Gabriela Hearst is raring to go.
“I feel guilty to feel happy in a pandemic, you know what I mean?” the designer said over Zoom from her showroom on Avenue Montaigne, where even across thousands of miles and bandwidth, her excitement about showing Sunday for the first time at Paris Fashion Week is real.
And why not? In this bummer of a 2020, she has a lot to be proud of. Five years after launching her label with a then-radical idea that environmental sustainability could be luxury, Hearst’s brand of female-first polish and gaucho earthiness has hit its stride.
In September, she was recognized with American fashion’s highest honor — the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year Award. “It was a huge gift and lift for me and the team,” she said.
She’s becoming the go-to female designer for women on both sides of the aisle seeking smart-looking, consciously made clothing they can feel good about purchasing or rewearing. (Jill Biden repurposed a navy silk Gabriela Hearst dress she wore three years ago for debate night on Tuesday, and first lady Melania Trump has worn the label a number of times.)
Hearst herself has stepped into the spotlight as a voice for political change during the presidential campaign, lending support to the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket. “I wouldn’t have been able to start two businesses myself in America under the current administration,” said the Uruguayan immigrant, who is a recent U.S. citizen, in reference to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies.
Her international profile has been on the rise, too, since the opening of her first London store last September. The Duchess of Cambridge wore the designer’s pre-fall repurposed denim dress this week to welcome conservationist and climate change activist David Attenborough to Kensington Palace. Upcoming is the exclusive launch Oct. 5 of the designer’s Retrofit label at Selfridges, using excess pandemic-era stock repurposed into new styles, and a handbag program with Lane Crawford to test the waters for expansion in Asia.
In 2019, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton took a minority stake in the label, which cleared $24 million in revenue last year. “It’s not just political talk, it’s been an incredible partnership,” Hearst explained, adding that the luxury giant’s resources will help her reach the goal of using 80 percent nonvirgin materials in her collections in the next year. The LVMH association is part of what brought her to Paris, she said, where rumors have been flying she could take over the reins at the Compagnie Financière Richemont-owned Chloé one day. (More on that later.)
She’s certainly found her groove with design, mixing the kind of luxe twill tailoring and no-nonsense polka-dot dresses politicians and princesses like to wear with handcrafted bohemian pieces that make the fashion crowd swoon, like the $8,290 rainbow woven cashmere fringe Dream coat knitted by artisans of the female nonprofit from her home country, Manos del Uruguay, that’s a fall season star. Accessories are a key category, with hit bags like the distinctive pouch-shaped Demi and Nina that continue to sell well year after year, and fine jewelry has been performing unexpectedly well through the pandemic.
For the spring 2021 women’s ready-to-wear collection, she will once again stage a carbon neutral show, measured by sustainability consultancy EcoAct, and she is leaning into craft even more with leather details modeled after horses’ reins, and lots of hand-knotting on deadstock cotton poplin linen dresses and the lapels of blazers. “I had a dream I was knotting a dress on my grandmother,” said the designer, a lifelong equestrian who grew up on a ranch in central Uruguay, and who’s been thinking a lot about speed in the stillness of quarantine at home in New York City with her husband, Hearst family scion John Augustine Hearst, and children.
“I was watching the show on Netflix, ‘Formula 1, Drive to Survive,’ and was very inspired by the adrenaline,” she said of the docuseries that looks at how teams and individuals must work together to win a race. “Because my real concern is the environmental crisis…The pandemic, we’re going to survive it, but the environmental crisis could be the end of our species…The big question is can we change our habits fast enough? One thing we learned from the pandemic is we can.”
Ahead of her first Paris show, WWD chatted with Hearst about weathering crises, balancing growth with sustainability, how she feels about Melania Trump wearing her clothes, and those Chloé rumors.
WWD: How does it feel to be in Paris now?
Gabriela Hearst: You still see the COVID-19 effects, but it’s nice for us as a team. We didn’t know if we could make it, but the fact we are here and the collection is here, I’m really grateful and it just feels like everything is an upside.
