The designer proves that passionately conceived, beautifully made and environmentally-conscious collections are the way forward for the industry.
It ended with cheers from the audience for the way she handled the macramé and merino knits – the genesis of her work, inspired by her Uruguayan family heritage – and her super-sophisticated mixes of leather and cashmere. It was also evident that she was thinking beyond herself as her only role model.
The general vision was long and lean, following her personal body shape and style. But there was an impressive attention to detail in each outfit, from a geode-buckled belt cinching a shapely trouser suit to a patchwork of different linens bringing together an apparently simple white dress.
Other supposedly simple pieces included artistically worked handbags and thong sandals, made from twisted rope, as a continuation of the macramé dresses. Add those geodes worked as jewels into the neckline and there was a feeling that the designer was stretching her imagination and leaping forward.
That is certainly true, since Gabriela Hearst stores are opening up across continents, the most recent in London’s Brook Street. It is near Claridge’s, following the designer’s concept of opening near smart hotels, with her bold Madison Avenue space in Manhattan beside the Carlisle.
Hearst, who founded her label just four years ago after working in design for eleven years, displayed fine examples of inventive fabrics and sophisticated decoration. Yet that was only the surface vision of the tentacles of imagination behind her work.
She claimed a fashion-industry first for Spring/Summer 2020 by working on every aspect of the show, from production to design and installation, to be carbon neutral – with an indicative price offset by her company.
As a final touch of charm – with a cause – the thoughtful designer’s takeaway was a small twill scarf printed with insects that have recently become extinct due to urbanization and climate change.
I spoke to Gabriela Hearst about her determination to make her work good for women, and helpful for slowing down harm to the planet.
SUZY: I just love your colours.
GABRIELA HEARST: Yes, there’s quite a bit of brightness. But if I have to narrow down what the collection is about, I would say it’s about courage – daily courage and extraordinary courage. And we’ve used different examples of courage – historical, present day, mythological.
For mythological, we have Athena, who was the goddess of war and intellect, but also I learned she was the patron and protector of craftsmanship. This has been the most hand-crafted collection we have made, so it’s good that we invoke her.
SUZY: Where did this idea to have such powerful women come from? Were you reading something about them?
GH: I am drawn to women who are warriors, or warriors in their own realm. Athena is their symbol, and then we have Josephine Baker. Josephine was a freedom fighter, she fought for the Resistance in the Second World War, and a lot of people have forgotten that or don’t know that she was the woman who spoke before Martin Luther King in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. So we have Josephine Baker in her Resistance uniform and her war medals. She was a war hero.
SUZY: Which other strong women are on your mood board?
GH: We have Maria Sibylla Merian, one of the first entomologists, who moved from Germany to Holland in the Dutch Golden Age and was one of the first to actually paint and describe what metamorphosis was, because many people thought that insects just appeared. She had to paint them in watercolours because woman weren’t in the artist’s guild, so she couldn’t use oil. In 1699 she went to Surinam by herself, an unaccompanied woman, for two years to collect specimens. Can you imagine her in Surinam in her huge dresses, collecting insects? That takes a lot of courage.
And in the present day, symbols of courage are the Kurdish warriors. Their exact number is not known, but it is believed that thirty to forty per cent of the Kurdish military force is made up of women. They have their own female battalion, and they also have one that’s mixed. They are intrinsic to the battles with Isis in Northern Syria.
SUZY: And how do you turn this into a collection without making things look very aggressive?
GH: With Merian, for example, we did a print of the most recently extinct insect species. We recruited an artist in Uruguay to do a hand illustration, just as she would have done it. So we did our own version of her work.
SUZY: Sad to know they are extinct.
GH: We made scarves for all our guests and we are making a donation in the name of our guests for our children’s trust. So it’s not only about telling you the bad news; we also want to do something about it. I was showing Lauren Hutton the collection and she collects insects and said, “Oh my god, these guys used to be everywhere.” We also have some military-inspired pieces in the collection. Coloured scarves are very prominent in some war attire.
SUZY: How do you offset your collection?
