While it is lined with acres of sand, palm trees, and desert bougainvilleas, the setting of Savoir Flair’s exclusive photoshoot with Gabriela Hearst isn’t a far cry from where she grew up – although the two locations are thousands of miles apart. We’re at Meliá Desert Palm, a hotel circumferenced by polo fields, horse stables, green pastures, and riding trails. Hearst, meanwhile, grew up in rural Uruguay on a 17,000 acre ranch that raised a mix of sheep and cattle. The land of Paysandú – where the ranch was stationed – was flat and fertile, bisected by the Queguay Grande river, and marked by two chains of rounded hills (or cuchillas).
It might’ve been isolated from the outside world – rural and sprawling in the sleepy way that geographical plains often are – but most of all, it was the fertile metaphorical and literal soil that gave rise to one of fashion’s most exclusive and sought-after sustainable brands. Like her country of origin, which punctuated its long history of progressivism with the dark mark of dictatorship in the 1970s, Heart’s eponymous brand is unpredictable and hard to pinpoint with a casual descriptor or ready phrase.
It’s sustainable, but also luxurious in a way that so few brands are anymore. For example, it’s nearly impossible to get your hands on one of her artistic bags, the intriguing shapes of which are inspired by everything from analog cassette players to the pleated bellows of an accordion. They are little treasures, proudly carried by celebrities and influencers alike, but she’d rather they didn’t. Her ready-to-wear is timeless, crafted with intense care and an eye towards utility. Having said that, it speaks directly to the modern desires and demands of a working woman’s wardrobe – ranch hardiness meets couture standards, you might say.
You see, sustainability isn’t just a trend driving Gabriela Hearst’s work, it’s in her DNA. She grew up learning how to conserve and reuse everything because everything either had a purpose or could be repurposed. These values are instilled in Hearst, marrow deep. She is one of the few designers we can think of who has reached the summit of success, yet refuses to forget where they come from. Uruguay, the ranch, her mother’s ferocious individualism, sustainability – it’s all embedded in what she makes, what she does, and who she is.
In fact, aspects of her clothes come directly from the Merino wool produced by her family’s ranch, an idea first suggested by her husband, Austin Hearst. She bought the wool and sent it to Italy, where it was converted into twill for her suits. Instead of forgetting where she came from, she wove it into the very fabric of her brand. Hearst is currently in Dubai to launch a stunning new handbag named ‘Walkwoman’ and sell her very-hard-to-get handbags at Level Shoes until Thursday, April 4. Her comfortable, sustainable footwear is also on offer.
The designer’s presence in the city is significant because she doesn’t sell her handbags online and only offers them for sale once a year, which only serves to increase their rarity. In this exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Hearst discusses her unique upbringing, her brand’s sustainable ethos, and the passions that drive her to exceed her own expectations. Listen in.
You grew up during Uruguay’s dictatorial period, which means the country was extremely conservative during that time. Your mother is the antithesis of all that. How did she grow up in a way that allowed her the freedom to defy conservative conventions?
My mother’s ranch has been in the family for 170 years, so when you’re deeply rooted, when you are really comfortable with where you come from and know who you are, you can move freely. If she was born in another country or another time, I think she would have been a professional athlete. She competed in rodeo, black-belt taekwondo, and weightlifting, for which she broke a record in Uruguay. She also did endurance races, which are 700km races that entail spending a few days on a horse.
And on top of all that, she is a Zen Buddhist?
She is a Zen Buddhist, which she learned through martial arts. She discovered meditation when she reached profound ranking. She did the whole thing – she shaved her head, she wore the robes. So, yeah, things were very interesting growing up. When I was young, I was sent to this very strict British school that was quite posh, and all of the mothers who would come pick up their kids were very well-dressed, and here comes my mother in her dobok, like, ‘Come on, I have to go to [taekwondo] class!’
Were you embarrassed by that?
Oh, completely. I grew up mortified by my mother – I wished I could just have a normal one. When I grew up and became a mother myself, I appreciated her so much more, and the gift she gave me.
What is your first memory of your mother?
As a kid, the first memory I ever had was of my mother. She was being thrown by a horse because she was competing in rodeo, and I remember her teeth coming out. I remember her bleeding from her mouth – this is my first memory! She was as cool as a cucumber. I recently told her about it, and she remembered everything, including the horse that threw her. This memory indicated to me that women are very physically strong.
