For the record, Stella McCartney’s newest fragrance launch, Stella Peony ($70), doesn’t smell like a "dirty old rock star," but the room we’re interviewing in (a carpeted, currently vacant rehearsal studio discreetly tucked to the side of Sunset Boulevard) does. Or rather, it did prior to being spritzed with the fragrance in an effort to squelch the stench of lingering leather, sweat, and cigarettes—or however you might imagine a dirty old rock star to smell.
To be clear, the comparison isn’t of my own creation, but rather of McCartney’s team who will be monitoring the 15-minute interview. As we break the ice and joke about the room’s custom scent, McCartney warms to the association, relaxing as she sets her phone down and looks up at me. “Well you know, a large portion of my essence is dirty old rock star—maybe that will be my next fragrance.”
In the context of the highly anticipated debut of the designer’s Autumn 2018 Collection, the vintage, effortlessly cool aesthetic of the locale feels fitting, to say the least. Its dated essence is exactly what you’d hope of a space haunted by musicality and provides an interesting juxtaposition to the large bouquet of healthy peach-pink peonies sitting off to the side of McCartney and me.
Though freshly launched earlier this month on January 6, the scent itself isn’t 100% novel in the formulation. An ultimately discontinued follow-up to the designer’s iconic fragrance, Stella, Stella Peony is relaunching now because it was sorely missed—but more on that later. Although the new iteration boasts a few key differences from the OG, it still embodies everything of the original fragrance and subsequently embodies everything of Stella McCartney—“delicate yet daring.”
True, I’m here to to discuss the exciting buzz surrounding the launch and the exquisiteness of the scent itself (an herbaceous melding of notes like peony, pepper, patchouli and lusty amber), but just moments into the interview, it becomes apparent that the launch of Stella Peony is more than just another feather in the designer’s hat. It’s a heartfelt and personal facet of what she represents as a designer, an advocate for sustainability, a businesswoman, and an all-around icon.
So before we get to the aforementioned exquisiteness of Stella Peony (because it is indeed exquisite), there’s some ground to cover. As we talk, McCartney slowly begins to extract the meat and meaning behind the fragrance, divulging her relationship with scent, the draw of colliding forces, and why she sometimes cares too much when it comes to perfecting a scent.
BYRDIE: How has your relationship with fragrance evolved since coming out with your very first fragrance?
STELLA MCCARTNEY: I probably have a different approach to many things in my life and career now, but I would say that my approach to fragrance has remained fairly consistent in that it actually shares the same kind of mindset that I bring to fashion and the idea of the masculine and the feminine colliding. And really, that inspired the origin of Stella—the rose and the amber and then those two worlds colliding—and also the fragility of certain things and the strength of others.
I’m not really enamored with overly complex, layered fragrances that are overwhelming and overpowering and wear the person. I’m much more drawn to the fragrances where you are wearing the fragrance. When it complements who you are and how you smell.
BYRDIE: You brought up the environment, but what kind of experiences have inspired Stella Peony and the other scents you’ve created?
SM: I think we all know that fragrance and memory are kind of intertwined—it’s unavoidable, really. The first fragrances I remember were the ones I smelled on my mother. She had a whole host of fragrances she wore, but she was also very natural, so my memories of her are actually a bit more aligned with oils, essential oils, and things like that. For example, we have the McCartney Rose as a family. And so my mum would get the McCartney Rose made into an oil and wear that as her fragrance. And that actually ended being a big inspiration for the original Stella fragrance.
BYRDIE: In your opinion, what makes the X factor when it comes to a winning fragrance?
SM: I think the thing that makes fragrance truly special is the attachment to memories, so it becomes incredibly personal. I think it’s really wonderful if you can find a fragrance because it means you’ve found a fragrance. In my industry, you’re creating fashion and people sometimes feel they have to buy into something to feel better about themselves or to be cooler or to be more relevant. But when it comes to fragrance, it’s completely unavoidable to not have your own natural response. Even if someone says this is the It fragrance, you really won’t go back to it unless your body responds to it on a deeper level. And I think that’s an amazing luxury that fragrance holds.
