Interview on the Time Sensitive Podcast
Since launching her eponymous label in 2015, the Uruguayan-born, New York–based designer Gabriela Hearst has become known for her sincere, forward-thinking approach to sustainability; her slow-growth business ethos; the long waiting lists for her limited-production handbags; her impeccable tailoring; and her high-quality collections that, season after season, have consistently been hailed as critics’ favorites. For her, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword or an item to tick off a list; it’s something essential and, most importantly, actionable.
Last year, Hearst presented the industry’s first-ever carbon-neutral runway show. A collaboration with Bureau Betak and EcoAct, the presentation was done completely sans blow dryers, straighteners, or curling irons, models were sourced locally, and a carbon-offset fund for the energy-related production costs was donated to the Hifadhi-Livelihoods Project in Kenya. Hearst regularly uses deadstock in her collections. She recently made all of the brand’s packaging biodegradable and compostable, and also tweaked her supply chain to ship by boat instead of by air freight. Hearst’s new eco-conscious store in London’s Mayfair neighborhood, designed by Norman Foster, includes custom furniture made from a tree that fell in a storm and herringbone oak flooring reclaimed from a military barracks. Her preferred word for sustainability? Accountability.
Raised on a ranch that has been in her family for six generations—which her father bequeathed to her in 2011 when he passed away—Hearst, early in her life, became interested in where things come from and how they’re made, and in understanding the true value of utility, namely that making well-constructed things that stand the test of time matters. Now, in the age of climate change, her less-but-better mindset has become all the more relevant and pressing. Creating timeless, long-lasting clothing, she says, is the only reasonable (and yes, sustainable) way forward. Eschewing a trend-driven outlook in favor of one that’s about creating fewer, better items that her customers will keep forever, Hearst continues to be informed by her upbringing on the farm. It’s an approach that appears to be working: The company had a turnover of between $15 and $20 million in sales revenue in 2018, and last year LVMH Luxury Ventures bought a minority stake in it (the majority is owned by Hearst and her husband and business partner, John Augustine “Austin” Hearst, a media executive, film producer, and philanthropist who is the grandson of William Randolph Hearst).
SPENCER BAILEY: Today on the podcast we’ve got Gabriela Hearst, the fashion designer. Welcome, Gabriela.
GABRIELA HEARST: Thank you for having me here.
SB: It’s so great to have you. I wanted to start on the subject of ranching, which, maybe to those who know you, might seem an obvious place to start, because that’s really where your life began. But ranching life, there’s something, especially when it comes to time, very special—there’s an earthly rhythm to ranching life. I was wondering if you could talk about that. How did you start to think about time on the ranch, as a kid?
GH: I think it’s a great observation about the timing in ranching life, especially because my mom’s side is going to be one hundred seventy years that they’ve been in the same spot. Being from the new world, one hundred seventy years is a bit of time—compared to trees, it’s nothing—but there is this familiarity and this sense of calmness and of things not really changing. My mom is still off the grid. She refuses to be on the grid, and it hasn’t really changed much since I grew up on that ranch.
As a kid, time was all we had, which is so ironic because now it’s like time is the one thing I don’t have—the ultimate luxury. But as a kid, especially spending all my summers there, it was all I had. So of course in the mornings I had to go up and get in the saddle and go cattle herding, and I would be in my mind somewhere else. There was obviously a great adventure happening in front of me, but my mind was in some sort of fantasy.
But it was always these expansions of—the days will feel very long, and there was a lot of room for fantasy and for play. I played all day because there was no TV. There was radio, there was books, and there was just play. And so I used to perform a lot for myself and entertain myself, and so yes, time was… I was rich in time.
SB: I want to talk about energy, too, and light, because when you’re on the ranch obviously you’re living in a world of natural light, but you’re kind of off the grid, and when the generator’s out… And that obviously connects to this conversation about time, how did that sort of borderline…?
GH: And it changes with the seasons, too, because during the winter those days are really short. So my dad would wake up in the winter really, really early, because you have to maximize the light. So I’m talking like three o’clock to be ready to saddle—4:35—and then you break for lunch. You come back from the field, and then you eat your lunch and then siesta. Siesta was like religion, and that’s all seasons [that] you had siesta. In the summers the siestas were even longer because it was really hot during lunch[time]. So you would then work till you had sunlight, a bit more sunlight. Then you would come have dinner, and then the generators were up for less than an hour, and then [you would] go to bed. Repeat.
SB: How do you think these rhythms of the ranch have informed you internally or how you sort of live your life now, as a busy New Yorker?
GH: As an anxiety, stress-disorder New Yorker? The number one thing that informed [me] is the rhythm with nature, because we are adapting to nature all the time in the ranch, because you’re really exposed to the elements. I’ve seen lightning—when I was a kid, I was really scared of lightning. When you’re in the vast emptiness and you see lightning and you see the force… I’ve seen a house be struck by lightning—my dad’s ranch was struck by lightning. You see the power, and you see the force.
