Hang on, wait there a minute, I want to show you something,” says Gabriela Hearst, hopping up from her chair in her airy Manhattan office and reaching for something on the shelves in the background of her Zoom frame. “These are my journals from when I was 16 or 17 – let me check the date, um 1993, yes I was 17 and look!” She flattens a page full of colourful teenage drawings and holds it up to the camera: “I designed a whole freaking shoe collection!”
That these journals remain within reaching distance of the fashion designer’s desk in her Chelsea studio is testament to the fact that despite the success she has achieved, Hearst never forgets where she came from. As creative director of her award-winning brand, founded in 2015, and a year into the same prestigious role at the fashion house Chloé, it would be an understatement to say that Hearst is hot property in the fashion world right now.
Not only can she count the likes of Angelina Jolie, Gillian Anderson, Greta Thunberg and Jill Biden as fans of her brand (she dressed the latter in the embroidered white coat for the evening of the 2020 inauguration), but she is making all the right kind of fashion headlines for her determination to demonstrate to an industry famed for its unsustainable practices that sustainable innovation can make good business sense, too. It’s also a serious asset that her husband, John Augustine Hearst – a senior member of the Hearst Corporation and an heir to one of the wealthiest families in America – is involved in the self-financed company.
Since day one of her eponymous brand, which is famed for its luxe-craft aesthetic, she has raised the bar for how to run a luxury fashion house sustainably. She has set a goal to use 80% deadstock fabric within three years and no virgin materials by 2022. Her first fashion-week catwalk in 2016 – where she brought chairs from her house and donated the metal floorboards from the show when it was over – laid the foundations for the first-ever carbon-neutral fashion show in September 2019. Earlier that same year her brand declared itself plastic-free, “front and back of house”, using recycled cardboard hangers and bio-based TIPA packaging that is fully compostable. And she has re-romanticised the idea of waiting lists, making her handbags more or less to order to avoid any waste.
It’s a passion which comes from the bucolic childhood that Hearst likes to keep as close to heart as she does to hand. Born into a sixth generation of ranchers in remote Uruguay in November 1976, she spent her childhood living pretty much off the grid, herding cattle from a young age at her parents’ 17,000-acre ranch in Paysandú. “It is extremely remote,” she emphasises. “When I was a kid and it would rain, you wouldn’t get out because the rivers would flood. We would have to plan a whole year of what we would eat because you couldn’t just pop to the supermarket or deli.”
In the absence of a TV, the radio provided entertainment, while for the designer, “My toy was my imagination,” she says. “A lot of the creativity I have today is from using my imagination [back then]. Imagination is all problem solving, right? On a ranch you have to use it a lot; you can’t just bring in an expert if something doesn’t work. That time taught me that essentially quality comes from a utilitarian perspective… and even in a humble environment there is high quality, because everything is made to last a lifetime.”
This rationale – and the rhythms of following nature in her early developmental years – is what Hearst credits her appreciation of the earth and its resources to. She also has an innate understanding of how to use common sense: “Resetting your mind on what needs to be done in order to function? Ways to prioritise was ingrained in my upbringing!” she says. Such formative years would go on to create a force to be reckoned with later down the line.
In 2017, she won the prestigious womenswear International Woolmark Prize; in May 2018, she won Pratt’s Fashion Visionary Award for her commitment to sustainability; in April 2019, LVMH Luxury Ventures took a minority stake in the business; she was named the Fashion Council of America’s Womenswear Designer of the Year in 2020 (the fashion equivalent to the Oscars); and last month she was named a Leader of Change at the British Fashion Awards.
“This recognition humbly gives us more drive for the road ahead,” she told her followers on Instagram (where, by the way, you can find her high-kicking her way into buying meetings, demonstrating how to wear her designs, and sharing inspirational images of her mother herding criollos horses). Hearst’s own road to success, it transpires, has been as dynamic as she is.
Turning the page in her journal, she proudly holds up a sketch that reads: ‘I am going to Australia!’ “When you live in Uruguay, you are really far away from everything and [when I was 17] I wanted to go to Australia like nothing else in the world. I told everyone I was going there and they said I was crazy,” she explains. “Then one day a friend told me about a scholarship that would take me there. There was one place, I applied with this whole presentation and I got it.”
