When Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, chose two young British designers to head up Christian Dior and Givenchy, the French Establishment could be a bit blithe. Arnault is press hungry, shows off his power, thrives on doing the unthinkable.
But when yet another big luxury goods house, the Vendome Group, put Stella McCartney, 25 and British, in charge of its Chloe collection, it seemed like more than one man's eccentricities. It seemed like a trend.
How will the French Establishment rationalize it this time?
There is no doubt that it is the age, more than the nationality, that is hitting a nerve.
When the usually composed Karl Lagerfeld, being replaced at Chloe, sniped at the fresh young woman who will take his post, it was a bit like the Beatles sniping at Oasis.
"I think they should have taken a big name," Lagerfeld told Women's Wear Daily. "They did -- but in music, not fashion. Let's hope she is as gifted as her father."
Stella McCartney's father is, of course, Paul McCartney, and her mother is Linda McCartney, who bought some of Lagerfeld's Chloe pieces in the 1970s and stored them in a trunk. It was as if the clothes were waiting for Ms. McCartney, whose first fashion memory is of stomping around in the gold platform boots her mother wore to the premiere of "Easy Rider," to reclaim them.
"What's funny about Chloe is I grew up knowing it on that level," McCartney said. "Friends of my parents have called and have been so over the moon and proud because when they were growing up it was a hot label. My generation has no idea of that. It's not doing that at the moment."
In McCartney, Chloe has found a designer who seems to have the passion and the steely nerve for the uneasy position of taking over from Lagerfeld, who presided over the hottest years of Chloe, from 1965 to 1983, and then was rehired by Mounir Moufarrige in 1992, with less success.
The Independent of London underlined the age issue this week: "While Karl Lagerfeld prides himself on how up-to-date he is with MTV, Stella McCartney doesn't need to watch it -- she lives it anyway."
Putting designers with so little experience in creative control of such big corporations seems a heavy proposition. McCartney's name clearly gave her a short-cut in the publicity-driven fashion world, but she was not the only 20-something designer interviewed; Antonio Berardi was as well.
"If they went for the name thing, what they also get with Stella McCartney is a good designer," said Elizabeth Tilberis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar, who once hired McCartney as an intern at British Vogue.
At fashion school
As a student at Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design, the fashion school that also produced John Galliano, now at Dior, and Alexander McQueen, at Givenchy, she asked her close friends from the London scene -- Kate Moss, Yasmin Le Bon and Naomi Campbell -- to model her graduation collection. Her parents and Twiggy were in the front row. Marlon Brando crying "Stella" in "A Streetcar Named Desire" was on the soundtrack, along with a song her father wrote for the occasion, "Stella Mayday."
The resulting hype in 1995 upstaged the shows of all her fellow graduates and had made her lose some sleep beforehand.
"Coming from my background, I don't want to be punished for it," she said. "If I say no to that kind of thing, I'm being punished. I don't think people should have the upper hand on what I want to do. I'm not trying to shove it into people's faces. But there's a certain amount of people controlling your life, and at the end of the day, you do what you want if you don't offend too many people."
At the idea that she might be relieved to close the house with her father's last name and hide behind the Chloe label, McCartney said: "I think it's actually worse. I was in control of what I was doing; little shows, taking it slowly, choose who I want to see the collection. Now, they'll all be there, people I'd never have shown my clothes to. I think people are going to be ready to shoot me down."
Those people will find a fairly unsinkable target. When she felt she wasn't learning enough at St. Martin's, she apprenticed herself out to a tailor to learn Savile Row suit making. Compulsive visits to the flea market inspired the lace-trimmed slip dresses that are the core of her house's style, and an important part of the Chloe look as well. Despite her father's estimated worth of $600 million, she financed her first collection by selling her St. Martin's work.
And she has a good brain for marketing, as even the student show proved.
"I'm not going to try to entertain the world's press, if they're all expecting some kind of freak-show event," she said. Her first Chloe show will be in October. "But then my marketing mind says, let's do it outside at the Eiffel Tower with helicopters," she added.