, but with Adidas we’ve worked with ocean plastic, creating yarn from it and then reworking it into fabrics and sneakers.

Stephanie: I remember going to your show in Paris – at the afterparty you had all of the FutureTech lab stuff that you were working on – that was incredible. That was the most inspired I’ve felt for so long.

Stella: For me, it’s the thing that really gets me excited about where we can go next. When I was hosting and people were coming in, I was saying, “welcome to the future of fashion!” Then as they left, I was like.. “go back to reality!” [laughs] But it is the grim reality. So many industries are so old school and destructive to the planet, no matter what you believe ethically, it’s impossible to sustain if we want our great-grandchildren to have a home on this planet. I’m sure it must be soul-destroying for you, being in the ocean all the time and on the beaches, to see how much waste there is. If I look at leftover plastic as a material, it’s fascinating, I see it as an opportunity to make yarn and garments and innovate. There are lot of opportunities to recycle and reuse.

Buffalo: I know you’ve said that the fashion industry is so contradictory, because it evolves so rapidly in terms of design, but so slowly in terms of the mechanics of the industry itself.

Stella: We use the same 10 materials we have done for hundreds of years. It’s definitely time for change, and it’s exciting. I just need some more colleagues to come on board. It’s a wider industry conversation, I’m sure you find this too Stephanie in your industry. There’s the athletes who are in the water, doing the work on that front, and then there’s the sponsors and the people running the business behind you, getting money in by building awareness and support. It’s the same in my industry. I’m the creative, but I’m also a businesswoman and I work with people in the industry who are taking care of that side. It has to be a conversation and two sides of the industry coming together.

Stephanie: Yeah, exactly. As surfers that’s our duty – the ocean is our office, our home, our passion. To be out there every day and to be seeing first-hand the plastics all through the oceans, across the beaches, the animals that are washed up because they’re eating the junk that we’re leaving around it’s just horrific. It’s our duty to get stuck in and use our voices.

Stella: And you must see climate change happening too. You must really witness that first-hand. When I think of the various places I’ve been on the ocean, in California last year there were thousands of seals washing up and dying after coming in too close to the shore looking for food where the water was warmer and they overheated.

Stephanie: California scares me the most for that stuff. Once it rains in California, the wash-off into the ocean means you just can’t surf, for like a week.

Buffalo: Do you find that the surfing community more widely are active about environmental issues?

Stephanie: Yeah I do, I think there’s something about surfers where we feel like we’ve been so blessed to have been gifted this opportunity to ride these ocean waves, it’s such a strange thing to ride these swells that have travelled all the way across the planet and then we just share a moment with it before it crashes and dies and disappears forever. I do think surfers have to have an awareness. You wake up in the morning and you think about, what is the wind doing? What’s the tide doing? You’re always paying attention to the elements every day.

Stella: Is there one thing that unites you all together, one cause you all get behind? It feels like on the professional side of the surfing community, there’s few enough of you to be able to have a surfer’s cause that you all agree on and all fight for and bring awareness?

Stephanie: Yeah, I think that Oceans Conservancy do a great job, but there’s not really one thing.

Stella: Come on girl! I’ll do it with you. Stella’s Surfers Against… I’m in! Let’s do it.

Stephanie: Please! Let’s do it. Do your children surf, Stella?

Stella: They do, they surf out at Long Island in America. I don’t think they’re going to be any competition to you, babe, don’t worry. Stephanie it’s so nice to have spoken to you, and you have to come to one of my shows again soon! You are always, always invited to everything I do, and we need to talk about our secret project. Let’s talk colours! I’m excited. I think we’ll have one that’s really kind of, “lost in the ocean”, then another one that really pops — I’m seeing neons.

Stephanie: I’m excited. Bye bye!