Gabriela Hearst Blends Designing, Sheep Farming
The designer talks about timeless design, investors and control.
In business since 2015, Gabriela Hearst is cooking on all burners. She's opened her first flagship on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, has developed a robust readyto-wear and accessories business, was the grand-prize winner of the International Woolmark Award, and was a 2018 finalist for the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year award.
With a designer collection that focuses on luxurious fabrics, fine craftsmanship and sustainability, Hearst is doing things on her own terms.
The designer sat down with Jessica Iredale, senior fashion features editor at WWD, to talk about her Uruguayan upbringing, her career, her decision not to wholesale her handbags and sell directly off a wait list, and where the brand is headed.
WWD: When I was putting this together, I was thinking about how we met three-and-a-half years ago, when you were launching Gabriela Hearst. I remember going to your house to preview the collection and thinking I was going to see a standard new designer launch. When I got there, you were very pregnant with your son. You had a full ready-to-wear collection with the nicest fabrics I had ever seen, you had shoes, bags and a logo and a brand book designed by Peter Miles. And I said, “OK she's serious.” You had a really clear vision and a story to tell from the beginning. What did you want to do and why? Gabriela Hearst: I wanted to do exactly what you just said — I wanted to present the collection. I also had 10 years of my previous experience, and I really knew what I wanted to do. I finally found my voice, and what I wanted to do was very clear, but it took a while to get there. The first image was actually my mother, the one on the horse in 1971. Those are the images of the first collection. I wanted to bring back what I learned in Uruguay, because I inherited my father's ranch. The elements of where I grew up, and the 19 years of living in New York. Combining those two in essence was the beginning of the brand. I had a very particular upbringing so I knew how to keep all those elements exactly. The vision finally was crystallizing. It took over a decade.
WWD: Talk a little bit more about being from Uruguay. You grew up on a sheep ranch.
G.H.: My family is all in ranching. My father, my stepfather, my mother. All I knew growing up was being in nature, out-numbered by animals in a large-scale place where you don't see other houses or any other people. That made me very curious. Life is very simple in that way. And, I was actually telling my children, we had the phones [she makes a motion of an old-style wind-up phone]….There's a joke that if the end of the world is coming, you move to Uruguay, because it will come in 15 years.
I learned about quality there, and quality that's not opulence. Quality that's made from a utilitarian point of view. Everything, the leather is made by hand, the saddles are made by hand. They need to last. That's what quality is. You can't do quality fast. It takes time. That's where the timeless aspect comes from. You're going to invest your time in designing what will have a certain value. You have to have a design that's not trend-based or trendfocused. You're going to have it forever. My mother didn't have a lot of clothes. What she had was very beautiful. When she had to clean up, when she was not on a horse. There was no Bergdorf's to go shop [at]. There were no fancy stores. The nicest thing you could do was to buy fabrics and have them done with your seamstress.
You would design and make your clothing. It's basically couture. It's a beautiful seamstress that all my family worked with. I grew up with very beautiful products that were made in this craft. That's where the vision comes from. I have a true passion of always looking for quality. It can be the best parmigiana or the best espresso. It's about finding the passion.
WWD: What does luxury mean to you? It is true luxury. You're one of the few designers in the U.S. doing that.
G.H.: It takes knowing where things come from. My family is five generations, and I'm six generations in business. But I know what passion looks like and feels like. It takes sometimes a generation or more to make a good product. When you're working with mills that are familyowned, they take so much pride in the product. It takes more of a lifetime to create a product. For me, that's luxury.
It's knowing where everything is made, how it's made and what you're giving to your customer.
WWD: You actually use some of the wool from your ranch.
G.H.: It was a year-and-a-half process. It was actually my husband's idea. He's American and from New York. He was telling me, “You should use the wool from your farm.” They're completely different, I'm selling a raw material. He said, “No Gabby, you need to explain. You know where things come from, a lot of people don't tie the knots like that.” I'm like, OK. After a lot of insistence, we had a mill from Italy take the wool from the ranch, and process the wool, and the navy twill and gray flannel from our collection is from the wool from the farm.
WWD: Sustainability factors into your idea of luxury. How do you implement that, and what's your philosophy on sustainability now?
G.H.: I come from there. I grew up in a sustainable environment. We've had grassfed, organic. That's the way we've always done it. For me, luxury is sustainable. It shouldn't be two competing concepts. Because something that's crafted by hand and the whole process, it needs to have the human aspect, and not be based on overconsumption. We do specific things in our company to create that. We know how many products we make, and we know how many products we sell. We also make sure we'll take plastic out of the company by April 2019, the flexible packaging will be biodegradable.…We found Tipa, which is created by two Israeli mothers. We had seven years in research and development, it's an amazing solution. We're the first ones to develop a garment bag with them, and hopefully a lot of designers can use it, too. Everyone's clothes here have been wrapped in plastic and all the hangers that come in plastic end up in landfills, they don't get recycled. Those are the two big problems we saw in our back office. The Tipa packaging now will be biodegradable for 24 weeks versus 500 years. We're going to ship in cardboard hangers,
WWD: The designs are very interesting, and they're all structured. G.H.: The whole process of a handbag is not out of your traditional recipe book of things. Our head of sales told me you can't launch just a handbag, you have to launch a collection. And a friend was telling me, “You can't walk around with your shoes and your collection and someone else's handbag.” I basically created a handbag that I wanted to wear. In that philosophy, we're still creating our different handbags. In the nine-to-10month period it took to develop, in that one [the Mitchell is based on the Tiffin system for India where it separates and compartmentalizes] you can have your cell phones, your battery charger, your makeup and your credit cards. I like this idea of creating things that are more structural, but they're completely free. I don't design a handbag collection. I come up with an idea and we go. It's 50 percent of our revenue.
WWD: In addition to interesting designs, you also basically refuse to wholesale them, which has probably driven your retail partners crazy, but it worked out pretty well for you. What were you thinking?
G.H.: I had two guidelines for Gabriela Hearst: codes. Long-term view, numberone, and sustainability. They presented me the wholesale plan. Immediately, I thought, OK, we can sell a lot of bags. At the end of the day, we'll be making the same amount of money to be selling double the amount. It just didn't make sense from the natural resources point of view. In the fast pace that we're living of overexposure, I want to be doing this for a long time. I can pace myself to grow. That's part of the philosophy of the company. Growth, control, strategically. I want to be doing this for a while.
WWD: Some of them have a wait list. How does it work?
G.H.: It's the opposite of speed. We did ►