GH: We are working with a company called Eco Act to collect all the data of all our different processes, from appliances to food, how things are carried, everything that goes towards one of our events. Then we see how much of a carbon footprint was used. Then, when we get the final number, it is offset. There are different ways you can offset your carbon footprint, but we chose a not-for-profit in Kenya that provides communities with more efficient stoves. This affects women and children, because the stoves that they use make so much smoke it’s like smoking two packets of cigarettes a day, and it’s usually women and children around the stove. So that’s how we offset. It has to be with not-for-profit or endeavours that are certified by the Gold Standard, which is the number-one certification for offsetting carbon footprints. So that’s how we have a carbon-neutral show.
SUZY: How do ordinary people actually know about this?
GH: For us it’s more of an internal exercise. It’s not about this show, it’s about how we continue. This is a first step, but we have to do it for every show. We cannot lower our carbon footprint if we don’t know what it is. So we started with this event, where we get a lot of attention, but the idea is to do it for every other show that we do and then we will start doing it in different parts of our company.
SUZY: It’s very good.
GH: We have to find ways of doing what we love, and I’m always trying to find a way to move forward. It’s like, how can you make beautiful things without waste? It’s like “cooking with leftovers”.
SUZY: Is reducing waste one of the major things you care about, along with the carbon footprint?
GH: I think my major goal right now is to solve how to stop using virgin materials. How can we take the least possible natural resources from this planet? I think we have taken so many, and we consume in a way that would fill an endless bottomless pit. We need to go back to thinking like we did after the Second World War. We really need to start consuming with awareness.
SUZY: With all the travelling you do and your own rather interesting journey, do you find very different attitudes in different countries? I mean, a lot of people in European fashion are working very hard [for the environment] and you are one of the people starting it in America, but if you go to South American countries, have people been taught to think about it or not?
GH: The problem is, it’s a socio-economic issue, because if you are in a country where the number one priority is not the environment…
SUZY: Yes, the priority is keeping alive and having enough food and looking after your family.
GH: Look what just happened with Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas; last year it was Puerto Rico; and I saw it with my own eyes when I was in Africa. Climate change is affecting first the people who have the least. We are in these false security nets in urban areas like London and New York, but it’s real and it’s happening now. It will affect us all. So I think that those of us who have the privilege of not fighting for our lives right now, who know that our children are secure and that we have enough food on our table, and a roof over our head, then we have the duty to do something. And I take that very personally. I’m privileged and I have to do something. My daughter is eleven and tells me, “Mum, I‘m eleven years old, and I can’t do anything.” So they know that I try my frigging best!
SUZY: All these things are complex and it’s not a criticism, but a lot of people, particularly young people, say that the whole business of using animal skins is a disgrace in the year 2019, and that it ought to be stopped. You are in a situation where you continue to make these very beautiful bags, and have a background of living with animals. How do you treat that situation? Do you say, I look after a lot of other things but this is part of my heritage, part of my life? And I want to continue doing it but in the best way possible?
GH: First of all, if there was an alternative to leather right now that was biodegradable and could be used in production, then I would be using it right now. I’ve looked at lab-grown mushroom leather, but it’s still in research and development. I think there will be an opportunity to do this in a few years but it’s not ready right now. From the meat eating, ranching background that I have, this is what my family has done for seven generations. We are organic and grass fed. The reality is we cannot feed protein to the whole world. But industrial farming is very difficult. We also do need protein in our diets, so it’s about the scale of things. And I can tell you this as a matter of fact: when an animal is killed, 99% of the animal is used. Nothing goes to waste. It’s even used for medical instruments. In our case, because we are organic and grass-fed, we do not separate mothers from their calves. We care for these animals and they have the same bloodlines that my family has! We have been breeding these animals for a long time. I could find an alternative to leather but with vegan leather the issue for me is that it’s petroleum based. It’s a super-toxic, non-biodegradable material. In 2050 there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish. So for me, the number one thing is biodegradability.
SUZY: I agree with you.
GH: I am extremely open to a new alternative to leather, I just haven’t found it.
SUZY: I’ve heard this from a lot of people.
GH: We use no chrome. We instruct our clients to understand that “This is a veg-tanned boot, it will have discolouration because it is naturally dyed, but you are not toxifying the planet.” We have to do our re-education but it’s all about quantity and dimension. We shouldn’t be eating meat ten times a week. That’s not good for your health. It’s not about rationing. PETA once sent me a lot of materials, but they were polyester.
