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Gabriela Hearst Is Set On Changing The Luxury Fashion World

Meet the New York-based, Uruguayan-born designer who is shaking up the system.

Gabriela Hearst will be hosting a pop-up for her bags at Pedder On Scotts from Oct 25-Nov 15. Photo: Oliver Mint

If one is to round up all of the major fashion designers in the business into a Class of 2019 yearbook, then the caption accompanying Gabriela Hearst’s photo could very well read as “Most likely to change the world“. It may seem like a hyperbolic statement to some but the Uruguayan-born designer is really that cool kid in school who’s going to start a movement. And we’re with her.

Just take a look at her recent Spring/Summer 2020 show for her eponymous label as an example. American Vogue reported that it is the first brand in the business to stage a carbon-neutral show. In an industry that is accustomed to runway shows rivalling a Vegas production, the practices that Hearst put in motion were drastic. The power was cut down. No electricity was used for the models’ hair – yeap, no blowouts, just sleek pulled back dos. She even had sustainability consultancy EcoAct to calculate the energy emissions.

“I love what I do but I have to find ways that I’m not adding to the problem,” she told Female in an e-mail interview, hinting at the reckless use of energy among industry players today. She was speaking to us just before the launch of the pop-up event for her bags at On Pedder from Oct 25 to Nov 15. “I thought this was the best thing that really engages me toward the show. If we don’t know our impact we can’t reduce it. The goal is to set an industry standard.” For a self-professed feminist and environmentalist, that was Hearst’s activist moment on the Fashion Week stage.

Living sustainably is second nature to Hearst who grew up on her family’s 17,000-acre ranch in an isolated part of Uruguay. She once quipped to Surface magazine that when she was born, there were more animals than people. “We were sustainable out of utilitarian purpose,” she stated matter-of-factly in our interview. “Our home was built in the 1800s by my family. It was made to last; we had wind energy, then solar panels decades ago because the grid had just come to where we were. Being in contact with nature from a very young age makes you understand her power and why we have to respect it.”

The Bags Coming To Singapore

That holistic ethos is encapsulated in her four-year-old namesake fashion label. It adopts a thoughtful and slower process of creating fashion – one that is grounded in care and detail and purpose. In short, she creates things that are meant to last. If all that Zen talk sounds like Hearst & co. make boring fashion, you’d be wrong. She makes some truly desirable suits and parlays her bohemian-meets-minimalist aesthetic with such a light hand. She also experiments with fabrications and has been known to use organic aloe linen that is said to moisturise the skin and sources for deadstock fabric from cashmere specialist Loro Piana.

Her architectural and geometric bags started as a limited edition series in 2016 and has now morphed into a cult favourite among the discerning crowd. It is a good starting point to get a glimpse of how her psyche as a woke designer works. These bags are neither flamboyant nor shout “snap me”. Instead, they possess a beautiful and artistic quality that makes them hard to miss. Her three-week-long pop-up at On Pedder’s Scotts Square flagship marks the first time her collections will be physically sold here. To curb the use of resources, the designer prefers to sell her handbags directly to customers, while producing the same revenue. That further drives the exclusivity of her bags,

Seven of her bags will be on sale. These include her maiden design, the Nina, which Hearst, 42, describes as her “good fortune” bag. Indeed, it was the bag that really put her name on the radar. What turned out as a gift for close pals quickly came with an extensive waiting list. According to The Telegraph, there could be 1,500 names in the queue at any one time.

Then there is the Patsy which is inspired by the lunch boxes of women entering the workforce during the 1940s, which could very well be a cheeky commentary on Post-War female empowerment. The latest offering in the repertoire is the Walkwoman, a structured shoulder bag which is a riff on the retro Sony Walkman. The frame of the bag features a metal body crafted with precious stones like howlite, malachite and lapis lazuli. When Hearst does nostalgia, it is chic not ironic.

The Spring/Summer 2020 Show

Such details explain the limited run of her bag designs as well as the lengthy duration it takes to craft them. According to Hearst, the production for each bag takes at least three months to complete. That could also explain why these bags can command a starting price of $2,990 for a calfskin minaudiere and fetch up to $28,000 for a full croco one.

It is no surprise then that Hearst’s name has been spoken in the same breath as other female trailblazers in the industry like Phoebe Philo and Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski. For one, she knows exactly what the women of today in these modern times look for in their fashion choices. She said: “[My brand is] for women of action. Our clients have dynamic life. Professionals that are always looking to develop themselves further. Our clothes are armours for their daily life. For me, it is the women first and the clothes second.”

Perhaps her quote in an interview with The Washington Post in January this year best sums up her maxim. She said: “There’s not that many women designing for women. I always say this as a joke, but it’s kind of true: I understand water retention. Right? Right. Our bodies change through the month. They change through our lifetime. And I think being in the body of a woman gives you an advantage.”

Can we get a fist pump?

