Sometimes, life doesn’t work out as planned. When Rooney Mara was a little girl, she wanted to be a pet shop lady. Instead, she grew up to be an Oscar-nominated movie star.
The love of animals stuck. So much so that it led her to a second career, as a principal with partners Chrys Wong and Sara Schloat of the vegan fashion line Hiraeth. (Hiraeth is a difficult-to-translate Welsh word meaning something along the lines of a longing or wistfulness for home that can’t be recaptured and perhaps never existed.) Wong and Schloat are in Paris through Oct. 1, showing the Los Angeles-based collection at Le 31 showroom in the Marais.
After an informal meeting with Mara and Wong in New York during fashion week, the women agreed to interviews. Wong and Schloat spoke on conference from Los Angeles and San Francisco respectively, and Mara, in a separate conversation, from Kathmandu.
Hiraeth was Mara’s idea, sprung from her lifelong passion for animal welfare. After a failed attempt to go vegan as a child, she succeeded about eight years ago. That led her to a broader embrace of vegan practices. “I wanted to also transition the other parts of my life to being vegan, especially my wardrobe,” she says. But she’s a fashion lover and, except for Stella McCartney, whom she considers a trailblazer and hero, she found scant options that suited her sartorial standards. Thus, the wheels got rolling about launching a collection. “It came from a selfish need of not wanting to give up wearing my favorite things, but also not being able to find an alternative for them that was high quality,” Mara says.
If selfishness sounds antithetical to the concept of cruelty-free fashion, Mara comes across as refreshingly self-aware: “I don’t need to wear combat boots. I can wear Converse every day. It’s more of a desire.”
The desire turned into a business idea for which Schloat made a natural sounding board; the two women grew up nearby each other in tony Bedford, N.Y., and have been best friends forever. They both love clothes and share a similar aesthetic, so brainstorming happened organically. But loving clothes doesn’t prepare you for the fashion industry. Enter Wong, an established fashion professional whom Mara knew as a personal shopper at Barneys New York in Los Angeles, and first approached to “pick her brain.” Soon, Wong was in on the project. “I mean, thank God, because without her none of it would have been possible,” Mara says. “She’s the only one of us that has any experience.”
In addition to her job at Barneys, Wong and her sister Linda had helmed an eco-friendly brand, The Battalion, from 2005 to 2011. “I think Rooney knew that I will bring some experience to the table. And she knew that I’d had an eco-friendly line and I would understand where she’s coming from and where she wanted to go,” Wong says.
Where Mara, Schloat and Wong wanted to go was toward a fully vegan, fashion-forward look. Originally, they planned to start with footwear, the category with the fewest high-quality options. But in conversations with suppliers and contractors, the women soon adopted a broader view, one informed by Mara’s style that contrasts artful gentleness with a penchant for sturdy footwear. “In developing the first collection we had this beautiful clothing based on these vintage pieces [from Mara’s collection] and then the juxtaposition of really cool, current motorcycle boots and combat boots,” Schloat says.
Mara calls the mood “artful and special,” based on what she wears when she digresses from her everyday wardrobe of T-shirt and jeans. “I’ve always really liked a romantic, Gothic aesthetic, but then I also have a minimalist side to me, so it’s kind of trying to marry those two together,” she explains. Pieces retail starting at $395 with most less than $1,000, though evening looks run as high as $3,000.
For Hiraeth, the women adhere to strict vegan parameters. That means no wool, silk, cashmere, the last of which makes developing knitwear particularly challenging, although, says Wong, “it’s happening. Those products are becoming available.”
Of great import to all three women is Hiraeth’s positioning as a fashion brand, and that its founding ethos should not compromise the quality, design or feel of the clothes. Hiraeth sources most fabrics and its vegan leather from Italy; organic cottons come from Switzerland, and some of the more technical fabrics, from Japan. To ensure transparency, Hiraeth buys directly from mills.