SUZY: It’s very complex.
GH: Yes, but we have to start somewhere. In America there are a lot of companies that have 20,000 employees. If you tell your employees to just do one thing – no more plastic bottles, just have filtered water, get everybody a reusable bottle – then just do that. It’s enough. We all have to do our part and sometimes I think people are scared because it’s messy; because you have to go back to the drawing board. It’s also important to check the science. I’ve been really committed to this for several years, since we launched. I was talking to our director of environment and telling her we are doing biodegradable packaging, which took us a year and a half. We use a lot of linen – most of the collection is linen versus cotton, because it absorbs less water and the fibre of the linen can be eaten, so there’s more purpose to linen than cotton per se. And for all our different initiatives, she looked at me and said, “Yes, but if you are shipping everything by plane you may as well do non-organic T-shirts in China and ship them by boat.” So, back to the drawing board. Now we are starting to scale down our virgin materials usage so we can save those eight to twelve weeks from the mill so we can ship by boat. Each season and each year I need to augment our percentage of product that’s shipped by boat.
SUZY: That’s extraordinary, you are very thoughtful. If you solve one problem, you then have another one.
GH: Yes, but you can’t give up! If you fall down, it’s about how many times you stand up again. I tell people how my parents would say, consume knowing if you want to have that thing for the rest of your life. Use that shampoo all the way to the end, be conscious.
SUZY: How are we going to understand a lot of the things that you’ve done for this collection?
GH: The show is in Soho; we purposely chose a location that is easy to access because that is important for the carbon footprint. Everybody will get a handkerchief with the extinct insect print, and by explaining what it is and what we are doing about it, I think that you will see beauty first and then see the design, and see that we can create from a mindful perspective. At the end of the day it has to attract you through the eyes. All the good intentions don’t matter otherwise. I am very aware that our clients are buying first of all because of desire, but this other aspect is going to matter more and more.
SUZY: When it comes to the handbags, they are coming out from the shadows into the open air. Do the accessories make you feel excited?
GH: Yes, because we waited a long time. We had our own shops to do, which takes time. It was a theory; we didn’t even know if this was going to be a reality and we are super-pleased. In the New York store we sell 65% ready-to-wear and the rest is bags. We are a brand for the physical world. We are not as photogenic, let’s put it that way. For us it’s all about the texture, the materials, and the construction, and a lot of that you cannot see in a photo.
SUZY: Are there more stores planned?
GH: Hong Kong is planned for next year. Also Norman Foster signed up, and this is a very interesting story because my husband knew him and we emailed him asking him if he could refer us to a young architect in London who had a sustainable perspective and was passionate, and he was like, why not me?! To have such a prestigious architect do our little 1,000 square-feet store was like… The senior partner in the project told me the other day, “I cannot wait to go back to skyscrapers.” Because they are not used to the timelines that we have. They spend years on a project. And this was done in three months.
SUZY: Good for you is what I say. Anything else?
GH: No. We have ideas of where next, but we are not sure yet. But I don’t see this as a brand that will have more than seven stores worldwide. For me, each store is like my home and has to be in a place where I want to grow, so there can’t be that many homes. Say we have a client who shops in Harrods. We’ve noticed that she also shops online and on Madison Avenue, so we don’t need too many stores.
SUZY: One last question, then I’ll leave you in peace. The award that you won for knitwear, the Woolmark. Was that useful to you?
GH: Yes, it was extremely useful for me. That international exposure to new retail clients that we didn’t have before… It was a challenging thing, it took us a whole year to do it because you have to win here and then win internationally, but for sure it was something that pushed the brand to the next level.
SUZY: Do you feel that you are a fashion warrior too? Fighting for what you want?
GH: Because my team and I do this together, we have a platform and because creative people tend to be very aware and sensitive, I think I’m very connected to what’s going on. We have these platforms and we have to use them for good rather than just benefitting ourselves. I think there has to be another purpose than just us.
SUZY: I ask because it’s not exactly aggressive but your mood board is very strong on women; I don’t see any strong men there or maybe they are hidden.