WWD: How has business been?
G.H.: Much better than we expected. Wholesale, which is 50 percent of our business, is even to last year and would have been up if we didn’t have spring shipping delays and closed warehouses. Direct-to-consumer was affected by the stores in New York and London being closed, but the Internet picked up. Not enough to cover the retail, but still. Last week, things started to pick up in New York — not a walk-in client, but consignment packages. The fall collection is doing really well, and some of the cashmere floral embroidered crochet knits already sold out in sizes — special pieces people are willing to invest in. They are buying bags, of course, and we saw during the pandemic an uptick in sales of our gold jewelry. We were selling one piece a week, which was not the norm. London has been quieter than New York, which I was surprised about because there is a bit more movement in London. But that got affected with the drop in tourism.
WWD: Did you make any pivots in terms of production?
G.H.: We maintained our wholesale orders for fall, but we did cut down our retail production for our stores, so we didn’t end up with a lot of stock. Now I regret it because we should have kept up with some of those styles that are selling out. But you are working a bit blind because this is unprecedented. We are conservatively looking at being 8 percent down compared to last year, and it could be even if we do a few things right.
WWD: Congrats on the CFDA Award!
G.H.: It was a huge gift and lift for the team. Now, it’s what else can we do? Let’s do the most complicated spring season we have ever done! Finding all the deadstock fabric we used, then there is lots of shell embroidery, leather things done by hand, stitches, knots, there is so much detail. I didn’t want the pandemic to stunt our creative growth.
WWD: So you’re not making sweat pants, haha?
G.H.: I do have a cashmere recycled sweat pant but it’s not your typical sweat pant. It’s structured and overstitched.
WWD: What else are we going to see?
G.H.: I always start collections with a subconscious process or feeling; I was watching the show at the beginning of the pandemic on Netflix, “Formula 1, Drive to Survive.” I was very inspired by the adrenaline and it made me approach the pandemic with structure, and a sense of ‘go team!’ I started researching equestrian races and speed. And because my real concern is the environmental crisis…the pandemic, we’re going to survive it, but the environmental crisis could be the end of our species. Sixty percent of all wildlife has been extinct in the past 50 years, so we’re talking about big catastrophes. The big question is can we change our habits fast enough? One thing we learned from the pandemic is we can. We can change fast. So if we know we are losing species, the polar ice caps are melting, what is the thing that needs to happen to trigger this change? For me, it’s speed. This is one of those collections where we try to have the least impact possible on the environment, where we’re using mostly deadstock lace and recycled cashmeres. It’s really beautiful to work with the leftovers because you are building a puzzle and it all has to make sense.
WWD: What about your handcrafted details?
G.H.: We replicated horse reins, there’s hand-crochet, we did shell embroidery and shell belts. There is so much intricacy, sometimes I feel like my team is going to quit on me. I can hear them saying, “She’s insane!” But they are as crazy as me! I always work with Manos del Uruguay, not only because they do good but they do an excellent product. I always say no one is going to buy you for your good intentions!
WWD: Is it hard to find deadstock?
G.H.: It’s taken a lot of relationship building with top mills and top contacts. But what’s really exciting now with the U.S. Coalition on Sustainability’s Sustain Chain, a nonprofit online platform for all industries, is you can do what we did in five years in five minutes. It’s going to be an open source for everyone to move toward the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. You plug in what your goals are and they will match you with vendors and like-minded businesses. So there are these tools rapidly moving the speed to sustainability. Those types of tools were not available in 2017, when I was told not to talk about luxury and sustainability because it’s opening a can of worms. Sustainability and luxury for me go together; what doesn’t go together is sustainability and accessible luxury.
WWD: How do you balance growth and wanting to be responsible to the environment? Usually the revenue formula involves producing more stuff, and less expensive stuff.
