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Gabriela Hearst Is Quietly Changing the Fashion Conversation

By Renée Batchelor

Gabriela Hearst emphasises smart design for her clientale with the goal being that they look and feel put-together, comfortable and empowered.
Gabriella Hearst
Gabriela Hearst emphasises smart design for her clientale with the goal being that they look and feel put-together, comfortable and empowered.

It is not surprising that designer Gabriela Hearst is impressive in person. Tall, elegant and with a steely blue gaze, she is certainly someone who commands attention. The 43-year-old is perhaps the best spokesperson for her namesake brand. She wears her quietly luxurious designs and carries her brand’s bags. Hearst hates having to name her favourite bag, comparing it jokingly to having to choose her favourite child.

Prior to launching Gabriela Hearst in 2015, she started her own contemporary label, Candela, in 2003 with just US$700 (approx. S$950). “In the first year of Candela we went from $700 to $1 million, which was quite significant. That was how I supported myself, but it was a contemporary brand in a contemporary market — it meant that I couldn’t work with the quality I wanted. I couldn’t do tailoring... I couldn’t do a lot of things,” says Hearst.

What is unspoken is that today, under her Gabriela Hearst line, she can finally create the quality products that she has long aspired to produce. Hearst’s father, who passed away in 2011, left her his grass-fed organic cattle and merino sheep farm in her native Uruguay, which she still oversees, and it was then that she began to see the disconnect between what she was doing in her life in New York and what she was brought up to do. She decided that while there was no room for yet another fashion brand, perhaps there was room for a collection that was well-made — with top materials and the best construction. In addition, her pieces should also be consciously considered to lessen its impact on the environment. “If that product was going to occupy a space, it'd better be good. And if it were chosen over another product it'd better be great,” says Hearst.

Tung Pham. Styled by Tok Wei LunThe brand’s unique, architectural bags include the Diana, which was named after singer Diana Ross, and boasts handmade hardwear.
The brand’s unique, architectural bags include the Diana, which was named after singer Diana Ross, and boasts handmade hardwear.

Today, Hearst’s brand paves the way for bigger fashion brands. It has developed packaging for hanging items with Tipa, which makes completely biodegradable packaging — from the garment bag to the hangers — that decomposes in 24 weeks. From 2 to 9 December 2019, Hearst also donated 100 per cent of net proceeds from the sale of her clothing, bags and accessories in both her online and flagship stores to Save the Children in support of relief efforts in Yemen. She hopes that bigger players will take on these sustainable practices and initiatives as she knows her brand is a relatively small, luxury player. Judy Yau, the head buyer of On Pedder says that Hearst is an inspiring figure, even within the fashion industry. “With her uncompromising ethics on sustainability, and her motto of ‘Leave the earth better for your children than you found it’, she is inspiring many of us to confront and evaluate our role in this industry and of this world,” says Yau.

Hearst’s three stores in London and New York were built with sustainability in mind — from the use of reclaimed wood to the water drunk by her staff (filtered water from their own Gabriela Hearst brand bottles), she is careful about the materials she selects for her designs, using luxurious, deadstock fabric from brands like Loro Piana in the past. “We don’t do any denim — denim consumes 25,000 gallons of water. We use a lot of linen. Sometimes we use recycled polyester but we have to know how it is recycled because not all recycling techniques are environmentally friendly. We don’t use viscose at all — not even certified — because killing trees is something that I am really against,” says Hearst. Her label was also a pioneer in staging a fashion show with as low a carbon footprint as possible — the models didn’t even have their hair blow-dried — and she has concrete overall goals for the brand. Hearst believes that measuring your brand's impact is the first step.

But all the efforts channelled into creating a sustainable brand is just one prong of her approach to creating a true luxury label, a goal-vision she holds dear: one that relies on timeless design and flawless construction as well as a real and complete knowledge of where every component of every piece comes from. “From the luxury perspective, I don’t think that a designer can call [himself or herself] a luxury designer unless [he or she] knows every single material, how everything is made, the composition of every single material and the construction. If not, you’re a fashion designer,” she says. Hearst is also not into labels, with a discreet GH logo embossed into her bags as the most telltale sign. “I’m so tired of seeing logos on things and names of brands. I think if someone wants me to wear a brand with a logo, they should pay me,” says Hearst.

Hearst’s ethos is not just one of quality luxury, but a less-is-more approach. So while you may be spending upwards of $3,000 on her classic Nina bag, it is a decision made after careful consideration. “For me, modern luxury is really about understanding the composition and the craft and the life that these objects and these pieces have to have. I think you should buy something that you want for the rest of your life. I think you shouldn’t buy too much. Nobody needs too many things. But buy something that is going to be an object for your life,” she says.

Tung Pham. Styled by Tok Wei LunFrom top: The Demi bag in black leather. The Diana bag in cognac nappa leather.
From top: The Demi bag in black leather. The Diana bag in cognac nappa leather.

Gabriela Hearst bags have performed tremendously well, sales-wise, accounting for about 50 per cent of the brand’s business and while they only retail via her website — you have to register your interest and pre-order them — and at her three stores, Hearst has taken them for a tour-of-sorts around Asia in the months of October and November 2019, partly to gauge consumers’ interest. In Singapore, they were here last November for three weeks, as part of a collaboration with luxury, multi-label boutique On Pedder. Hearst has a good relationship with the Lane Crawford Joyce Group (the parent company of On Pedder) and has plans to open a store in Hong Kong. “Now more than ever, [women in Hong Kong and Singapore] are looking for luxury products that are timeless, durable and sustainable, which is exactly the kind of products that Gabriela Hearst has been producing for her customers since she started her brand in 2015,” says Yau.

Her bags, beautifully constructed and somewhat unorthodox in their design are objects of intense desire. Many are named after famous female singers — think Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and Patsy Cline. These are luxury bags for a modern, successful and thinking woman — a point that Hearst repeats several times in our interview. She wants to make smart products that appeal to an intelligent and discerning customer. Hearst works with silhouettes she is interested in first — the Diana resembles an accordion while the Walkwoman takes its shape from the Sony Walkman of yore — before she decides who or what she wants to name them after.

Hearst explains that the bags are all made in Florence, Italy, though not necessarily by the same manufacturer. The Joni and the Mitchell for example, which were inspired by tiffin boxes used in India, and boast intricate parts like magnetic closures and hidden compression buttons, are made by a jewellery box maker. As to why the bags are limited in numbers, she is quick to point out that it is not a tactic on her part to create demand. “For the Diana, all the hardwear is made by hand so you cannot industrialise it. It takes a long time. We are really running very low on them, because now we have stores and they are selling much quicker than they used to sell, so I’m begging the factories to send me more,” explains Hearst.

Hearst is currently working on eight new designs of bags, but even she herself is unsure which ones (and how many) will make the final cut for the next collection. Each bag is tested by at least two “smart and accomplished women” who will give her their honest reviews before they hit the production line, and even then, their availability is not guaranteed. “Basically a good product takes time. And it takes a long time to engineer them,” says Hearst.

And perhaps in slowing down the process it takes to own a Gabriela Hearst bag and encouraging the customer to make a well-considered purchase, the designer is opening a new door to the act of conscious buying.