So I am extremely respectful of nature because I understand the force of nature. And even if we’re in this Anthropocene geological period we’re going to make our mark with plastic in the strata and uranium waste in the strata, but we’re going to lose the battle, that’s like done. Because if you think about the four billion years the earth has been here and we as a species around 200,000 years, it’s over. So I have an innate knowledge of the strength of nature—and the force, the real force of nature—from growing up there and following these rhythms. So I think that’s the number one thing that informed me.
“I am extremely respectful of nature because I understand the force of nature.”
SB: What was your interaction like with the animals on the ranch?
GH: My biggest connection has always been with horses. I grew up with so many animals, so many dogs. I’m not the one that sees the dogs and is like, “How cute!” Because they’ve always been around. But horses are always the number one connection. And the animals we breed, [they’re] my mom’s pride, the genetics, right, the genetics of breeding for multigenerational—she loves her cattle to be healthy and well-fed. The worst thing that can happen is when we have droughts—the desperation, but not for only the loss of life but not seeing the animals happy. It’s grass-fed organic, as long as I’ve known it. You work with nature in that sense.
SB: Yeah, you’re learning from the land.
GH: Yeah. You follow the rhythms, and what we’ve been noticing is that things have shifted forward. Things that used to happen in December now are happening in January. And there we’re in the southern hemisphere, so it’s right now it’s the summer.
SB: Yeah, it makes me think about speed, and the speed of our times, and how it’s really pushing forward everything, including the weather.
GH: Yes. I have the sensation that things are going so fast right now, all the time. And I don’t know if it’s just me. I just feel it’s so fast, and I have, every time, less time to see people I love, hang out with my friends. Even last year I was able to see [my friends] more than I see them now. My free time has kind of become limited and limited and limited.
“I have the sensation that things are going so fast right now, all the time. And I don’t know if it’s just me.”
SB: There’s a ranching phrase that I saw you reference in an article in Monocle magazine. It’s “slowly through the stones,” which basically refers to how you deal with adversity, being the stones. Could you talk about that phrase?
GH: We were told this when galloping. As a kid, you want to just gallop [makes galloping sounds]. Go off full-speed, right? Because that’s where you get more adrenaline. But you’re taught, when you grow up in a ranch, the things you should do not to kill yourself because if something happens to you, you’re like two hours and a half away from the closest city. So be smart.
So “slowly through the stones,” because you fall from a horse at high speed, you fall and that head hits your stone and you’re done, that basalt stone, you’re done. So “slowly through the stones” is like a saying that became like a way of life where things are… Now it’s a good way, this period that we’re living. It’s like there’s so much things to observe that can be very dangerous that you should go slowly instead of fast.
SB: You grew up in this world of the utilitarian. How has that led you to thinking about your clothes from a perspective of pragmatism, of everyday wear, of things that last?
GH: Yeah, it’s informed my desire for quality because at the end [that’s] what it is. I really thought about why I am so attracted to things of quality. It is because things have to be made well to last and to endure, and so I grew up with things that were made to last and to endure, not necessarily from an ostentatious point of view but from a quality, utilitarian aspect. And I’m always trying to recreate that in what I do.
SB: We’ll maybe get back to the ranch. I want to talk about your mom, though, who—
GH: Oh, my God, my mom.
SB: I know that she’s been incredibly influential. You said that, undeniably, your mom is your greatest influence. She is not an ordinary woman by any means.
SB: She competed in rodeo when she was 18, she’s a practicing Buddhist, she’s a Taekwondo master, she’s a fifth-generation cattlewoman. Tell me about your mom, and the influence she’s had on you.
“I grew up thinking that women could be physically tough in a place where it wasn’t really… It was more of a macho society.”
GH: She had such an incredible influence in the sense that—I have to give you the context, too, because if you don’t understand the context, if you like, okay, this is a mom growing up in the West Village in New York in the same time period, you’d be like, okay, strange, but not that strange. It was the dictatorial period in Uruguay. I was born during that period, in 1976. Things were extremely conservative, like conservative—and this was a very much a patriarchy society, a macho society.
And the fact that I have, as one of my first references as a kid, it’s… And, actually, I discussed it with her not long ago and she remembers like, I can’t believe you remember this. One of my first images—of course I remember because it’s dramatic—it’s her being thrown by a horse, hitting the floor, the ground, and her teeth coming out, bleeding. She’s holding them, standing up, and coming towards me like nothing’s happened.