BYRDIE: So you just launched Stella Peony, but is it your personal favorite?
SM: You know, I love them all for different reasons. I do love the original Stella, but I love Peony because it became a kind of journey and step up from Stella, which I found really interesting when we originally launched it years ago. I didn’t really see many people doing that then and I don’t see many people really doing it now. We took the rose element and the amber element and we split them into a solid and into a liquid fragrance. But then I wanted to create a slightly more delicate conversation from Stella and that’s where the Peony side came.
I was fascinated when I learned that a peony is actually a kind of rose. I didn’t know that and I found that out through the process. I love peonies and I’ve always been drawn to them visually, but they didn’t jump at me for fragrance. But they are a rose, so they do have a very delicate smell, and I found that very interesting. Traditionally, a rose is very hard to create a successful fragrance with, and I didn’t realize that until I was deep in the process of making Stella. The perfumer I was working with told me it’s traditionally incredibly difficult and that there have only been one or two fragrances with rose that have ever been successful. But it was interesting because a lot of people I know who own big perfume houses said that when I launched Stella, it actually inspired them to revisit rose, and now there are much more on the market.
I always feel like I’ve genuinely created a successful fragrance when I want to wear it. Because I don’t actually want to wear that much fragrance, but I do want to wear mine.
BYRDIE: It’s so, so pretty, but it’s also very interesting.
SM: When I say hi to people, I smell it instantly. I know it’s Stella. And I think that’s rare. It came out at a time when people really responded to it and now people have grown with that and a lot of time has passed in the world of fragrance, so the fact that people still wear it is a massive compliment.
BYRDIE: It’s interesting that you brought up oils and essential oils earlier because I feel like that’s very much the trend and the direction the fragrance industry and my generation has been heading in—reclaiming some of that earthiness—but I feel like your scents still completely work with that idea.
SM: Yeah, I do think that there’s quite an honesty to them. When I start to get kind of led astray for the wrong reasons when I'm creating a fragrance, it’s never worked for me. It’s always when it’s natural, like, oh I really like this smell, and I really like that, and just to kind of play with the friction and the conversation that happens there.
BYRDIE: Since Peony isn't technically new, what makes it fresh for 2018?
SM: Well, we repackaged and redesigned the bottle and the exterior—and you know we tweaked it ever so slightly to modernize it, but the overall essence of it is still the same. You know, it’s amazing because when we first launched, there was no kind of interaction with the consumers. All the feedback we’d receive was from the distributors. But with social media now, we have different forms of direct communication and through that, we’ve seen a real calling to bring back Peony. It’s really been very fulfilling, actually. Because again, it’s quite genuine. It’s not some big company saying, oh, you have to bring that back—you need to make sure you keep it alive.
BYRDIE: Well, and then there’s the fact you haven’t come out with a million fragrances either. It feels like you actually care.
SM: I sometimes care too much. But also, the way in which we’ve always discussed the topic of fragrance, it’s been really genuine—you know, asking my sister Mary to take the campaign photos, and working with Arizona Muse (who’s a really close friend) to be the face. Stella Peony just came about in a very effortless kind of lovely, gentle manner. And I think when it’s all women, I think people can feel it. I think they feel it’s real.
BYRDIE: What kind of woman do you envision wearing Peony?
SM: I think the woman who buys Stella Peony, or really any of my fragrances, I think it’s a gift to one’s self. This woman is not doing it for other people. I don’t see it as any kind of indulgence, I see it as a real gift for the soul. I think it’s a really good investment—a quality investment. The ingredients we use are high-quality and sustainably sourced—I push for that. The packaging and those things are recycled. I’m really trying to bring a mindful element into it. So I think the kind of woman who connects with this scent realizes and knows it’s a gift. It’s a gift to herself. It’s a sign of love, I guess. Self-love or a gift of love.
Ed note: Quotes have been edited and shortened for content.