This is shaping up to be a very big year for Gabriela Hearst.
Last week she received her first CFDA nomination for Womenswear Designer of the Year, making her one of the category’s very rare female designers aside from The Row’s Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen (Donna Karan and Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte have appeared on the ballot once each in the last 10 years). Earlier this month during Paris Fashion Week, Hearst opened a permanent showroom in Paris at 1 Avenue Montaigne in a 2,000-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment with chevron parquet, Pietra Dura stairs, and a straight-on view of the Eiffel Tower. She’s closing in on her first store in New York, and, perhaps best of all, she’s met her goal to be profitable by this year, which is only her third since launching her business.
“We had set a goal and we did it,” Hearst said, over lunch in mid-January at Sant Ambroeus in the West Village. “And we were over our budget, so it’s exciting.” Sales are more than $10 million.
Hearst, who was born in Uruguay and is based in New York, has done a lot in a little time and at a level rare in global fashion, but especially in American fashion, where she is one of the very few designers doing true luxury. Her prices range from around $500 up to $7,000 and average around $2,000. She uses the finest fabrics: Italian cashmere and silk; merinos, some from her family’s sheep ranch in Uruguay; cady silks; chiffons; denim; waxed 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. There are shoes and bags, the latter of which launched in 2016 and have grown to account for a significant portion of the business, partly because of the non-generic bag designs and partly because Hearst has savvily refused to wholesale them, operating direct-to-consumer and often, off a waiting list. Prices for her two most popular styles, the Nina and its smaller version, the Demi, range from $1,795 to $16,000.
Hearst is self-taught. She didn’t go to business or design school, though sketching has always come naturally. Gabriela Hearst is the second collection she started from scratch, the first being Candela, a beachy, boho contemporary line launched in 2004. She is also a member by marriage of one of America’s foremost publishing dynasties, Hearst — her husband is Austin Hearst, grandson of William Randolph Hearst — and her company is self-financed, which allows her the luxury of doing luxury on her terms. That means no skimping.
“We don’t compromise on materials,” Hearst said. “That turns me off.”
She doesn’t understand why any designer who wants to be the uppermost tier of quality would cut corners on fabrics and construction. “I’ve talked to other people who worked at different high-end collections, and they don’t use the same [level of ] materials that we do. I don’t understand because I’m self-taught, I’m very involved with the production and I don’t understand the thought of not being involved with every aspect of the production. That’s where you see the quality.” She put in the time educating herself on the best yarns, the best mills, the best suppliers. Once they were identified, “It’s like buying groceries. You’re going to buy the best mango, the best mozzarella, the best things. You have to, or others are going to take it all.”
Hearst’s insistence on working with the finest materials dovetails with her commitment to sustainability and philanthropy. She doesn’t work with any polys. Her collection is meant to be the opposite of fast fashion. Thirty percent of her fall 2017 collection was made from stock fabrics from her mills, putting limits on production. She’s developed aloe-infused linen and has lined jackets and pockets with a special silver fabric meant to protect a woman from cell phone radiation. (She’s the first to admit it’s not scientifically proven.) She uses compostable, bio-plastic packaging by Tipa, a company in which she and her husband made personal investments. In the fall, she opened her bag collection to wholesale for one week only in October with Net-a-porter and Bergdorf Goodman, with profits benefiting victims of the drought in East Africa through Save the Children. She’s raised significant funds for Planned Parenthood and maintains a relationship with Manos del Uruguay, a women’s collective that has produced some of her knits.
These brand values have earned Hearst Pratt’s Visionary Award to be collected May 3. Last year she earned a CFDA nomination for the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent, and she also took home the 2016-2017 International Woolmark Prize for women’s wear for her development of ultrafine, ultrasoft merino wool with heating and cooling properties.
For all the solid momentum Hearst has built, her operation is relatively low-key. She has 14 employees and acts as chief executive officer and designer. The collection’s aesthetic is not flashy; it’s based on quality, durability and classics, informed by her roots on a Uruguayan ranch and her adulthood in New York City as a working, affluent mother of three. Suits, which Hearst often wears herself, are a big category, as well as cloudlike cashmere knits, more minimal jersey knits — body-conscious yet modest — and tailored outerwear.
