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 ready-to-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 trend-focused. 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 family-owned, 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 Gabi, 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 grass-fed, 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, instead of plastic hangers. I stay away from anything that is synthetic as much as possible. Sometimes they have 2 percent of Lycra. The main thing we’ve done as a civilization for 6,000 years is beautifully crafted product. I feel that in the past 15 to 20 years things have sped up. Sometimes new is not better. Sometimes it takes combining both of the worlds. I want all my sketches done by hand. The furniture for stores is made all by hand. I love the human aspect of it. Humans are messy, but they’re definitely interesting.
WWD: You only launched three-and-a-half years ago. You had a very good response kind of quickly. What did people react to and what caught on with the collection?
G.H.: I think because I had all those years of training. I think I had made some short-cuts, they looked like short-cuts, but it was actually making a lot of mistakes learning. You’re judged at the end of the day by a sell-through number. You make sure you ship on time, you make sure the quality is right, and you make sure you don’t disappoint the customer. You stay clear to your vision. For me, it took me a lot of time to be confident enough to say, “This is what I’m doing and this is what I see.”
WWD: Something that’s been successful for you has been the handbags. It’s definitely safe to say you have a couple of “It” bags. Oprah carried the Nina or the Demi to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. I think that’s the nexus of product placement.
G.H.: I’m a huge Diana fan and a huge Oprah fan, for me it was like a heart attack.
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-10-month 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, number-one, 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 it backwards. We had the picture until less than a year ago, you had to print it out and write it down. Now you choose the bag online. When we get them, we ship them. In the beginning, there were 100 people on the wait list. We actually can analyze the data that this bag has this much request. So we don’t carry excess stock.
WWD: You have the bags, the shoes, you just launched jewelry. And you’ve opened a store to sell them in. It’s on Madison next to the Carlyle.
G.H.: I’m very, very excited about that. It’s all part of the dream. For the type of product we want to create, we have to have our own retail environment. The store I wanted to create, I hope you’ll all come see it, you don’t have to buy. I wanted to create an environment that was sustainable, there’s no synthetic fabrics, no chemical treatments, but it was luxurious and also inviting and not intimidating. I saw that a lot of luxury stores, you feel a little bit intimidated. You have to be a certain way and cool. This is actually inviting and inspiring. I’m very proud of that. Ninety-nine percent of the materials are recyclable, the wood is reclaimed, there’s no chrome in the paint, every single piece of furniture was done by hand. Italian craftsmanship at its best.
WWD: Why did you want to be on Madison?
G.H.: First of all, I didn’t think we could afford it, but things started to look kind of better. For me, that block next to the Carlyle Hotel is very happening. Fifty percent of our revenue is international. You have two main hotels there, three excellent restaurants — Sant Ambreous, Kappo Masa, Flora Bar and you have the Whitney Museum. In America, in main cities such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, and especially in New York and San Francisco, people are starting to go to cultural events, galleries and museums more than sporting events, so being next to a museum, it attracts a clientele that we think is a customer for Gabriela Hearst.
WWD: Is it actually in the Carlyle?
G.H.: It’s two doors away from the Carlyle. So you can shop and drink a martini.
WWD: This has been a big year for you. You have a store, you also opened a Paris showroom, you had your first nomination for CFDA Womenswer Designer of the Year, that’s a big one. And that’s a category that’s always dominated by male designers. You’re a woman designing for women, and I think your company is mostly women. What do you think — does that make a difference?
G.H.: I think first, you have a little bit of an advantage if you understand water retention. If you’re a woman and you get our bodies and how our bodies change and transform. Intuitively, you can analyze information, just like an algorithm, and express it. As a woman designer, I can feel what women want to wear and how they feel, their insecurities and your emotions and how things feel to the touch. That’s very important for the psychology. Everything that’s close to your skin needs to feel soft and good for you.
WWD: In terms of some of the women you dress for red carpet and editorial: Oprah, Nicole Kidman, Jill Biden, Cecile Richards, Chelsea Handler, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They’re not little starlets. They’re not always wearing pretty little dresses, but a lot of them are wearing your suits. Is there a strategy there? Who do you want to dress?
G.H.: We wanted to have role models. I’m always attracted to men and women who use their attention in the limelight to focus on other people. People are actually giving and doing for others. I always find that very honorable and a quality I like. Especially after 2016, we’re always trying to choose people that one can aspire [to be] and have good messaging.
Audience Question: You spoke so interestingly about being able to do what you want to do and focus so much on sustainability and everything’s under your control. Would you ever consider taking on an investor, and if you would, would you insist on majority ownership?
G.H.: No. We like the pace we’re going. If something like that happens, it would have to be for something we need. But I think we’re very comfortable how we are in that space.
Audience Question: How are you doing digitally with your brand?
G.H.: Not so great. We’re trying. Half of my life is analogue, and half my life has been digital. We’ve made a lot of effort to put out social media. I remember when Instagram started, I asked, “How important is Instagram?’” and was told, “Very.” We’ve done a lot of effort to continue the authentic part of our brand. We do look at every image we put up. The advantage of today is you have access to everything, there’s a bombardment of images. Instagram is the gluttony of images. If you like images like me, it sucks you in and you’re there for hours. I really want to make sure we’re putting out quality, and the web site needs a little bit of a revamp. We have e-commerce.
Audience Question: I love your products. It’s really wonderful to see how you brought these two worlds together. Yesterday we heard from Antoine Arnault from Berluti and LVMH about how important it is that the customer connects with the specialness of the product. Are you finding your customers getting inside your products in the way you want them to? Are they discovering the fabrics, are they discovering the stirrup closures and the small little details that pull people into your products?
G.H.: Thanks for noticing the merging of the two worlds. It actually is. Yes, I think that’s the essence of what we’re creating. This is a product-based company. The quality. I don’t feel that the true luxury customer can be fooled. That’s my belief system. When I see a dress that’s $5,000, but I know that the fabric is 25 euros — there’s a lot of marketing in between. I do think the true luxury customer is getting educated. There’s going to be more and more demand of that quality and standard. I can’t put something out there with my name [on it] that won’t be to a standard. We really try hard to have that quality of product get better and better. So yes, because of our business and how it’s growing, there’s a demand, and people are happily surprised when they’re buying it online and touch the product for the first time.
Audience Question: You talked about luxury and feel and quality and timelessness. What is your approach to design in terms of making product that is timeless and beautiful but still inviting and with a difference?
G.H.: That’s something I think a lot about. Sometimes people think of timeless design, and the word can be associated as “boring.” But you look at a piece of jewelry or earring from the third century before Christ and it’s incredible. It’s very difficult to achieve timeless design. It’s something we strive for all the time to get it right. I do believe that first, we don’t follow trends and second, I want that piece that our customer is buying to have it for the rest of their lives. I want it to be their hand-me-down piece to their daughters. I don’t want it to be on The RealReal.
Audience Question: Talking about creating timeless clothes that last, how do you reconcile that with the urgency of the fashion calendar and the seasons?
G.H.: That’s why I kept the handbags free of that. I had already had my training in the ready-to-wear and shoes. There’s a lot of times where we have an idea and we develop and it’s not ready. It could be a dress, a garment, a pair of shoes. I don’t throw it out. We continue working on it, and you’ll see it the next season. It takes time to get the things right, it really does.