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The Fashion Memo

The designer interview: Gabriela Hearst

At a time when women are fed up of dressing for the male gaze, GABRIELA HEARST is a welcome – and very wearable – voice of reason. She talks to EMMA SELLS about designing for grown-ups, sustainable fashion and why activist Cecile Richards is the perfect muse

Photography Tiffany NicholsonStyling Emily Jenkins

Gabriela Hearst is really excited about her shoot with PorterEdit when we arrive at her West Village townhouse in New York on a sunny Thursday morning. Not because the designer loves getting in front of the camera – she’s far more comfortable behind the scenes – but because, when we asked to photograph her with a woman she considered a muse, it provided the perfect excuse for her to see Cecile Richards again. Hearst first met the activist and former head of Planned Parenthood two years ago, when she moved heaven, earth and Anna Wintour to be able to dress her for the CFDA Awards. “She’s one of these women that I have so admired; I’m a fan, period,” says Hearst. “She’s such a role model.”

It’s true: Richards is smart, powerful and inspiring, the perfect embodiment of the kind of woman that Gabriela Hearst – both the label and the designer – attracts. From Jill Biden to Oprah Winfrey, the line-up of women who wear the New York label reads more like a roll call of the world’s most game-changing women than your average best dressed list. Richards attributes the brand’s appeal to Hearst’s intentions. “She’s such a unique person; she clearly feels so strongly about women and about fashion and wanting to dress women to be successful,” says the female rights campaigner. “Her clothes are incredibly flattering – they just take the female form and make it even better without a lot of distractions. [When I put them on] I feel about 200% better. Immediately I feel like, ‘I can go out and do anything now.’”

In part that’s down to the clothes themselves, of course, the signature mix of impeccable tailoring and sophisticated, refined elegance. Hearst designs for women, not girls; for professionals with busy lives and better things to do with their time than spend ages working out what they’re going to wear in the morning. “You know, some people are embarrassed to say that [they’re designing for grown-ups] and I always find it odd,” says Hearst when we sit down to talk in her sitting room, which is filled with a curated mix of art and furniture. But it’s the philosophy of the label as much as its aesthetic that’s chiming with all those women. Hearst has made it her mission to redefine what luxury means right now and transform the image and idea of sustainability within fashion while she’s at it.

Gabriela Hearst (right) and Cecile Richards both wear Gabriela Hearst FW18
I wanted to create a true, luxury American brand that was also very conscious about how we were making our product. We call it ‘honest luxury’. I’m only interested in working with the best materials, the best craftspeople and the best mills I can find

Hearst launched her eponymous label back in 2015, spurred on by the death of her father, which meant that she inherited the family ranch in Uruguay where she grew up. “It’s a grass-fed, organic cattle and merino sheep-growing ranch,” she explains. “My family’s been doing this for six generations.” Until then, she’d owned a contemporary line, Candela, in New York for 12 years and, under pressure to keep the prices competitive, had been using cheaper fabrics and materials. It was an approach that she didn’t feel comfortable with. “What I really wanted was to be able to create a true, luxury American brand that was also very conscious about how we were making our product,” she says. “We call it ‘honest luxury’. I’m only interested in working with the best materials, the best craftspeople and the best mills I can find. Firstly, because I believe that when you’re supporting quality, you’re supporting passion because, as with my family business, there are mills in Italy where they’ve been doing this for generations and sometimes it takes one more generation to create a great product. And because when you work with the best materials, it means that you only need to buy a few things that are good quality, you can invest in your pieces.”

Another key difference? Hearst isn’t worried about ticking off trends; she wants to serve up clothes that are going to be in rotation for years rather than a season or two. “I’m very passionate about exceptional, timeless design,” she says. “In this house, for example, there are so many pieces from different periods and it just doesn’t feel ‘off’. It’s about finding designs that age really, really well. That’s something I learned in the ranch because the furniture we have was inherited from our ancestors. Everything has been made well, to last, because you can’t just go to the furniture store and buy yourself a bed and get it shipped the next day.”

Hearst also sticks to wardrobe classics, elevating her easy dresses, standout coats and ridiculously chic pantsuits with cleverly designed twists. She’s got the finishing touches covered, too, thanks to the much sought-after bags: unexpected, architectural shapes blended with an undiluted ladylike air. Given her feminist approach to design, it’s a pleasing touch that, with the exception of the Demi (named after Demi Moore because she loved the Nina bag and asked for a smaller version), each of the bags is named after a knockout female singer: the Patsy and the Cline; the Diana and the Ross; the Joni and the Mitchell.

It doesn’t matter how sustainable I make the product if it’s not desirable. Women want quality and love good product but at the same time it has to be fun… It has to have that joy
From left: FW17, FW17, SS18, SS18, FW18, FW18, SS19

Sustainability might be one of fashion’s biggest talking points right now but for Hearst, it’s a way of life that she’s grown up with. “We were sustainable out of a utilitarian perspective, that was the way things were done,” she says. “We were off the grid so we had solar panels before [most] people had solar panels, and water was drawn from the earth. It’s so remote with such vast amounts of land. When night comes it’s completely dark, you see all the stars and you hear all the different noises from nature. So, nature was a very powerful presence in my existence growing up. I think that’s why it’s a very natural thing for me to want to protect it, because I understand that actually I’m not protecting nature; I’m protecting humankind because we are the ones who get eradicated.”

With that in mind, she’s doing her best to eradicate plastic from her production chain, makes use of innovative fabrics like aloe vera-treated linen and high-tech silver (used to line pockets to protect you from your cell phone’s radiation), and she works with a not-for-profit organization, Manos del Uruguay, that helps to support craftswomen. And, at the suggestion of her husband, John, the label’s CEO, she’s also neatly tying her two worlds together by using the wool from her sheep in Uruguay to make those irresistibly soft sweaters.

With three children, a business and a ranch to run, and a place on the board of Save The Children, Hearst is very much one of those busy women that she’s designing for. She admits that she is something of a workaholic and hasn’t had a proper vacation in years, but she’s working on making things more even. “About two years ago I drew a circle and I divided it in four to help me visualize it,” she says. “One quarter’s my professional life, one’s my family, one is the help I want to do for others and then the other one is fun. Because one quarter of your life has to be dedicated to just having fun, because you live once, right? And being alive is a gift.”

In the meantime, the label is going from strength to strength; the idea is that it will expand to become a lifestyle brand, including homeware. No matter how much it grows, though, the ethos will remain the same, balancing style with conscience. “It doesn’t matter how sustainable I make the product if it’s not desirable,” says Hearst. “Women want quality and love good product but at the same time it has to be fun, right? It has to have that joy.”

The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.