Introducing Gabriela Hearst: designer with a cause
Merino wool knit turtleneck gown in dark navy; Merino wool and cotton bonded reversible trench coat in dark navy. Image courtesy of Gabriela Hearst.
“For me, style is how you treat other people.”
- Gabriela Hearst
Fewer things, better made. Such is the philosophy of Gabriela Hearst, the New York-based designer whose collections offer the perfect harmony of power and vulnerability; purpose instilled in each and every piece. Made to last a lifetime, not simply a season, Gabriela Hearst designs epitomise honest luxury.
Born in Uruguay and raised on a sheep farm, Hearst stands for quality, ethically-sourced materials and conscious craftsmanship. In January 2017, these values contributed to her winning the 2016/17 International Woolmark Prize for womenswear.
To celebrate the arrival of her limited-edition Woolmark collection at David Jones Elizabeth Street, we sat down with Gabriela Hearst to talk style, sustainability and how she stays so consciously chic.
Merino wool knit turtleneck gown in dark navy. Image courtesy of Gabriela Hearst.
How did you dress when you were a kid?
On the ranch they always dressed us in Goucher pants and shirts, and when we went into the city we used to have our clothes made by a seamstress – like the fancy clothes – so I had a few party dresses that were very nicely made. I was always trying to find a little bit of an edge with my [own] clothes when I was a kid, because I went to a school where you needed to wear a uniform… so I was always looking for a point of difference.
You grew up on your family’s ranch in Uruguay, so sheep and wool have always been a big part of your life. Did your father and grandfather teach you much about the fibre when you were younger?
I wasn’t directly taught, but when you’re born around it you’re exposed to it – and I actually worked in the ranch – so it’s by nurture [that] you learn about these things…
Almost like osmosis?
Yeah osmosis, it’s really funny. There was never any direct “training”… it just becomes part of your life. So when it was my turn to take over the ranch when my dad passed away, I was surprised that I actually knew a lot about what I was doing… [The knowledge] just kind of emerged.
Extra-‐fine Merino wool jersey button-‐down shirt in light oatmeal; Merino wool and silk-‐blend pleated skirt with Herringbone stitch in dark taupe plaid. Image courtesy of Gabriela Hearst.
Your Woolmark collection aims to demonstrate the utilitarian side of wool within a fashion perspective. Is functionality always a priority when you design?
Functionality is very important to me. For something to be just pretty is not enough for me, it has to have a function, and there has to be a comfort as well, and there has to be [attention paid] to the way it’s constructed. I start with the materials, so the materials need to be beautiful, and of the utmost quality I can find. And then the social aspect of who makes your clothes [needs to be considered]. It has to be wonderful hands that know how to make the product.
It’s great to hear that your factory is owned and run by a woman in Italy.
Yes! And the shoes, the shoe factory too! And it’s all a coincidence as well. And our knits are made in Uruguay, by Manos del Uruguay, which is a co-op that supports women. So yeah, we’re a very women-driven business. And we’re a 100% women team. We get things done!
In your work, tradition is far more important than trends, and there is a purpose to every piece. Why is it so important to you to create long-lasting garments?
For me it’s important to have long-lasting garments because I don’t like waste. The idea of Gabriela Hearst was to have a collection that you wanted to pass down; that you didn’t want to throw away, like the clothes that were made by a seamstress for my mother that I wanted to keep. Fewer things, better made – that was the whole principle of it. I’ve been designing for fourteen years and I was in the commercial market before and they were pushing me for lower prices and lower quality and I was really suffering, because my principles were not there in what I wanted to do.
It’s about integrity, believing in what you’re doing.
Yes, and I find that every time we make a decision with the environment and long-term thinking [in mind] it’s been the right decision.
Extra-‐fine Merino wool jersey crew-‐neck sweater in navy; Merino wool-‐blend off-‐shoulder coat in camel. Image courtesy of Gabriela Hearst.
When working with a material like wool, are your designs informed by the nature of the fabric, or are fabrics manipulated into the design. What comes first?
It’s a mix of both. It’s a bit like: do you write the lyrics of the song and then compose the music? So I do start with a concept, and then when I’m finally sure of it I start sketching around it, and so the base starts with sketching. But then [other times] there will be fabrics that I see, and I know exactly what it is [immediately]. I’ll see exactly what that fabric will do…
A lot of designers work differently, some use mood boards, others draw, some drape.
No, I’ve always drawn; I’ve always sketched. I find it easy to communicate with sketching, and also words. So sometimes say when I’m in bed I’ll have an idea and I’ll have my phone next to me and I’ll just write down immediately what the concept is, and [reading] that will trigger the vision again, of what I had [in mind] originally.
Working with quality materials is an integral part of your designs. What do you love most about working with Australian Merino wool?
Well Australian Merino is the best Merino in the world. I mean yesterday we were at a farm called Spring Ponds, just less than two hours from Sydney. And I’m a Merino grower… And I saw their specimens and I saw their wool and it’s really superior. I mean, I could see the difference, I could see the difference of the animal and the genetics and the wool. We actually have, for the Woolmark Collection, used Saxon Wool Merino, which is one of the top fabrics.
Can you tell us something we might not know about wool?
Well wool is flame resistant – it will be slow at catching fire. I have a funny anecdote of my grandfather [actually]. Whenever they would say that something was 100% Merino, you can imagine him in David Jones stores, testing if things were like 100% Merino with like a lighter. We have a deep passion for Merino in my family; we were one of the first to breed Merino in Uruguay.
Your mother was an amazing woman, too. She competed in rodeos, she was a Taekwon-Do black belt, and the first woman to run her own family’s farm. She really broke the stereotypes of what a woman had to be.
Yeah, she is really someone very, very special. Growing up I was like, she’s the embarrassment of my life! But now that I’m forty and I have my own kids, I can really appreciate what she did for us, teaching us the value of being independent, and really going for what you want and believe in, [because] gender was not something that was going to stop us. So it was [only] in recent years that I began to understand that in some industries gender is discriminatory, because I never experienced that.
Extra-‐fine Merino wool jersey singlet in pink; Merino wool slim-‐leg trousers in beige and pink plaid; Merino wool pleated trench coat in khaki. Image courtesy of Gabriela Hearst.
Your tweed pieces were all handmade by local craftswomen with Merino wool from your farm in Uruguay. What was it like working with these women?
Well I love working with Manos del Uruguay; they’ve been around for fifty years and are very passionate about what they do, and very professional… it’s a pride to have such a supplier like them. They support women to stay in their [own] rural areas where they have jobs, so that they don’t have to move to the urban areas where the lifestyle can be a challenge. They can maintain a certain quality of life in their [own] area if they have jobs.
Your muse for your Woolmark offering was WW2 Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. Tell us more about how she inspired the collection? Was it her style, her spirit?
Well, she was a very stylish woman. I read her book ‘An Interview with History’; it’s gripping. She interviewed the toughest characters of her time and wasn’t afraid of asking the tough questions. I was always inspired by that book, and her bravado and her courage was very inspiring [too]. But usually characters like that, which have such a tough exposed side, they guard a very soft inside – that’s the part that intrigued me.
So that’s why the whole collection is based on layering soft pieces close to the body. Because it’s like armour that you’re building…the power comes from the vulnerability.
In your own words, what is style?
For me, style is how you treat other people. It’s how you relate to other people and how you connect with other people – that’s style.
Explore Gabriela Hearst's Woolmark Prize Collection