I never thought about men being stronger than women. I never thought about what a woman should look or act like. This came from my mother. I had a very different concept. It was a good gift to receive. She always taught me to be independent – emotionally, financially. She would tell me to be my own person, that I shouldn’t try to be cool because cool people just are cool. They don’t have to try.
A passion for quality is across my entire life.
Your mother is the source of a lot of what you do now.
Yes, absolutely. I originally used the photograph of my mother – which is in the salon we created for the pop-up at Level Shoes – for my first brand, Candela. I created a sketch of this photograph, of my mother riding a horse, and we launched with the image silk-screened onto T-shirts. That photo actually sits in front of me, on my desk, and is the image that reinforces everything. It’s the root of it all.
What inspired your interest in design?
Once again, my mother. Rural country people are very rugged, so my mother didn’t have a lot of clothes. There were no high-end stores where I grew up, so you had to make your clothes yourself. My mother would buy beautiful European fabrics and have the family seamstress make her clothes.
She made my mother this wool skirt suit in olive, with her initials embroidered in gold thread, that I loved. I put that suit in my first collection. I still do that suit, actually. I still do the blazer. It was basically couture, these clothes. In a way of nostalgia, maybe, I try to always reinterpret that in my work. A passion for quality is across my entire life.
Incidentally, I really like that you make the effort to work with other women in the industry.
85% of our woven production is done in Italy in a factory that’s owned by a woman, which in Italy is incredibly rare. We also work with Manos del Uruguay – I’ve been doing that a long time, actually – that has been around for 50 years. It employs women across the country. It was a very visionary project because the non-profit is self-sufficient, while not many usually are.
They noticed that women were moving to more urban places, and their quality of life wasn’t really improving. If you empower women, your economy improves and you empower the whole community. Economically, it makes a lot of sense to have women employed.
Going back to sustainability, why should luxury be sustainable?
Because luxury is supposed to mean hand-crafted, it’s supposed to mean the highest quality. That is what sustainability brings to the table. Luxury and sustainability are not competing concepts, they are parallel. I grew up on a ranch that was very remote, which means sustainability was utilitarian – it’s how we lived every day.
My mom still lives off the grid, using solar power and wind power. We didn’t throw things away, we made things well so that they lasted a very long time. Things just needed to last. You couldn’t go to the store to have it fixed. It’s not an ostentatious aesthetic, but it is a high-quality aesthetic.
I feel like your work is the antithesis of fast fashion. You produce in small quantities, adding to desirability, and your brand is completely sustainable. I wish all fashion was this way. What would you say to someone who is addicted to fast fashion?
It’s hard, but I think the younger generation will be more mindful because they are observing how we neglected the earth, and it’s what they are inheriting. I think we need more mindfulness in the current state of fashion. We don’t need as much as we have. We need less, in fact. One-third of all food in New York City gets thrown away. It’s not economically sensible. Being sustainable is good for business – this is what makes me hopeful for the future of sustainability.
I tell people to buy one good thing of quality, not five cheap things. Think of your parents’ closet. I think of my mom’s closet, which did not have much in it, but what was there was long-lasting and beautiful. I always wear things from my first collection. I don’t think about it being correct. My passion for quality is the driver. The day I can no longer work with good materials, it’s over for me. I won’t compromise, no matter what. There’s always so much crap in the world.
Being sustainable is good for business – this is what makes me hopeful for the future of sustainability.
You don’t want to add to the noise.
Yes, the two values of my company are sustainability and long-term view. Our first launch was based on a handbag I had made myself. I was wearing my own clothes, but my friend pointed out, ‘You can’t be walking around carrying someone else’s handbag.’ So I made my own design and started carrying it. And before I knew it, there was crazy demand for it. My head of sales showed me a wholesale plan for the handbag. I said, ‘That doesn’t make sense, we have to sell double the amount of handbags to make the same amount of money. That is double the amount of natural resources, which isn’t a sustainable outcome.’
The only reason you would do that is to become very well-known very quickly. I am so terrified of overexposure. I get nervous when too many celebrities carry my bags because, in modern society, we get tired of things so quickly. Things lose appreciation so quickly. We don’t sell our handbags in stores, and clients complain about how difficult my bags are to get, but quality takes time. Good parmigiano-reggiano takes 18 months to make.
That’s a good metaphor. So how does someone get a Gabriela Hearst bag?
We’ve done only four installations in four years in terms of places where you can actually buy the bag. The first was through Net-a-Porter and Bergdorf Goodman, which came through my work with Save the Children in Kenya. I wanted to bring attention to the drought that was happening in the Horn of Africa in 2017 because it was getting no media coverage at all. 20 million people were at risk of famine; it was a huge global crisis not getting play.