GH: No, they’re not there! I think that if women have to go to war, they go to war. And being the sensitive beings that we are, I think it’s how we are made. Imagine the courage of being a spy. Josephine Baker’s assistant was a spy and they were travelling from Germany with blueprints in their scarves. That’s some chutzpah. I’m not in these situations of risk or danger. So I draw so much strength from it. From looking at people that have that courage. There’s this line that I like a lot, which people say: “It’s not our darkness that we fear, it’s our light.” I think that people fear being the best of themselves and I think that that’s the part that we need to find: our humanity.
SUZY: You are very inspiring to talk to.
GH: Thank you Suzy! You inspire me.
SUZY: Sometimes I speak to designers who talk about what percentage they should sell online and so on, and I think, “I don’t want to hear this; I want you to tell me, ‘I’m a designer and I believe what I’ve done is completely different from anything I’ve ever seen.’ I’m crazy about colour; I love texture more than anything else. I want that energy. I’m very pleased when people tell me about growing their businesses, but if you don’t do it with passion, how will you get anywhere?
GH: I went on a retreat in August. It was my only holiday. The Hoffman project – no phones, a lot of psychological introspective work, and you’re not allowed to say what you do. People don’t talk about what they do and you only go by your nickname or your first name. Nobody knew what other people do, and we were forty strangers. People said, ‘You work in fashion, right?’ I do not look like a neurosurgeon! I know I love what I do. People have asked me what would you do if you were not doing this, but I love this. It’s so complete in all its forms. For me it’s a completely fulfilling profession, but we have to figure out a way of doing it without being harmful.
SUZY: Do you ever talk to upcoming designers? What’s the impression you get?
GH: I think internationally there’s more awareness. I met a young guy from Lebanon, maybe 23 years old, a designer from the Arabian Trust where I was supposed to be a mentor, and he’s doing all this craftsmanship and I was like, ‘I’m supposed to be mentoring you? I think it’s going to be the other way around for the next hour and a half!’ There are really bright people out there. Here in America sometimes things get clouded.
SUZY: I’m not criticising, I’m just saying that if I could talk to somebody who knows and writes about fashion I would want to impress them with why my work is different and why I’m so passionate about it. Not to learn that if you do sweaters that sell beyond $270 retail that you have fewer customers, blah, blah, blah.
GH: I think there’s two things. One, this whole celebrity thing; people forget that we are basically glorified seamstresses, we are providing a service. That’s why I like to be next to hotels, so everybody remembers. This is high service, what we are doing. We are like a chef who comes out of the private kitchen to work in restaurants and then he’s a celebrity, but he’s still a chef, a cook. I am still a seamstress. There’s a service to what we do. So that’s number one. And then there’s this other perspective, which is West versus East. In the West there’s always been this idea of the identification of the individual. So you have Rembrandt, Salvador Dali, Picasso. For all the artists it was about the cult of personality. But in the East it’s all about the craftsmanship. The artist is still there but it is about collective creativity. I’m from the belief system that you don’t own creativity. Creativity passes through you. I have no idea where my ideas comes from. A trench coat made by hand? I don’t know where that came from. I don’t take ownership of it. It just came. But then I have my crazy team who think this is a good idea too and we make it together because this is collective work. The weeks somebody spent knotting this. Nobody is going to notice this is hand-knotted. It’s ridiculous! That’s what is inspiring, the collective work, somebody doing the pin-tucks on chiffon. All these leather trims that have been hand-knotted. The blanket stitch. Everything is here because it has something to be. Nothing is here because it is.
SUZY: It’s very inspiring talking to you.
GH: Thank you Suzy, it makes me feel good, not crazy!
SUZY: It’s good to be crazy.
GH: Look at the macramé geodes. This is the most artisanal, and it’s hard when you do an artisanal collection because you want to make sure it’s refined as well. This will be on cashmere gauze. In Italy they were very passionate when the women were doing this knotting.
SUZY: Exceptional. How beautiful.
GH: Even these dresses, they look like simple crinkle dresses but they have all the blanket stitching, the ruching, smocking. One more before you go. This is a most grandiose structure but it’s in in a very humble fabric.
SUZY: It’s a rose!!
GH: Yes, and it’s in linen. Now I let you go!
By Suzy Menkes