The line is produced in Los Angeles where Mara and Wong live. They keep a studio there, the site of “very condensed sessions, just like four hours straight, no water, no break, just go for it,” according to Wong. Still, the partners most often work remotely, talking constantly and communicating via shared folders. Only Wong works at the brand full-time, “24/7,” she says. She manages the business day-to-day and has oversight of the development and production process.
Schloat “chimes in” from San Francisco on sales and marketing approaches. She also manages the brand’s social media, to which she has admittedly so far taken an “organic approach.” Otherwise, she works in the film industry, producing educational videos for grades kindergarten through 12.
As for Mara’s other career, she will end a three-year break from acting this January when she starts shooting “Nightmare Alley” with director Guillermo Del Toro, also starring Bradley Cooper and, reportedly, Cate Blanchett. When posed the question of how she will juggle two time-consuming creative careers, she admits to uncertainty. “I honestly don’t know,” she says. “I am pretty single-minded. I have an extraordinary ability to focus on something, but I’m not really good at splitting my attention very well. So I don’t really know.”
Time-management doubts aside, Hiraeth’s founders are excited about the fledgling brand’s trajectory while taking a conservative approach to growth plans. “We do this at our own pace,” Wong says. Keeping production in Los Angeles, where they work with four small factories facilitates complete transparency of process, another founding pillar of the company. It also allows for essential scheduling flexibility. Hiraeth produces two seasons a year, typically on the spring/fall schedule, but can shift easily “if the American market people want things earlier or to coincide with the holidays,” Wong says.
As for the business model, the partners are focused on developing an e-commerce direct-to-consumer base bolstered by strategic retail partners. Barneys was the first store to buy the collection, for fall 2018, and the Hiraeth partners remain loyal to the retailer. To Mara’s delight, Dover Street Market recently bought the collection for New York, Los Angeles, London and Singapore. She calls DS her “dream goal” and “favorite store since the first time I walked in there.” In addition, some looks are available on Goop. Though the company is self-financed, Mara would like to bring on “a strategic partner because the other thing is, I am not a businessperson and I don’t want to be.”
Nor does she see herself in the role of creative director long-term; she has no delusions vis-à-vis her design talents. “I want to hire a real designer because I am not a real designer and have no plans to be one,” Mara says. In fact, she credits someone else for helping to expertly execute the creative concept. Lily Rasnack came to Hiraeth from Central Saint Martins as an intern, a designation at which Mara scoffs. “I don’t think of her as an intern,” she muses. “It was such a godsend that she reached out to us because she is so talented. It was so fun to get to watch someone do what they’re good at and what they love. It made it so much easier to be able to bring the ideas that I had in my mind to life in a way that is more fully realized.”
Mara’s generous insistence on credit-sharing parallels what seems to be an innate pragmatic streak — she calls it as she sees it. For example, her take on going vegan. Passionate as she is about animals, she thinks people should go easy on themselves, and suggests that for most, gradual transition is probably the most viable path. “Change is so hard,” she says. “I think a problem for a lot of people is that they try to do it all at once and it’s so overwhelming that they just give up. But every little bit that people can do will make a difference.”
At that point, I mention that she sounds passionate yet not at all dogmatic. We say our goodbyes.
The next day, Mara sends a follow-up e-mail; she wants to clarify her views relative to my assessment, which I’d intended as a compliment. “For myself, I am pretty dogmatic about it,” she writes. “And of course, a part of me wants to yell and scream about it because I feel so strongly about animal welfare and the impact that eating and wearing animals is having on the environment. But I’m not sure that’s the most effective way of getting through to people.”
At the same time, Mara is keenly aware that the life of privilege to which she was born, (her parents are a Pittsburgh Steelers Rooney and a New York Giants Mara) and which she has furthered on her own via her success as an actress, affords her the opportunity to focus on issues such as animal welfare. “I try not to be preachy because it’s very easy for me to be vegan and do all of these things from the place of privilege that I live in,” Mara offers. “But what about all of the people living in poverty who can’t afford to think about these things and shouldn’t have to? People who don’t even have access to clean water.…All I’m doing is making expensive clothes that don’t use animal products. So nothing really there I feel at liberty to preach about.”