After returning to Uruguay, Hearst convinced her mother to let her get a paid job to save money to go and see a friend in New York who she had met during her scholarship. “I arrived [in New York] in 1994 when I was 18 and within hours I said, I am going to live here,” she says matter-of-factly. Six years later, she made the move a permanent one, enrolling at the Neighbourhood Playhouse School of the Theatre to study performing arts. After persuading her father to pay for her fees – “convincing my father who was a Gaucho to pay for acting school in New York was my best performance ever” – she worked around her studies to cover her living costs. While a career on stage proved not to be her calling, she took an important lesson from her time there.
“We studied Meisner technique, which I got,” she says. “It’s the technique of being truthful – of dealing with the truth [it takes] to perform and performing from a place of truth. It was a remarkable experience and without it I wouldn’t be able to do interviews like this or be so present [today].”
None of her friends or family are surprised that Hearst ended up as a fashion designer, she says, although she admits to falling into it by coincidence.
Before Gabriela Hearst and long before Chloé, came Candela, the womenswear brand she started with two partners and $750 each. “At that point, if it didn’t work out, I would have needed to go back to selling cattle with my dad – so I gave it my all!” she laughs. “I don’t recommend it, but at the time it was like 0% APR and so we maxed out credit cards [to get it started]. Luckily the business went from zero to a million dollars in no time so we were able to pay it off.”
It was Candela that taught Hearst the nitty gritty of supply chains and logistics, for which she is grateful, but ultimately led to disillusion. “We were making [clothes] for the contemporary market at cheap prices and low quality and there was a total disconnect for me.” In 2011, her father died and she inherited his ranch (that she still runs remotely to this day). Finding herself back in Paysandú “working with tradition, organising animals, [watching] the circle of life” she knew something had to change. “I thought about it and I said, ‘If I am going to put something new out there, it needs to be better made and with a lower environmental impact to anything else.”
Four years later, and after much research and planning, her brand was born in partnership with her husband, with whom she has three children, Jack, six, and Olivia and Mia, both 13. It was with his encouragement that Hearst pursued the top job at Chloé, which came about in characteristic go-getting style.
“I had one of these crazy Gabi moments when I told my future boss, ‘Look, my name is Gabi, just like the founder Gaby [Aghion] so this is it’!” she laughs. “Then of course I did a 92-page presentation and justified my thought process, but it was really meant to be because it’s a language I love.”
To achieve a work-life balance while heading up two of the most successful fashion brands in the world is “very challenging”, she says. “But I have a very supportive family. My husband’s responsibilities changed and adapted so there’s definitely sacrifice.”
Living a “moderated” life that includes bed by 9.30pm to get at least eight hours’ sleep a night, exercise and a healthy diet – “I mean, I’ll derail in certain pressure times and eat too many freaking gummy bears and drink too many coffees, sure” – she believes in keeping a clear head so she can “access information from the subconscious” and she picks what takes her away from home carefully. In November, Hearst spent her birthday in Glasgow on a panel at Cop26 talking about achieving climate success through low-impact business models. “To spend your birthday away from your kids is painful and so if I’m going to do it, I really wanted it to be worth it, and it was.”
Her work as trustee of Save the Children since 2018 has also turned her attention to Ghana, Kenya and most recently Afghanistan. Not for the first time, she leveraged the exclusivity of her waiting lists and limited-edition designs this December and donated 100% of net proceeds across all items in her flagship stores in London and New York as well as her website to the charity’s Afghanistan Crisis Children’s Relief Fund.
“I don’t like it when brands bombard me with gifting lists and things like that,” she says. “The period of the holidays is about giving and consciousness of others, so I’m not comfortable with just selling a product to make more money. Can’t we think of other people? Afghanistan is one of the places that is hell on earth right now and why do those children have to suffer? It may not be on the news now, but that doesn’t mean the problem has been eradicated.”
This year, she quietly launched the Gabriela Hearst Youth Program in the States, too, to create a space for teenagers to be able to channel anxieties through teaching them about fabrics and the future of fashion design. One of her proudest accomplishments of the year, it says a lot about Hearst’s motivation for doing everything she does. Two of her main takeaways from the Cop26 summit this year were: “Anyone who fights the youth will lose” and that when it comes to the environment, we’re all supposed to leave our kids better off than when we started. “The mission is all worth it,” she says. “I can honestly say to my kids that I tried, I freaking tried.”