Gabriela Hearst: From Cattle to Catwalk
It is the season for fluffy little lambs gambolling over sprouting greenery – although not in Uruguay, where autumn leaves are starting to fall.
But for Gabriela Hearst, any visit to her country of birth and its gaucho culture is a reminder of her day job back in the USA. Inspired by her childhood on the family-owned sheep ranch, she has built a fashion business in New York based on what was once – before technical fabric sportswear and puffer jackets – the prime way to keep warm.
“For six generations, my family has been raising sheep and cattle, and they were one of the first families to bring Merino to Uruguay, so there was a profound reasoning for me to go into the wool market,” says Gabriela, who won the International Woolmark Prize in Paris earlier this year and was chosen last month as one of the five nominees for the Swarovski Emerging Talent award of the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America).
Finding the balance between running a business in New York with the support of her husband Austin Hearst, and looking after the Uruguay ranch after the death of her father, might seem an impossible task. Add a first live show, presenting wool as fashion, and Gabriela’s responsibilities seem formidable. But she takes it all in her rangy stride.
Sporty but classy shoes are on her agenda. So are handbags – small and squishy, opening like a clamshell – which have a cult following and a long waiting list. (One of the first 25 customers to buy the “Nina”, named after Nina Simone, was a man who spotted Gabriela in an elevator in London and bought the bag as a gift for his wife. He turned out to be Apple’s Jony Ive.)
The story of Gabriela, now 40 and the mother of three children, is woven into her life like the wool threads of her cardigans, coats and sweaters.
“I don’t even remember when I learned to ride a horse; when I was a kid, I would be there herding cattle with my family – it was one of the things you do,” Gabriela says, describing her childhood dreams of dressing like a princess and the reality of an isolated ranch with no television, only basic radio, and constant cattle herding broken only occasionally by a brief trip to Chile.
Maybe it was that remote childhood and the gentle pace, so untypical of fast moving, crazy-busy New York, that appear in the clothes she sells through stores such as Bergdorf in New York, Bon Marché in Paris, Boon The Shop in Seoul, and Selfridges in London. The brand is also on-line at Matches and Net-a-Porter. The designer works with Italian fabric company Loro Piana, now owned by LVMH. That collaboration produced a limited edition Autumn/Winter 2017 collection using fabrics in blush pink or cream wool for tailored coats.
“We thought there would be more of a learning process before we hit a niche, but Gabby hit it right out of the box – and this has led us to very controlled growth,” says Austin Hearst, the publishing guru who is the grandson of American tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
“We could go a lot faster,” Austin continues, “but we’ve made the decision that we can’t grow and maintain the same quality – so that is very much the build strategy. We also feel that we’ve had to educate our customers. Gabby has the desire to present very good, high quality fabrics. And she has a little saying that she wishes people would buy less. I’m not completely subscribing to that, but what she means is that people should buy less but be willing to pay for the higher quality.”
With the concept of fine clothes that last, Gabriela has hit a nerve – one that is counter-intuitive to her first foray into fashion with Candela. That line of casual, Bohemian wear is still on offer. But after moving from Uruguay to Australia, then having a brief period as a model and landing up in the US in 2000, the designer has returned, metaphorically and literally, to her roots.
“By the time I was older, I had a passion for well-made materials. I had inherited my father’s ranch after he passed away, so I had been managing something that was about quality and standards,” Gabriela explains. “It is not something that is ostentatious, but about true wealth in the sense that the yarns and the clothes are well made – and they last.
“We examined the market and I felt that there was a space that spoke to women and was not so focused on fashion and trends,” she says. “I like the idea of wardrobe building, when you don’t know which season it is or which year you designed it. I am trying to achieve timeless design in a way that is modern and not boring because it has a thought process running through it.”
That might sound like a fancy way to describe a rustic sweater or cardigan with cable stitching that turns out to be hand-made by a not-for-profit organisation in Uruguay; or very simple sweaters in vivid colours with peppered patterning. But the Woolmark Award comes from her incomparable knowledge of the natural material she works with.
“It is the timeless appeal of Gabriela Hearst’s offering, combined with her technical innovation and a clear vision of the future of her brand, that saw her stand out,” says Stuart McCullough, the Woolmark Company CEO, explaining her win as use of “ultra-fine 14.5 micron Merino wool for luxurious knitwear and 21.5 micron for a wool-velvet effect”.
“Hearst’s precision and clean cuts offer a collection set to stand the test of time,” the executive concludes.
Showing the clothes on the runway for the first time in the chapel-like Refectory of the High Line Hotel was bold, but not entirely successful. For, as always with designers whose work depends on subtlety of fabric and sensory touch, the clothes modelled on a traditional runway – however lovely the setting – told only part of Gabriela’s story. The essence of what the designer calls a “strong and sensual look” did come through in velvet and in the rustic knitted cushions on each chair, however.
Gabriela wanted the whole collection to be luxurious but not wasteful; to be what she calls “resourceful luxury”. Seven sets of clothes in the collection were made with existing high-end fabrics and materials and the pillows were made by a women’s co-op in Uruguay from the leftover cashmere and merino wool from the Autumn/Winter 2017 collection.
There was an overarching sense, in a New York season dedicated to the See Now, Buy Now fast-fashion ethic, that the Gabriela Hearst initiative offers something different.
The designer put it like this: “I thought for a long time, ‘Does the world need another fashion brand?’ The number one question was ‘Why?’ Why would I do that? Obviously, I love what I do, but was there a need for it?”
“I felt there was a need for something made with true ethics and values,” Gabriela continues. “It’s a daily exercise, thinking how we can be less wasteful for the environment. For me, it’s a passion, like hunting and gathering – but for beautiful cloth.”