Okay. So that’s my first image, at age 3. [Laughter] And she was like, “How can you remember that?” I’m like, “I think I can.” And then another image of my mom that was like—okay, this was definitely like things are not normal at the house—was when I was seventeen and in her thirties she decided she was going to do Taekwondo, right? I remember going to her exam from red belt to black belt to the black stripe that they put in Taekwondo, because you cannot go to the black one because that’s private, right?
And so I remember her doing a side kick over three guys, in a ball. So she was doing a fly side kick, and then breaking out a piece of wood at the end—somebody was holding the wood like this [holds up her hands] and she took side-kicking, and something inside me was like, That’s not normal that your mom can do those things. [Laughter] So I grew up with this, really, force of nature.
When it comes to these physical things, she’s fearless. A few months ago she was diving in Bolivia from one mountain to another. The woman is fearless when it comes to these things. And I think I grew up thinking that women could be physically tough in a place where it wasn’t really… It was more of a macho society.
“I’ve recently realized—and I say it as a joke, but it’s kind of true—I have a hard time listening to men or taking orders from men.”
SB: What’s so interesting in the context of the clothes you make, these power suits for women who fit the description of your mother.
GH: Yeah, but even that jacket that I’m wearing is based on a jacket that she used to have. This outfit that I’m wearing is an alteration of an outfit that she would wear. She’d have that jacket with a matching skirt that matches this skirt in the same fabric with her initials or my dad’s initials embroidered. I remember these suits very well. And she also influenced me in music. She would start, “Okay, so you want to learn about rock ‘n’ roll? We’re going to listen to Little Richard and Chuck Berry.” She took me to my first music concert at age twelve.
So she was extremely open-minded. I don’t really do any drugs or any alcohol or any vices because she had a lot of experience in talking to me about things and being open-minded. She let me be free within her [terms]—she was very clever. As a teenager, she let me have a lot of parties at my house. I wouldn’t be—somebody woundn’t be drunk-driving me or anything, so I was allowed to do the best parties, always, at my house because she could, like, you know…
SB: Yeah, it was controlled.
GH: It was controlled because she was there.
SB: Aside from designing clothes for these strong women, you’ve also been informed or influenced or inspired by several. You’ve mentioned Elsa Schiaparelli, who worked on amazing collections of knitwear. You’ve mentioned Rei Kawakubo.
GH: I think she’s also self-taught.
SB: Yeah. Do you feel like you somehow came into this role in part because of your mother, because of this really strong role model, this really strong figure?
GH: Yeah. I’ve recently realized—and I say it as a joke, but it’s kind of true—I have a hard time listening to men or taking orders from men. Even my friendships, I gravitate… My friendships and my friends, usually are older women. Except [Stephanie de Lavalette, director of operations at Gabriela Hearst], but she’s also a strong character. It’s always a woman with that—there’s something fascinating about these women, which is that they have a great armor. But their inside is very fragile. So it’s the inside that is really, really interesting to me. And so, I design with that metaphor. Everything that is close to the skin has to be really, really soft, and then I build out.
SB: And that fragility is a kind of strength in a way, too—vulnerability.
SB: Another strong woman in your life is your grandmother, and I know at age—was it five?—you went to live with her in Uruguay’s capital, where you attended an English school.
GH: Yes, the best school in Uruguay was in Montevideo, the British Schools. And so, it was all right, study in the rural school, or I went to live with my grandmother, which I did and she spoiled me rotten. The spoiled side of me comes from my grandma. She passed away in 2004, and she was the source of this constant, warm, sweet love… She’s gone through so many things in life.
She lost a child very young, to leukemia. So she knew what the real things that matter in life were—what’s important and what’s not important. There was a wisdom with her that didn’t come from her speaking; it was from her attitudes. She was amazing.
“I have an inner confidence of: Do not panic in dangerous situations. Number one survival rule.”
SB: It strikes me, between your experiences on the ranch and just hearing this story about your grandmother, that I imagine from an early age you understood adversity, how to deal with adversity and roll with the punches.
GH: Yes. You have to do that.
I had a situation of danger with one of my children. I think when they were… Olivia was two years old. Nothing too drastic, but she went in and… We had, at that time, the other brand, Candela. I was in the office there, in the showroom, and my nanny calls me and says, “Olivia is not feeling well.” So I started walking, I was living in Chelsea, I was walking home. And then, I hear my nanny crying and saying in Spanish, “My baby is dying, my baby is dying!” And then, I remember just going really fast, running. And in time—talk about the expansion of time. Just like, at that moment, my brain becomes this surgical thing that just calls an ambulance, and I tell her, “Bring her down right now.” My dad was there, coincidentally, visiting, and I tell them, “Bring her down right now,” and I don’t know how fast I made it, but I made it… I ran like I’ve never run in my entire life.
