Gabriela Hearst makes clothes for women with busy, high-powered lives who need clothes that they will be taken seriously in - that will work as hard as they do for day and night. She should know. As well as overseeing the cattle ranch in Uruguay she inherited from her father and raising a young family in New York, she launched her own fashion label for autumn/winter 2015. Now into its third season, the collection of ultra luxurious separates, tailoring and evening wear is picking up a loyal following, not least by women who appreciate a suit made from the best quality wool that can be shrugged on after a trans-Atlantic flight and still look immaculate.
Hearst has a strong commitment to ethical production and has partnered with Manos de Uruguay, a non-profit craftswomen’s co-operative in Uruguay for her hand-knitted shawls and delicious jumpers. She has also created a small but perfectly thought out collection of shoes for Tod’s with profits going to Save the Children. She believes giving back is part of her responsibility as a luxury brand. Because caught up with her on a flying visit to London where — in true Gabriela Hearst style — she comforted a tired, hungry baby while explaining the origins of her cult Nina bag without missing a beat.
Q: What's the first thing you did this morning?
A: First thing I did this morning – I woke up on a plane [from New York], breast fed Choo Choo, [John Augustine’s nickname is Jack aka ‘Choo Choo’], drove two hours towards London and then came here [we are at Hearst’s suite in Claridge's] and we had an amazing breakfast. That was the highlight. And then I put Choo Choo to bed, got the girls washed, then I had two morning meetings and now I'm here.
Q: How many hours of sleep do you need?
A: I usually need seven hours of sleep but tonight we're on two hours.
Q: Is there a typical week in the life of Gabriela Hearst?
A: Yeah, there is. When the girls are in school, I wake up at seven and am out of the house by 7:30. I take them to school, which is in the Upper East Side. I live in the Upper West Side. And then I'll be in the office by nine and I feel like I've already travelled half of Manhattan. I try to get off work to get to dinner at the house so I'll be back by six on good days.
Q: How often do you travel?
A: I travel quite a bit. Also, I have a working ranch that I own in Uruguay so I go there a couple of times a year.
Q: Right, because you juggle running a fashion brand with managing a ranch?
A: Yes. I inherited the ranch from my father so it's not that I had to build it from scratch – it's that I had to make sure I didn't screw it up and maintain it. I have an amazing team and a great foreman. When you have a clear path, it's very easy to follow and with Gabriela Hearst it's creating something new and hopefully, I can build something that I can pass on to my children.
Q: What are the essentials that you always pack when you travel?
A: Moisturiser, toothbrush, toothpaste. Clothing-wise, good suits because if they're made out of great wools, they won't wrinkle too much so they're good for travelling. Like this one – I just took it out of the suitcase, with good materials and good wools. It's good to travel with. Comfortable things but also things that I can work in.
Q: The fabrics you use are obviously really important.
A: Right. Fabrics are extremely important – fabrics and yarns. I try to work with the best mills, the best tanneries so it starts from the beginning.
Q: How did you come to be involved with Manos de Uruguay (a non-profit organisation which provides work for the craftswomen of Uruguay)? Why is it important to work with organisations like that — and what it can add to a luxury brand?
A: Manos de Uruguay is very impressive because it's 50 years old and they are a non-profit organisation and an all-sustainable business from the environmental point of view, in terms of economically empowering and help women so they can stay in the rural areas. And I knew one of the founders, and the product of Manos was always excellent, and they always had a retail side to it and a manufacturing side. And it just made sense for me to work with them. I just think it’s a great model that a lot of people can copy from. They've done everything from scratch themselves without any donations.
Q: And what did they make you for autumn/winter collection?
A: They made some beautiful tweeds that we used for capes and they also made this incredible cashmere that you see behind me. It looks very rustic but it's extremely soft – they hand-knitted it. It's great because the fabrics are delicious and super luxurious and then on the second tier, they are empowering someone else.
Q: And do you think that's important for a luxury brand?
A: I think so. And I think it's going to become even more important because I think people want transparency. When you're a small brand like us, we know exactly where our mills are and where the clothes get made, so transparency and craftsmanship are really important. And then I think from an environmental point of view, it's extremely important. I want to make sure that our women are driven by desire but they are doing something good. You'll enjoy the product but I'm making sure that it was made with proper ethics and values.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your collaboration with Tod’s?
A: The Tod's shoes also are a project about love. It's a non-profit project that I love. They have a slip-on and I designed a braille code trim that says "love" for my fall collection. So we decided to do it for Save the Children, which is an organisation that is super important – the work they do. When you can use your creativity to help and reach others it's great. Twenty percent of the profits go to Save the Children.
Q: Your Nina bag has been a huge success but we are intrigued to know how just making one style of bag is good business sense.
A: It wasn't a business decision, the Nina bag. It started as a prototype of a bag to complete the look of our women. Then I started to carry the prototype and it started to get a lot of positive reaction. And I said, you know what, I'm going to do 20 of them and I'm going to gift them to women that I admire. Some of them are high profile and others are owners of the factories that I work with or the shoe person – they're women I admire and who have passion. And it kind of took off after that and we started to get requests. We have a waiting list now. It wasn't really a business decision – it just happened to make sense. I decided not to give it to retailers and we basically sell it directly to consumers. You have to e-mail and find out about us if you want the bag, and then you go on the waiting list. I also designed the Demi, which is the little Nina. And there's a backpack in the works. So basically, having one bag per season is the idea and then eventually, I'll have a collection of bags. But I'm trying to maintain them as classics, all of them, that's the goal.
Q: Who's Nina?
A: Nina is Nina Simone, another great woman I admire.
Q: I wanted to ask you about the influence of Sonia Delaunay.
A: Oh, my fall collection! I love Sonia Delaunay, and it actually coincided with a trip I did to Russia. When I went to Russia, I saw a lot of constructivism and how much female art was in that period that I had never known. There’s something very abstract – there's a primitive sense to Sonia Delaunay that talked to me in a primal way.
Gabriela Hearst’s autumn/winter 2016 collection is now on sale at Net-a-porter.
Interview by Tamsin Blanchard