I flew with Save the Children to Kenya, and what I saw was awful. I saw mothers who had to dig holes in dry river beds to find water for their children. And yet when I met them, they offered me the water. Sometimes when you see the worst, you also see the best happening at the same time. I was very fired up to do something about what I saw and wondered what I could do to help. I thought about my bags and their ability to bring attention to the crisis, if I did something with them.
Friends in the industry recommended not using something of luxury for a humanitarian endeavor, but I knew it needed to happen. First, I asked Save the Children how much money it needed, and I chose the specific area that I visited to help. There were 1,500 families there, and all of their animals had died because of the drought, which affected their entire livelihood. I had never seen something so devastating at this scale. They told me we needed to raise $600,000.
What percentage of profits went to Save the Children?
100 percent. I gave all of my profits to the endeavor. We did the project, and we made the money in two days. Net-a-Porter said it had never seen anything like it before. That initiative was incredible, and very gratifying for the whole team. I now sit on the board of Save the Children US, which is the second largest non-profit after UNICEF.
What was it like working with Level Shoes to bring Gabriela Hearst handbags and shoes to Dubai?
It’s been wonderful. At first, it offered to build us anything for the pop-up: a cafe, a robot, anything. But I suggested using whatever was around. The only thing Level Shoes built was the shelving, which mimics the shelving in the office, but everything else was existing furniture in storage. I was nervous because it was all mid-century furniture, and I was worried it would come out looking like an airport lounge. We wanted to repurpose everything. At our store in New York, we repurposed 99 percent of materials used – our store is completely sustainable.
We have launched the ‘Walkwoman’ bag at Level Shoes, which is based on the Walkman cassette player. It is crafted by two teams: one is a jewelry team because it is a jewel case and the button is carved from malachite or lapis lazuli, and the other team does the leather for the strap and its exterior. It took over a year to develop because it is a very complicated bag. We chose Level Shoes because we felt it was a special place to showcase it.
Have you seen manufacturing keep up with the rising demand for sustainability?
What I am seeing is more mills selling certified materials. We don’t just get supplies from the mills, we train the mills to be more sustainable. They used to tell me, ‘You’re the only one buying the nice fabrics.’ Now, there are more options. I try to stay away from cotton, preferring linen and linen-wool because it absorbs and uses less water when you are producing it.
It’s heartening to see it move, even slowly in that direction.
Yeah! I’ll give you an example. I once sat with a scientist – I love scientists because they are data-driven and can really relay the information you need to know in a clear way. I was telling her about all of my sustainable initiatives, like how our packaging will be compostable starting in April, how we’re using compostable cardboard, how we use our own deadstock.
She then says, ‘Yes, but if you are shipping everything by plane, it’s better to not even be sustainable.’ That’s when I realized we need to start shipping by boat immediately. This is an example of how complex sustainability can be, and that’s why collaboration is so important – a partner can show you a blind spot that you didn’t even know was there.
I can’t enjoy any level of success until I prove you can build a sustainable business that is profitable and scalable, one that can be a net positive.
Because you can be as sustainable as all that, and still offset your own good work with the huge carbon footprint of shipping by plane.
Exactly! It negates everything. Just two weeks ago, we realized that we must start to ship by boat. The problem is your delivery schedule becomes late.
So you have to build the delay into the production schedule?
Yes, but we are still trying to maintain our high standards. So every season, we will increase what we ship by boat instead of trying to convert all at once. Also, shipping by boat is so much cheaper than shipping by plane, so it offers a huge savings for the company. This is where you can see that sustainability makes sense economically. It’s less wasteful and saves money.
Are you working with any new non-profits in 2019?
We’ve started working with an American non-profit called Our Children’s Trust, which is leading the Juliana v. United States climate lawsuit against the US government. This is not a bipartisan issue; you can be a Republican and still care for the environment, so this is a really interesting case. And we are supporting them. It has a recovery plan. If it wins the case, the courts have to make the government abide by the recovery plan, which has specific goals for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
We need things to balance out. We can’t reverse what we lost, but we can establish balance and get out of the oven. My survival instinct is high. I know I have to do something about what’s happening to the planet. I can’t enjoy any level of success until I prove you can build a sustainable business that is profitable and scalable, one that can be a net positive. We have to be neutral first – we’re almost there, and then we’ll be positive.