And then I see my child in an epileptic [fit], foaming, eyes going up, back in the head, and I’m holding her and notice she’s breathing. And then I see—it’s amazing how humans behave. I see a guy that’s looking at me, I see an ambulance, and the guy realized, without me saying a word, that he needs to stop that ambulance. He stops the ambulance in the middle of the avenue, and I go inside. And they stabilized the child.
Then once I’m in the ambulance, I’m like—all in a matter of minutes, but it felt like eternity—and then in the ambulance everything stabilized. I go to the hospital, [and they said,] “Oh, it’s febrile epilepsy, it’s very common in all children.” And you’re like, I nearly died, and you’re telling me this is [going to be okay].
In that moment, I did not panic. I was like, this is what we’ll do. So I have an inner confidence of: Do not panic in dangerous situations. Number one survival rule. This is what I train my kids all the time. It’s like, this is how you have to think, because they’re city kids.
SB: Very different from the ranch.
SB: When I was reading about your background, I saw that, aside from going to live with your grandmother in the city, your first international urban experience was Australia?
GH: Yes. I’d been to Buenos Aires and to Chile. But I wanted to live. That experience was really important for me at seventeen, but not only the experience, the materializing of the experience, because I realized at that age, at seventeen years old, that if you put something in your mind, even if it sounds impossible and everybody tells you you cannot do it, because I went to school so I tell anybody, everyone, I want to live in Australia because, I knew that at one point in my life I was going to be in Europe and the U.S.—it seemed like a realistic place I could end up. But Australia seemed so far away from Uruguay—it’s like the opposite. It’s the same latitude, opposite side of the planet. And I just told everybody, it just came to my mind. I want to go to Australia, I want to go to Australia, I want to go to… Everybody’s like, “You think you’re seventeen and your parents are going to let you go in Australia?” Hwa hwa hwa hwa [soft chuckles], like this.
One friend of mine told me there was this scholarship to go to study in Australia, one place only. So I applied and got it. Then I presented the presentation to my parents. My parents were divorced, so I had to deal with both, so I presented, right? I was like, “So I want to go to Australia, I just won this scholarship…” I don’t know how, but I convinced them, and off I was to Australia. [Laughs]
And it changed my life because where I grew up, at that period, things of course have changed—[this] was pre-globalization, girls, women wouldn’t work for sure after they finished university. And people my age didn’t work in the part of society where I was born, and in Australia, everybody my age was working. So I wanted that independence. And so I came back from that experience in Australia, and, of course, with this anxiety to travel, and I told my mom, “I want to do all my subjects”—libre, it was called, meaning you could do them at the end of the year. It was really difficult to do that, but I want to travel, and I want to get a job. And my mom said, “Okay, fine.” So I started my first job at seventeen. I was the first of my generation to do that. To have a proper job at seventeen.
SB: What was the job?
GH: Flower shop. Yeah, I saved money, and I came to New York at age seventeen. That was the first time I was in New York, and I said, “I’m going to live here.”
SB: And I know you had had dreams of New York after, what, watching Cinderella and having this childhood imagination running wild.
GH: Yes. It’s funny because I learned how to read and write first in English and then in Spanish, so that should have been a premonition of something. But I have this connection with places where I just land and I feel at home, or not; the contrary happens, too, where I feel like I never want to come to these places again. And New York was a place where I was like, “I’m going to live here.” I had no doubt, at eighteen. I was like, “I’m going to live here.” I knew it.
SB: And in your early twenties, when you got here, I understand you studied acting at a playhouse.
GH: Yes. In the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater. It’s really a prestigious acting school, and I always say that my best performance was to convince my father to pay for it, because he was like a gaucho. And this is after trying a different few things, right?
GH: Modeling. And I went to communication school… It was great because he told me, “Fine, I’ll pay for the tuition, but you have to figure out how to pay for yourself in New York.” So I waitressed and hostessed. It’s funny how you choose a creative life and immediately your standard of living goes down. [Laughs] It’s like psshht [sound of deflating].
SB: The journey to fashion, of course… We sort of talked about the utilitarian element. I know when you were a young girl, you were also designing quinceanera dresses for your friends.
GH: Yes, yes. And they were all short. It was like the opposite of the traditional—even my quinceanera was short and red, and chiffon with, like, beaded. It was beautiful. And I matched the shoes. But yes, I’ve always had an inclination with sketching, drawing, and fashion, for sure.
SB: And your grandmother and aunt had their clothes made by seamstresses.
GH: And my mom, yeah. One seamstress would make the clothes for my whole family.
SB: Oh, wow.
GH: Yeah. She had an atelier. She was amazing. I mean, the quality of these pieces—
SB: It was like couture.
GH: Couture, yeah, because it’s made to measure.
SB: Wow. When you came to New York, eventually you landed in fashion, I understand. You were working for a designer?