G.H.: Before the pandemic we had controlled growth, compounded to 30 percent, and we didn’t have to make much more stuff, we controlled it. We had opportunities where we could have banged it out, wholesaled handbags in all the department stores and be three times bigger. But our two goals are long-term view and sustainability. And I’m so happy the size we are, because we can take care of ourselves and the company. We only have 75 wholesale accounts, and they are still our partners — before and after the pandemic. Small is the new big, I keep saying to myself.
WWD: Speaking of big, it’s been a little over a year since the LVMH investment. What have you gotten out of it?
G.H.: This is not political talk, but they have been the most incredible partners. How do you navigate a pandemic? We have no idea! Just from an h.r. perspective — we don’t have an h.r. department…So we have their guidance and steps and protocols for that. We are opening a store in London and need recruitment, they helped with that. They have brought a lot of know-how and support. Julie Bercovy (head of LVMH Luxury Ventures) who heads the investment operation, has allowed us to maintain our integrity to build brand equity without having to sell out commercially to do all that. So it’s been really wonderful and great board members, I couldn’t be more grateful.
WWD: Do you talk to them about sustainability?
G.H.: Yes, I use them a lot as a resource because they have a strong environmental department; they don’t talk about it a lot but they do it.
WWD: Have you talked to Bernard Arnault or Stella McCartney about the group’s goals?
G.H.: It’s very siloed, and everyone has their own goals, and because of our size, we can achieve it, which is to move away from new materials and be at least 80 percent nonvirgin materials by next year.
WWD: You feel confident you are going to attain that?
G.H.: Yeah, more confident now because there are more resources I can use to achieve it.
WWD: You just did a fundraiser for Joe Biden with Latinx small business owners — how is political activism a part of your brand?
G.H.: It always has been. After Trump was elected in 2016, everyone was devastated — and it’s been worse than we thought! I remember to cheer ourselves up at the time, watching Kamala Harris win and all the new female senators. We put pictures of them on a board in the studio and they became our muses to uplift us. Then it was the Women’s March, then 2018, more women in Congress than ever. The moment there was an attack on women’s rights, we did a partnership with Planned Parenthood. We’ve been extremely vocal about this because I’m Latin, the things that have been said about us, and done to us, and I’m an immigrant, too. My kids are first-generation Americans. I wouldn’t have been able to start two businesses in America if I was under the current administration, because the H-1B visa I was employed under, that has been stopped. My sister who just finished her Ph.D. at Cornell — she’s the genius of the family — is having a problem with the visa. Immigration is what this country is founded on. So whatever the Biden campaign asks me to design, a T-shirt or whatever, the answer is always, yeah. Know the answer is yes.
WWD: Melania Trump has worn your dresses a lot, does that make you cringe?
G.H.: No, it’s a democracy, anyone can buy the product and wear it but I don’t agree with her husband’s policies.
WWD: You mentioned being a Latin designer, do you feel there is more room for you to be a voice for that community?
G.H.: We’ve had a lot of great Latin designers in America — Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Francisco Costa, Narciso Rodriguez, so we’ve always been represented. But what has happened over immigration, and the derogatory comments like Trump saying, “We need to get rid of the bad hombres,” that is hurtful to our culture.
WWD: So being a voice for the Latinx community is something you want to explore more?
G.H.: Yeah, for sure.
WWD: What about being an American designer now in Paris, it’s not like we have the best reputation, especially when it comes to sustainability!
G.H.: But America is great, too. I was able to build my dreams in America, have a family, have my children, freedom of the press still exists.
WWD: For now!
G.H.: Let’s preserve it and vote Nov. 3. The most sustainable thing you can do this year is vote for the party that believes that climate change is real. That it’s politicized is insane! For me, America is about the people who work hard and build their dreams. New York is one of those cities where anything can happen. No one comes to New York to have a good time, they come with a mission, to dedicate their lives. I’m proud to be an American.
WWD: There has been a lot of turmoil this summer, between the economic distress and racial equality movement. As a liberal, how do you square that with working in luxury fashion?