“We’ve done our research,” said Hearst when asked who her customer is. “They are businesswomen, lawyers, women with an active life.”
Hearst’s collections are designed for and inspired by strong women. The fall collection referenced women who had to dress like men for work, specifically coal workers in the U.K. during the Victorian era; fall 2017 was inspired by American political activist Angela Davis. For someone as fancy as Hearst, who can afford to publicize her collection with swanky events if so inclined, she has chosen to host intimate lunches and dinners at her home celebrating women, usually unrelated to fashion, in whose work Hearst has a personal interest. One dinner was devoted to the actress Gillian Anderson, whose role as a detective in the Irish serial killer drama “The Fall” Hearst was addicted to. She held a lunch for U.S. triathlete Gwen Jorgensen and another last year for Rebecca Hall for her role as Christine Chubbuck, the TV reporter who committed suicide on live television in the Seventies, in the difficult-to-watch “Christine.”
Hearst did more than her due diligence before she launched in February 2015. She came to market with full ready-to-wear and shoe collections as well as a flawlessly prepared brand book and logo designed by Peter Miles. The first season was shown out of her West Village townhouse, and she kept with small format presentations for the first two years before graduating to small runway shows in the fall. Her spring collection was shown at the Pool Room in the Seagram Building, and the fall collection over lunch at Café Altro Paradiso. She’s operated her own e-commerce since 2016, which has tripled.
After honoring a yearlong exclusive with Barneys New York, she expanded her distribution to more than 75 points of sale, including Matchesfashion.com, Bergdorf Goodman, Net-a-porter, Nordstrom, Lane Crawford, Selfridges and Le Bon Marché. More than half of her sales are international and the Paris showroom, designed by Marika Dru from Atelier MKD, is meant to enhance growth overseas. Opening a store will be a game-changer, a chance to tell her story from her own point of view. But until then, it’s impressive that Hearst has had such traction on e-commerce, where the fine touch and hand of her fabrics can’t be discerned until the purchase is received.
“One of the most important things is when something is delivered from Matchesfashion online, that it looks and feels even better than what you thought when you saw it online,” said Natalie Kingham, Matchesfashion.com’s fashion and buying director. “If you’re able to tell stories about brands in their infancy, the customer learns to trust and that’s how we’ve seen our business with Gabriela grow really well. As you know, the fabrics look beautiful and feel beautiful.”
The handbags in particular are a success story that many brands trying to trigger a best-selling bag would find enviable. Things boded well from the beginning. Before Hearst officially launched the category, a man stopped her in Claridge’s in London to compliment the design of the Nina prototype she was carrying. It was Jonathan Ive, the design guru of Apple. The Nina and Demi are round, structured pouches that unclip from the top and gently unfold from a looped top handle. At a time when “It” bags are virtually extinct, Hearst’s comes close to qualifying. She has 13 styles, all named for female musicians, aside from the Vevers, named for Stuart Vevers of Coach, a friend, and the Demi, named for Demi Moore, who saw the Nina and asked for it in a smaller size. The designs stand on their own, all of them are structured — the Elle is a little basket/bucket with an accordion top; the Diana and Cline bags are like toolboxes, the former with an accordion top. The bags have also enjoyed a major publicity boost on social media, not least in the hands of Miroslava Duma, the influencer/fashion and tech investor, who, before her fall from grace for racist and transphobic comments in late January, has featured the bags strategically in dozens of Instagram posts for her 1.6 million followers. Duma is not officially involved in Hearst’s business, but the two are friends. Asked Friday about Duma, Hearst could not be reached for comment.
Keeping the bag distribution strictly direct-to-consumer has been one of the smartest things Hearst has done. The reason she held strong on it: “Oversaturation,” she said. “I saw it as a luxury consumer, I saw it as a designer. I am the majority of my customers — some of them are older than me, but I can see what they want. Oversaturation put me off. If I find something and I discover a quality, I feel much more passionate about it. We are definitely one of those brands that needs to be discovered.”
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