GH: Yes, I worked for a designer. Actually, it’s funny we’re talking about this, because it just came up that I had this period—and I actually wrote about it today, and it’s something I posted—where, it was just like this fever, I was just painting everywhere. I was just painting. The way I got into the acting school, because I had no background in—I studied communications, but I didn’t have any background in the creatives—I went to my audition interview with a T-shirt that I painted myself. I knew they were going to ask me about the T-shirt. [Laughter] And he did, the director asked me, “And what’s the T-shirt?” And I said, “I did it myself.”
So the creative part was on the table. It’s always been a sort of medium, clothes, so before I even [working in fashion] I was painting stuff, I was painting clothes, I was painting denim and then I started working for this designer by accident and I realized that I had a facility for it. But also the business side, too.
SB: Yeah, because you worked in a salesroom.
GH: Yeah. And my first proper, proper job was as the director of sales for a showroom. Yeah, that was like my first proper fashion job.
SB: I think it’s so interesting because now your brand has two shops—one in London and New York.
GH: Three shops.
GH: Yeah. We have a shop-in-shop in Harrods [also in London].
SB: These London and New York ones are sort of attached to or near hotels. Service is such an element of what you do. I was wondering how you view this notion of service as the foundation or a core of your brand.
GH: It’s one of the number one main values, besides—I would say the top two values are a long-term view and sustainability, and service is something that I think is key. It’s what we do. We’re serving our women, and I tell this to the team all the time. This is why the proximity to these great hotels is [important], because that’s a high standard of service. Our client expects an intelligent service from us, and we need to provide that. It needs to be seamless.
SB: Your company is what might be called “luxury.” We’ll get into talking about what actually luxury is but—
GH: It’s confusing these days.
SB: Yeah. Prior to starting [your Gabriela Hearst label], though, you had a company that was sort of more mid-market, Candela.
GH: Yeah, contemporary.
SB: You started that in 2004, and basically did that for ten years. How and why did you decide to leave that and enter the luxury space?
GH: I started Candela with two other partners, $700 each. It wasn’t really only my vision. It was a combination of my other partners, too. And we did that. This is how we paid our bills in New York. And we did the first year, we went from zero to a million dollars, which was pretty decent back in 2004, and so we were in the schmatta and there you are.
This contemporary market was emerging, there were all these boutiques, and even through 2008 we continued to grow. After I inherited my dad’s ranch, in 2011, I had to go take care of this business because this was my legacy, the legacy I wanted to leave my kids. So I had to start paying attention to it, and I started to see the connection of what my family had been doing to what I was doing. There was a big disconnect, and the department stores wanted cheaper products and cheaper prices, and I knew this had a cost.
I told my children this morning, because they’re like, “Oh, I just bought this turtleneck in X fast fashion.” And I’m like, “Okay, but this turtleneck basically has a cost to the planet. Maybe it was a cheaper cost to you, but it has a cost to the planet.” So this way we were doing things wasn’t working, and it didn’t feel… But it was what I knew. So if you’ve been doing something for ten years, there’s still a bit of fear, right? So we did it again, we started over.
SB: And you completely left that business.
GH: Yes, it was, for a while, doing some private label, but we’ve… It’s dormant.
“If you want to call yourself a luxury designer, you have to understand where everything comes from.”
SB: So luxury, that word, how do you define it?
GH: I say it this way: If you want to call yourself a luxury designer, you have to understand where everything comes from. Where the fabric is coming from, who is making it. You have to understand everything. How it’s made, how are these fibers sourced, why are you using this fiber versus this fiber? For me, luxury takes a deeper knowledge into how the product is made because it’s not just for the end result of the visual pleasure. It has to have a longstanding durability.
SB: How do you think about luxury in relationship to time?
GH: It needs to be timeless, in my view. If you’re using a really expensive cashmere that is sourced the proper way, that the yarn is sourced from the proper place in Mongolia—you want to make sure that that coat is going to last. You’re not going to make something that is too avant garde or “trendy.”
SB: And when I hear the word timeless, I think about, of course, style and something looking good through time, but also something that lasts in terms of quality. How do you ensure as a designer that you’re making things that are going to last?
GH: There are obviously some pieces that are more fragile than others, because we’re now beading geodes or things like that. But that blazer is from the first collection I ever did for G.H. [points to a coat on the chair next to her]—it’s actually the first sample. The coat that I came wearing was from three years ago. These boots are probably from, I don’t know, two years ago. And it has to last. I have to still wear that same coat ten years from now, and I want it to feel and look a certain way and have that quality. So it’s a combination of materials. It’s pretty close to how you build things, materials and craftsmanship.
SB: This idea of keeping things forever, too: As a company, you have to sell enough to sustain, but at the same time know that you’re kind of taking a long game, that you’re going to have customers who, over a long period of time, will keep coming back.