G.H.: High quality and craft doesn’t have to mean not inclusive. I learned about quality and craft in the middle of a ranch, because things were made to last, it wasn’t from an ostentatious or exclusive point of view. We made our own bread and soap, too. To be clear, there is no place for hedonistic luxury anymore. It’s about purpose-made product that is made with attention, and that doesn’t have to be clothing, it can be a good bread or cheese. That’s what quality is, paying attention and care to process and the environment. So for me, there is a platform for this. Of course, when you try to do things of certain quality, that has a price point. But I always said, and you can go back to my interview in 2016 for WWD’s Ten of Tomorrow, you don’t need to buy many sweaters, you can buy one good one!
WWD: Have you ever thought about re-commerce?
G.H.: No, usually we cut close to order and don’t have a lot of inventory left, except this pandemic, when we got stuck with more inventory than we ever had. The main thing with sustainability is you have to not be wasteful. We always make pieces you want as hand-me-downs, so re-commerce doesn’t go with our thought process. We are launching with Selfridges this Retrofit collection, which has been a dream of mine for a few years. We took our excess inventory and rethought it, and crafted beautiful things. The name comes from the film “Blade Runner,” where they live in a retrofitted future. Now, we also live in a retrofitted world, where the air is polluted and it’s dry, so we have the humidifier and air purifier. We are always retrofitting what we’re screwing up. This idea of rethinking something that’s already existed by stitching, dyeing, changing the belt, that’s very exciting.
WWD: That sounds so cool!
G.H.: I don’t know if it’s going to be cool or be a hot mess! For the record, I have two types of ideas, really good or really bad and you never know!
WWD: Why did it make sense to show in Paris now?
G.H.: There were many reasons, but the practical one is when we did resort, we nearly lost one-third of our collection in three boxes that came from Italy. I found one, and said I’m not going out with COVID-19, I’m going out with a heart attack from this. I thought, why are we Worldnet-ing all this stuff? And any designer knows how expensive Worldnet shipping is. We have already our showroom and studio in Paris, we have our team in Italy and we had all the samples. So carbon footprint-wise, it was easier to bring everything here, and I have to come anyway every season for market, so we decided to do it. And the inspirational part was being accepted by the Chambre Syndicale, putting the team at a new level, working with Alex de Betak on a carbon neutral show in his town and all the challenges that can bring. I said let’s push ourselves to do something different.
WWD: Is this with an eye toward more international growth?
G.H.: We have the same accounts as before. But we do have a business that’s 65 percent international and it does bring more international press. We’ve never had a profile in Figaro or Paris Match, for example. We’re having more international press by being here, and if you have an international business it makes sense.
WWD: Do you have more international stores planned?
G.H.: I’ve been wanting to open in Hong Kong and Beijing for a while…The moment they let me travel to China without two weeks of quarantine, I’m there. We are exploring the China market so we are doing a bag collaboration with Lane Crawford, a five-city collaboration in China and Singapore that’s going to be one month. It’s exciting, because the goal is to have our own store and e-commerce in Asia sooner rather than later. This is a measurement of whether we are ready for the market, and all signs point to yes.
WWD: Would you ever want to work for a bigger luxury brand in addition to your company?
G.H.: Never say never, but I’m so in love with what we do here, and it has to be similar ideologies.
WWD: What about Chloé?
G.H.: I’m not sure about it.
WWD: Rumor has it you are being eyed for a job there!
G.H.: That’s very nice to be thought of for that, but I’m very committed to my work.
WWD: So you are not going to be designing for Chloé?
G.H.: No, there’s always rumors…I was rumored to be going to Chanel and nobody ever called me!
WWD: Do you ever feel hampered creatively by having to be sustainable?
G.H.: Not at all, my perspective is if you give creativity limitation, you are focusing it.
WWD: On the subject of limitations, hopefully we get out of this soon so there aren’t so many, but I get it.
G.H.: I was in a taxi the other day, and I saw a sign that said, “Justin Bieber: World Tour, July 2021,” and I thought, ‘do they know something we don’t know?’
WWD: I hope so. The 2021 Bieber vaccine tour!