LONDON — It’s hard to miss the giant billboard from the latest Gabriela Hearst campaign, a romantic black-and-white image of the designer’s mother riding a horse, just outside Heathrow Airport.
Hearst doesn’t do anything by halves, and she’s come to London in full force.
This month, Hearst is making an ambitious entry into the U.K. market, opening the doors to her first store in the British capital, which is located across from Claridge’s and designed by Lord Norman Foster. She has also launched a shop-in-shop at Harrods; dressed a Harrods window and thrown a party to celebrate it all, on Friday as London Fashion Week begins.
“Once the party is over, it will be my first work-free day in a long time. So I decided that if I don’t end up in jail, it’s not a fun party. That’s the standard: Me going to jail means it was a fun party,” said Hearst, ahead of her big day in London.
It was crucial for Hearst’s store to be near the Claridge’s hotel: “I like the association with high service; in New York, we are also next to the Carlyle Hotel. I believe what we do is provide a service, and there isn’t a better standard of service than that of the Claridge’s or the Carlyle, so it’s great to be associated with them, to be constantly reminded of our purpose and cater to extremely dynamic clients.”
The store’s location — which Hearst said she found on a whim during a trip to London in January to launch the brand’s partnership with Matchesfashion.com — is already paying off. She said footfall was strong in the first few weeks of the soft launch and items, including a series of limited-edition phone cases, are already selling out.
To celebrate the label’s new London home, Hearst gave the phone case an elegant treatment, redesigning it in metal and leather to resemble a cigarette case, and naming it after Maria Callas.
“I thought, ‘Why not put our new vice in the cigarette case, and admit that it’s a vice? It’s a little bit of a reminder that this is addictive and you should be careful,” said the designer.
As for the store interiors, Hearst sees the space as an evolution of her Madison Avenue store, combining brand signatures like cozy white cashmere sofas with more British elements.
As with most of her work, sustainability is at the core of the new space.
Hearst worked with Lord Foster — who is best known for designing London’s City Hall, Beijing airport, Apple Park in California and the Hearst Tower in New York, among others — to source innovative materials. They range from tiles made using recycled newspapers to fixtures made from fallen English pines or reclaimed World War Two military barracks, which have been turned into the store’s herringbone floors.
“We never expected to work with such an incredible icon of architecture. My husband reached out to Lord Norman Foster asking if he could recommend someone for the store because we never thought he would have the time for such a small shop. But when he offered his services, we of course jumped on the opportunity, because he has been the precursor of sustainable architecture before anyone was even talking about it,” said the designer.
Hearst prefers those elements to do the talking, and so was keen to keep her windows free from mannequins. “It’s not about the over-saturation of some of those tools that were traditionally used for selling. I think we should move on from that language.”
Toy soldiers and drums are also scattered around the store, reflecting the military elements of the flooring: “We found these porcelain soldiers from the Second World War, the same period as our flooring. It was very serendipitous and they became the language and element in the store.”
Hearst thought it was time for the brand to establish itself outside its home of New York because up to 70 percent of the brand’s revenues already come from an international clientele that is likely to visit London or even stay at Claridge’s.
She was also keen on growing her physical presence first and foremost, across both retail and wholesale, given the brand’s understated approach to luxury.
“We didn’t really have too much of a physical presence in London before, and so the Brook Street and Harrods openings really establish us here and speak for us, because our collections are for the physical world. You really see the beauty of our products better in person. We are actually not as photogenic because our clothes don’t scream, it’s more about materials and construction,” said the designer.
Nevertheless, online retailers are still hot on the brand, and Hearst is also planning an exclusive capsule with Mytheresa, coming out on Sept. 25. The designer is being profiled in the retailer’s ongoing series “Mytheresa Woman.”
The Harrods space, also designed by Lord Foster, mirrors the minimal, cozy atmosphere of the brand’s retail space and Hearst believes the two locations will complement each other.
“We are not over distributed in Manhattan or London, so opening our own stores does not affect our wholesale partnerships, it enhances them,” added Hearst, also pointing to the importance of keeping her network of wholesale partners, which consists of 75 global doors, tight.
“We’re still a pretty unknown brand, and a store tells the story of the brand in our own environment and educates our existing and future clients. From the moment we opened the store in New York less than a year ago, brand awareness has grown so much, especially being next to a hotel and being able to engage a lot of tourists. This is very much brand-enhancing experiencing for our wholesale business, too.”
This has also been a year of progress on the sustainability front. In addition to designing her stores using recycled materials, Hearst has also replaced all of the brand’s plastic packaging with biodegradable alternatives by the Israel-based company Tipa, including a specially developed recycled cardboard hanger and garment bag that biodegrades in 24 weeks versus 500 years.
“The beauty is that any brand can use these now and customize them with their logo because we already developed them with Tipa already,” said Hearst. “The goal is that others can adopt and scale up any sustainable development we make. I like to think of us as a hub, executing these ideas in order for others that have much bigger platforms to implement them and make significant change.”
“What we offer is plug and play, especially in the case of the fashion industry where a brand just has to place an order and customize the design. If brands want to go plastic free it’s very easy now,” said Daphna Nissenbaum, ceo and cofounder of Tipa, who also works with Stella McCartney. “As an industry, fashion can be a leader in making changes and influencing the world, with Gabriela Hearst as the best example of a leader in this sector.”
Next up on Hearst’s list? To continue a slow and steady retail expansion in “places that feel like home” and to switch to using 100 percent non-virgin materials in the next two to three years.
“We were the first ones to start talking about deadstock in luxury and we created a lot of limited editions. Right now we create around 25 percent of our lines using deadstock materials, especially a lot of the capsules we do with wholesale partners. Our goal is to change all our resources to deadstock because we are confident that we have the ability to know when something is of the highest quality and it doesn’t necessarily have to be new or made for us.”