GH: Well, I actually think that we’re a company that controls our growth. We don’t supply the demand. The company could be double the size that it is today, but that’s not in the long-term plan view of what we do, especially because there’s a lot of things that I want to figure out on how to create our product with the least impact possible to the environment. Because that’s the number one priority: Ten years from now, when there’s water shortages, who cares about fashion, really?
It’s very important for me that we create this true luxury brand, but that it has a responsible way of looking into the future, because the old model doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. So this is what I’m trying to figure out. Because of that, we also restrict the growth into a healthy growth that we can obviously continue doing business, that our investors are happy, and that we can move forward [with], but with our values and ethics.
It’s very important for me that we create this true luxury brand, but that it has a responsible way of looking into the future, because the old model doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. So this is what I’m trying to figure out. Because of that, we also restrict the growth into a healthy growth that we can obviously continue doing business, that our investors are happy, and that we can move forward [with], but with our values and ethics.
I do think that the big moment for us is really in the future because I feel that all the luxury brands are very focused right now—the big names—on youth, and I think that they’re missing [out on] talking to a client, a woman. And when I think about when I was in my twenties, half of my life ago, there are very few brands from my twenties that I want to wear now, when I’m in my mid-forties, right? So I travel around the world, and I’m in Beijing, and I see these young girls wearing these really high-end luxury brands, what are they going to wear when they’re in their forties? My brand.
“Ten years from now, when there’s water shortages, who cares about fashion, really?”
SB: Do you think that smaller and slower is a new model that’s emerging?
GH: Yes. I feel comfortable thinking long-term. We have to make sure I am alive, but even if that’s not the case—I have a plan for that, too—it’s really about the long-term for me.
SB: I want to talk about the environment—that’s a subject that you’re very vocal on and have been very involved with. Your last fashion show was carbon neutral. You worked with an advisory group, EcoAct, that calculated the emissions and determined the necessary offset amounts. You relied on local models, so you didn’t fly any talent in, there was minimal electricity—no hair dryers. What led you to being so environmentally focused? You were talking about and using the word sustainability in a true way before a lot of luxury brands jumped on the bandwagon. It wasn’t really considered a luxury or “chic” thing to do.
GH: Yeah, I was told not to speak about it, too. It’s the most important thing that we are facing, and this company was formed with those values. But it was really 2017, seeing the drought in Africa and realizing the unfairness of it all, right? The people that did the least are suffering the most. Now we’re all going to pay—the developing world, too. So it’s just this unfairness, and I just have this… I guess it’s the survival instinct again, I don’t get paralyzed with fear, I have to move forward because the problem with the issue that we’re facing—this is my point of view, of course—is that most of our brains are wired to not… They cannot take so much fear, so they can’t process it. So how do you communicate the immensity of the issue that we’re in because it’s paralyzing? And also you don’t want to be in an attitude where it’s like it’s, gone, whatever, glug glug glug glug glug [makes chugging-alcohol sound]… [Laughter]
It’s like, no, you have a responsibility. So I think that I cannot justify my love for what I do—and of course I have a responsibility to our employees—but I cannot justify it if we’re really not looking at a solution, a new model, and a new model that can be scaled for some cases. Parts of the things that we do are already used, and the carbon neutrality [at our spring 2020 runway show], we were the first, but it wasn’t that we did it for doing it for being the first, it was really—
SB: Gucci came right after. Kering’s hopping on the—
GH: It’s one of the things you do, but how we came to that, it was building the store in London with Norman Foster in a sustainable way. And then, when we were meeting for “what’s the direction for the show,” creatively speaking, I said, “I want to know how much is the carbon footprint for a show.” Because nobody had that number. And I gave a very specific example. I went to the doctor, and my doctor told me that my cholesterol was, like, 280-something. And he said, “It’s not your nutrition, because you eat pretty healthy; it’s your lack of exercise.” So I started training, and one of the upsides was that my cholesterol went down, and then my amazing six-pack. [Laughter] I wanted that number, I needed that data. How can we change something if we don’t know the information? So we did it for that, to know how much was it, and it didn’t impact anything. We subtracted things. But the results of [that] show you didn’t… You need less. That’s the whole point, the whole point of the stores and of course we were measuring the carbon footprint. This show, as well, it’s like the beginning of how to—
SB: Yeah. I love this idea of helping the world get a six-pack almost like… We all need to be—
GH: Yeah, let’s go down in good shape. [Laughter]
SB: The thing you’ve done that I find the most amazing is your collaboration with TIPA on the biodegradable garment bags.
GH: So there wasn’t anything; it didn’t exist, and we had to create these garment bags that biodegrade.They didn’t exist, and it took us a year and a half to do them with TIPA, and then, now, other brands can use it. But changing the cardboard that—all hangers in fashion or… People don’t realize that when you ship things, if it’s flat packed or if its hanged, it gets shipped in a plastic hanger. Those plastic hangers, ninety-nine percent of them end up in a landfill. [We] also changed those hangers to recycled cardboard. So that is something that you can’t continue: adding something that’s not needed.