On Designing "Honest" Luxury
“I think our ‘honest luxury’ standards for quality and designs resonate with the increasing number of consumers who are demanding transparency and sustainability but still are expected to look with a certain sophistication. I think it also resonates with our love for craftsmanship and luxury. We aim to communicate that true luxury is sustainable. That beauty, design, and pleasure truly exist with sustainable practices. That buying quality over quantity is very important. We craft our pieces with the utmost care using the most premium luxury materials and a design that will last a lifetime and can be passed down.   I believe the true luxury client can’t be fooled. If a piece that we design will take space on this planet it better be great. Of course, the design desirability needs to be there. We don’t follow trends. I am loyal to the vision of who our woman is – and our customer is loyal to it as well. If I am going to be using materials that cost 200 euros per metre, that cashmere coat needs to last you a lifetime. You achieve that with great craft for durability and design that a decade can’t be pinpointed on.”   Portrait Courtesy of Gabriela Hearst On Flying The Green Flag
“I grew up on a large ranch in Uruguay (that’s Hearst and her mum at their ranch in 1980). Where we were exposed to the environment and we were sustainable out of utilitarian purpose. Our home was built in the 1800s by my family. It was made to last; we had wind energy, then solar panels decades ago because the grid had just come to where we were. Being in contact with nature from a very young age makes you understand her power and why we have to respect it. I don’t care who has the biggest most luxurious brand if we aren’t protecting what it is most precious. It is very important for us to create something that doesn’t add to the problem and hopefully instead has a positive impact.   We need to realise how we are connected with each other. Everyone is facing climate change crisis and we need to recognise that and take action. I think it’s critical. The importance is an actual need because we can’t continue how we are functioning right now, and we have to figure out the way to do what we love and what we are good at. In running our businesses, what is the real cost to the world and to our own humanity? We really need to rethink how we do things. The positive side of it is all the tools are already in existence, now we just need to make a change.”   Vintage Photo Gabriela Hearst’s Instagram  On Combating Wastage In Fashion
“We produce collections using beautiful, sustainable fabrics, and that way we don’t create waste. This makes sense from a business perspective, an environmental perspective, and a desirability perspective. If you know that something is made with the utmost integrity, it’s more valuable, and therefore less likely to be viewed as disposable. A lot of people don’t realise this, but nearly every piece of clothing being worn right now arrives wrapped in plastic – like a dry-cleaning bag – before it lands on a shopping rack. To combat this kind of waste, we’ve partnered with the innovative Israeli company TIPA, which makes 100 per cent biodegradable packaging. We have been completely plastic-free since April 2019.   The Gabriela Hearst flagship, located at 985 Madison Avenue in New York is entirely sustainable – 90 per cent of the material waste generated during the construction process was recycled. Our London store at 59 Brook Street (above), designed by Norman Foster, was built sustainably without using any new materials (the custom Benchmark furniture was made from a tree that fell in a storm and the herringbone oak parquet floor is made from wood reclaimed from a former officers’ mess hall).”   Store Photo Gabriela Hearst’s Instagram  On How Her Rancher Roots Shape Her Work
“I always say that you can take the girl out of the country, but not the country out of the girl. I always need a certain space and cleanliness and a certain level of harmony and peace that comes from being remotely in nature. And at the same time, I am always looking at that utilitarian aspect that you have from growing up in a ranch.   And obviously a sustainable aspect as well, because when you grew up so remote, you tend to really cherish what you have, because you can’t go into the store and buy something. You just need to have very It’s not a lot and of quality. So, those are the essence of our collections (her Resort 2020, her collection, seen above, toys with the idea of men’s suiting and experimental fabrications like macrame interspersed with pleats).”   Lookbook Photos Courtesy of Gabriela Hearst On The Nina Bag & Its Apple Connection
“A friend of mine told me after we launched our collection of ready-to-wear and shoes that I shouldn’t be carrying someone else bag. I thought he was right and I took my time to design a bag I absolutely loved. It was in the Oct of 2015 that I was carrying the prototype in Paris and people started stopping me on the street. I had a plan to do only 25.   Then in London, I was in the elevator of a hotel and a gentleman saw how the bag opened and told me it was very interesting. I said it was my prototype and I was thinking of doing a few more. He said if I did he would want one for his wife. When he gave me his card I realised it was Jony Ive, the then chief design officer of Apple. I took it as a sign. A few months later I sent him one and he sent me an iPad Pro. Then Brie Larson wore one of the first editions the night before she won her Oscar (for Room). This bag has been surrounded by good fortune.”   Product Photos Courtesy of Gabriela Hearst On Designing Bags That Stand Out
“Our handbags live in a world of their own. I don’t design handbag collections. We create and develop bags in some cases for more than a year and when they are ready we launch them to the world. It’s a process we manage to keep very free and creative. As our pieces are extremely complex with their own technical custom closure systems.   For example, the Joni (right) and the Mitchell bags are inspired by the tiffin food delivery containers in India and were very complex to make. It involved magnets and springs. Or the Diana that has all its long hardware made by hand, one by one. I have been inspired by artists such as Fernando Botero (for the Nina). For the Patsy (right), I was inspired by the lunch boxes of women entering the workforce during the 1940s. The bags are named after female singers. Nina Simone who is my favourite singer of all time lent her name to my first bag.”   The timeline from the original conception of the bags to reach the first sampling stage usually averages between nine and 10 months. We work on them for a long time and their production can take a minimum of three months. Therefore I am attached to all of them. Right now the Diana and the Joni are the bags I carry most. I have been carrying the Diana for a year non-stop and it doesn’t even have a scratch.”   Product Photos Courtesy of Gabriela Hearst