A year ago at this time, Gabriela Hearst was a few weeks away from launching her first collection at New York Fashion Week. During a WWD preview of the collection at the West Village town house she shares with her husband, Austin Hearst (grandson of William Randolph Hearst), and their three children, it was obvious Hearst had a leg up on the learning curve of luxury fashion launches. She presented a flawless brand book designed by Peter Miles, a collection of impeccably polished designer ready-to-wear, a multistyle shoe collection and handbags. To come to market with all of those ducks in a row was impressive by established designer standards, let alone a start-up. But Hearst wasn’t immune to doubt. “I didn’t know if it was going to be picked up by stores, if people would actually buy the product and take it home — and not return it,” she says. “Barneys New York previewed the line and [Barneys chief operating officer] Daniella Vitale said in 10 minutes, ‘I want it.’ It was like a huge mountain had lifted off my shoulders. That’s when the fun starts.”
Society women with fashion ambitions are not a new breed. Current members of the tribe up and down the food chain include Tory Burch, Aerin Lauder, Lisa Perry and Sonja Morgan. Their privilege comes with a bias — being taken seriously as a designer is their case to prove. To her credit, Hearst didn’t enter the designer arena last year uninitiated. Gabriela Hearst is the second collection she’s launched from scratch. The first was Candela, a contemporary line opened in 2004, its beachy, bohemian vibe a reflection of her then twenty-something lifestyle. Hearst is still involved in Candela. Three years ago, she was itching to do something more in line with her late-thirties adulthood: sophisticated, comfortable, grown-up. “It’s a good point of intersection of who I am now and where I come from,” she says of Gabriela Hearst.
Hearst grew up on a ranch in Uruguay, which is still run by her family, who specialize in organic cattle and merino wool. “It’s always been part of my background,” she says. “It’s something also that I didn’t want to do.” She left Uruguay to see the world, and made fashion a reality in New York, where the values of ranching have fueled her luxury vision for her collection. The look is unquestionably chic, crafted from the finest fabrics: Italian and English double-faced cashmere; merinos; cady silks; chiffons; denim; wax canvas, and leathers. There have been some precious, delicate moments in ivory lacy dresses and wispy ribbed cashmere underpinnings, but a refined, utilitarian mood prevails in the tailoring, outerwear and hardware accents. “On the ranch, you’re remote,” Hearst says. “Everything has a purpose because you cannot just go shopping. Making things to last is what I try to do with the clothing.”
To her point, riding boots are made with double-welted, hand-stitched soles like classic men’s shoes, “so they won’t break like women’s. She says the materials are worth the steep price — the collection ranges from $700 for tops to $6,000 for gowns and coats. “If you want to use these materials, that’s the price it takes,” Hearst says. “Will you have to choose buying one amazing sweater instead of five? Maybe, but I guarantee this sweater is going to last you a very long time.”
Upon her husband’s suggestion, Hearst is using merino wool from her family’s ranch in her fall collection. For spring, she’s expanding her retail distribution. Besides eight Barneys locations (the exclusive department store retailer), Gabriela Hearst will be available in Forty Five Ten and The Line. She’s also getting closer to officially launching handbags, which have been part of her presentations but not yet produced. A man stopped her in Claridges in London recently to ask where to find the bag proto she was carrying. “He gave me his card, and it was Jony Ive from Apple,” says Hearst. “I was like, OK, it must be a good design.”
This story first appeared in the January 20, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.