SB: I was reading a United Nations report that the fashion industry is responsible for around ten percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions and that if it were to continue to grow at its current rates, that it will use more than a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050. How does fashion contend with that?
GH: There’s also this other report that we’re the second [worst] polluter, which is not completely proven. I like to simplify it because maybe I’m a country girl, but it’s an energy problem, right? Everything that we do takes energy. Talking here takes energy. And where are we getting this energy from? There’s three main sources we use for energy right now: fossil fuels, coal, and renewables. Fossil fuels—pardon my English—is dead shit from billions of years ago, or a hundred million years ago. But it’s still dead organisms, right? Everything that has lived on this planet for a hundred, maybe million [years], that’s been dead, buried, we’re taking it out, burning it, producing it, and putting in the atmosphere. It sounds like a really bad idea. That’s basically what we’re doing. We’re taking something that’s supposed to be dead and buried and putting it up there.
And so, we need to change—empirically, immediately—the way we are using our energy. And I think, from the solutions—I mean, I’m not an expert, nor [do] I play one on TV. I think it’s an energy problem that we need to address immediately. Besides renewable, and renewables in the E.U. and the U.K., they have [listed] renewables as burning wood—that’s not good, either. I’m talking about solar and wind and safe nuclear that’s here. One pellet of uranium of one centimeter length by one centimeter diameter has the same energy [as] one ton of coal. It’s an energy problem.
SB: Yeah. We talked luxury. How do you define sustainability? I know that’s another sort of watchword for you.
GH: How do you define sustainability? I think right now it’s more a matter of accountability, right? And not saying things that… Like thinking through before talking. Vegan leather is not sustainable, let’s be clear. Because if it’s made out of petroleum, it’s not sustainable, it’s not biodegradable. If it’s made [out of] something else than biodegradable. So let’s not confuse terms, right? It’s vegan leather. It’s vegan, but that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable.
I don’t believe in industrial farming. I don’t think that’s good, and I don’t think we can feed eleven million people—this is also my perspective—with meat. But as far as I know it, leather is a byproduct of the meat industry. Not all tanneries tan the same way; not all leathers have chemicals. So we have to be careful how we move into things and not… “slowly by the stones,” really thinking through. If you’re a vegan and this is our principle, that’s great. But let’s not confuse that [with] being sustainable, like [in] the messages.
Also, I think we need to think about cotton. I think the measurement is something like twenty-five tons of water to do one pair of jeans. It’s like the measurements of absorption of water for pairs of jeans. Where do you have other fibers that are much smarter like linen. So there are a lot of things to think about that are…
SB: I’m sorry for wearing jeans right now.
GH: But as long as they’re not new or just keep them.
SB: Yeah, I’ve had them for a long time.
GH: Okay, that’s good. Buy them on eBay.
“I don’t like to be a frustrated woman.”
SB: You and your husband, Austin, have been very involved in philanthropy, whether it’s with Save the Children, Planned Parenthood, Our Children’s Trust. Could you talk about the role of philanthropy in the context of how you view and think about your work?
GH: My husband is one of those people who has done a lot and really doesn’t talk about it. He was really involved in a lot of projects in Africa and in Bhutan. He built a lot of schools with Save the Children, and he’s always… Whenever I’ve seen him the most passionate and engaged, [it] has always been in humanitarian work and not actually just writing a check—that’s something great to do—but actually getting involved and thinking and going through the logistics.
And it was, for me—doing what we do at Gabriela Hearst [philanthropy-wise] is not something that we set out to do: “Let’s be philanthropic.” It was more like there’s a subject that’s bothering me, like the drought in Africa, so [what] can we do to help that? And we have this platform. So it’s the same thing as the recent thing we did for Yemen. We were following the Yemen conflict for a long time. And then when the Syrian war started to get in the news again, Yemen lost attention. But that doesn’t mean that—
SB: It’s over.
GH: —it’s over and because the news [cycles] are so short. So instead of being frustrated about something, [I felt] need to do something. It’s like—I don’t like to be a frustrated woman.
SB: So you sold a bunch of handbags.
GH: We sold a bunch of handbags, and it’s really… I get so passionate, and I feel so good. It really propels us—
SB: I wish people could see your face right now. It’s like an emotional wash came [over you].
GH: I remember reading an article this summer on Yemen, and I started crying. And who are my tears going to help? No one. So we talked about it with the team, we talked to Save [the Children]. I’m now on the board of Save, and so, they were welcoming the help, because they’re the only large NGO that’s able to go to Yemen. It’s very dangerous to be in Yemen, and they’re allowed to be there and operate there. It made complete sense. [Around] Christmas, we gave a whole week of all the net proceeds of our stores on e-com[merce] to Save. It was amazing. Those things really jazz the whole team up.
SB: I’m sure.
GH: It is really bonding and [team] building.
SB: I want to end our conversation on mindfulness. [Laughter] We’ve been talking all over the intersection of time and the environment and philanthropy. I know you practice yoga, and you meditate.
SB: Could you elaborate a little bit on your practices when it comes to mindfulness? How you slow down, how you deal with the rush of the day-to-day and the traumas happening every minute before us.
GH: Yes. So, it’s interesting because I was subject to this context [of mindfulness] before it was like, like, “fashion” because my mother was a Zen Buddhist through the martial arts. She got into Buddhism, and, of course, she being hardcore, she gets into the most hardcore of all of them. That’s cultish. Zen, it’s very rigorous, very, very rigorous. And so, I, being—you kind of rebel to what your parents do. If they were strong Catholics, you’re like, nothing to do with Catholic. My mom was like an advent to Zen Buddhism.
So, for a long period of my life, I rejected everything that was meditation, per se. But my husband is really involved in this space, and he was one of the first investors at Headspace and in different mindful companies. And I’m like, every time a Westerner gets involved with Eastern practices, I give it to the Americans that they can make money with something that’s free because meditation is actually: close your eyes and breathe. But there are all these apps right now. Geniuses! [Laughter] I love it. Americans are geniuses at marketing.
I think I got my obsessive gene from my mother, so I decided to try one of these investments my husband was doing, knew specifically. It was a headband that would read your brainwaves. I used it for a whole year, nonstop, and I saw a difference creatively, functionally. And then I stopped. I did one year, every day, religiously, and then I stopped, and then I did six months, nothing. I could see the difference.
And then I did TM [transcendental meditation], and I think it’s going to be two years [now that] I’m doing TM every day. For somebody in a creative job, it is, I think, key. But let me be clear, if you’re an asshole, it doesn’t matter how much you meditate, you’re still an asshole. You’re an aware asshole. I don’t think, because you meditate, you’re a better person. It’s like, no. I think it’s better for your mind, for sure.
“Let me be clear, if you’re an asshole, it doesn’t matter how much you meditate, you’re still an asshole. You’re an aware asshole. I don’t think, because you meditate, you’re a better person.”
SB: Obviously, technology has just taken over our lives. You mentioned Headspace. It’s like people are using their devices to meditate.
GH: Meditate, exactly. [Laughter]
SB: It’s a strange thing. You’ve mentioned that you don’t look at your phone during the first hour of the day, you hate your smartphone.
GH: I hate it. I hate it. So I bought this Nokia on eBay that I never ever was able to make function. So it’s a war with my phone. [Laughter]
SB: And you’re determined that your kids won’t have smartphones.
GH: No, they don’t. They don’t, they don’t. You have no idea how hard my job was, because they wanted to have a music player, right? Because they’re—
SB: Teenage twin girls.
GH: Yeah, yeah. Pre-teen, teenage twin girls wanting to have a music player, and so I basically went with Sony, with their new version of a Walkman, which means you have to download music to the device, et cetera. But it’s like, I was not going to get them a phone that plays music and has access to the internet. And they love it. They’re listening. I also put my music there, too.
SB: What do you think being disconnected from those devices can do on our…?
GH: I tested it this summer because I went to a retreat where [there were] no devices, nothing, and some days were silent for a week. Good news: You can stop your phone addiction like nothing, after two days you don’t… It’s not like a substance, so it’s actually… In two days you’re not even thinking about it. I mean, of course, you miss communicating with your children, but it’s not an addiction. Your dopamine kind of relaxes.
SB: Yeah, the rush fades.
GH: We can get over this.
SB: I also just was so fascinated in reading a piece by Robin Givhan, from a year ago, in the Washington Post, when she’s writing about your work. And it made me think about everything we’ve talked about today. And it’s funny, because she was kind of describing you and the clothes you make, but in a way she was also describing your client. She writes, “Hearst’s clothes quietly murmur: ‘You could change the world.’” And I loved that. I thought that that actually really does say a lot about the experiences you’ve had, and the message you’re trying to quietly send, or murmur, through your clothing.
“You have to make sure that the good turns into great and that the bad doesn’t turn into disaster. That’s all I’m doing every day.”
GH: I want to make my client happy, and I want to go to bed knowing that I tried my fucking best. Basically, that’s why I try to do, and I realize my job lies down in one thing only. There’s always good and bad happening at the same time, right? You have to make sure that the good turns into great and that the bad doesn’t turn into disaster. That’s all I’m doing every day.
SB: I think we’ll end there. [Laughter] Thanks, Gabi. This is great. It was wonderful having you here today.
GH: Thank you for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Jan. 22, 2020. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.