In conversation with fashion designer Gabriela Hearst
America's knitwear darling
M eet Gabriela Hearst, the Uruguay-born, Manhattan-based designer whose eponymous brand has gone on to become one of the fashion industries must-haves. Thanks to her family's farm heritage, the brand is a go-to for knits and contemporary rustic cuts. Now Buro 24/7 speaks to the designer about her label, family and what she would do if given the chance to helm one of France's haute fashion houses...
You launched your namesake label nearly a year ago and before that the highly successful brand Candela. Why did you decide to start a new chapter?
I started Candela in my early twenties and it was more in the contemporary category. Over the past few years though I realised that I had a strong passion for making things the best quality possible. And you cannot take a brand with a certain price point to another price point. We had to create something new and I think that Gabriela Hearst is much more reflective of what I do today as a woman, of what I believe in and what I want to do in general.
How has your design approach changed in these ten years?
I'm much more confident to voice exactly what I want and how I want it. I would say that Gabriela Hearst is more of a complete vision. It's really what I believe we should be putting out as a product.
There is a brilliant new wave of women in America who are making fashion that manifests modern femininity. Designers like Rosetta Getty and Rosie Assoulin... Do you feel you have something in common with these designers or are you completely independent and follow your own vision?
Well, we are all women. These designers are also very talented, so it's an honour for me to be seen as one of them. We all have our own distinctive styles and I think we're all trying to say something different with our clothes. But the main point is that we're all very passionate about what we do. There's a certain point of view when women design clothes for women but we all have different backgrounds. For example, I was raised in Uruguay. When it comes to my clothes I combine luxury with rustic elements. You can't take the country out of the girl.
Let's talk about this new wave in American fashion. Do you think it's a modern phenomenon?
I can only talk about what I'm doing, which is thinking about the whole process and combining beautiful materials with great design and functionality. I want my clothes to function; I want my coat to protect you from the cold weather. In this weird world that we live in today where we're travelling so much, I want clothes to adapt. I want to make sure that they're made to last and that you don't buy and then throw it away later. I feel completely averse to buying and throwing away. I want people to buy it and to keep it — that's just the way I grew up.
Do you think that women are a little bit tired of the fashion cycle and that maybe they just want simple pieces for their daily lives?
We are working and we are doing a lot. The clothes have to communicate that. Women want to feel strong and comfortable, but they also want to be attractive. I don't want to use the word "simple", because it could translate to mean something different.
Is there a big difference between your personal style and the look of a woman who you are representing in your collections?
Well, our design process is always collaborative. Overall, our vision shows what we think and what I would wear as a style. I only have one point of view but that doesn't mean that the women that I'm going to dress will have the same point of view.
I found a quote from one of your interviews. You said: "It makes me comfortable when something is not perfect". What kind of imperfections do you like when creating your pieces?
I like things to have a raw edge. If you touch the material on this skirt, you can feel how beautiful and soft it is; yet there's a structure and draping to it. But then the edge is going to be raw and the pattern will be a little bit loose. You cannot keep perfection when you have an active life. And I don't believe in perfection.
What role does knitwear play in your work?
Knits are so important! I have to thank my husband for helping me understand that. I inherited a sheep and cattle ranch in Uruquay from my father, then on my mother's side I'm a sixth generation rancher. We have always produced and sold merino wool. So from the beginning I watched sheep being sheared. We sold hundreds of thousands of kilos of wool but I was buying yarn in Italy to make my sweaters. So my husband said: "Why don't you use some of your wool to make your sweaters?"
Now we take wool from our ranch, from the farm, we send it to be washed and spun and then we make sweaters in Uruguay.
And thus they become really authentic...
My husband is making a film about it actually. When you live in cities, you forget where your food comes from. Everybody talks about "from farm to table" so this makes you think about where your clothes come from, where wool comes from.
There are designers who sketch and then there are designers who can sew and construct. What do you do best?
I can sketch but it's not perfect by any means. I can communicate via drawing but I don't have the technical training in garment construction, so I surround myself with good people who are very technical and we collaborate. Sometimes it's a bit of an impairment and I have to try really hard to communicate what I want.
How do you work with fabrics? How do you treat them and what are your favourite ones?
I get very excited when talking about yarns, looking at all the different yarns, touching them, and discussing the trends. I can think about the clothes and how I want them, after I find the material. I like things that are very soft to the body, so I go for silk chiffon or a very thin tissue-type of cashmere. I like wool flannels and everything that's good for layering. When choosing the fabrics we spend a lot of time in this thought process, discovering. And it's a balance, because sometimes you think of a silhouette first. It's a little bit like songwriting. What do you write first: the music or the lyrics? Depending on who you are, it comes in different ways. Sometimes I see the silhouette first and then I find the fabric for it.
How interested are you in what's going on in the fashion industry and the whole buzz around it? Do you follow the news? For example, lately everyone has been talking about the creative directors leaving the big fashion houses...
I think it's very interesting what people are trying to communicate. I'm trying to be the best I can be in my job. And this is the medium that I choose to communicate with. I try to make sure that the message comes from the clothes. It's business and you're selling a product, but you're also sending out a message. The designers at the big fashion houses have a responsibility to make beautiful clothes but they need to make sure that the right message is behind them too, because people are paying attention.
What are your ambitions, maybe the less obvious ones? Can you see yourself doing your own line and heading a big fashion house at the same time?
I'm always open to the concept of getting better at what I do. I think what is really appealing about designing for other houses is the access you have to the craftsmanship and the workmanship. When you're a small designer, you have to do everything yourself. I'm curious to see what I would be able to do if I had access to the same sources the big house designers do.
Do you think that the fashion industry is monopolised by men? It seems that most of the creative directors at the helm of the big French fashion houses are men.
It's not only in fashion, it's tough for women in general in all industries, because we have kids and we have other responsibilities. We are the same and yet we are different from men. We should be regarded on the same level, but because we are different, maybe we should be regarded a little bit higher (laughs).
In Uruguay and Latin America where you come from; is it more conservative in terms of relationships within families?
Yes, but at the same time my country is very progressive. We were the eighth country in the world to give women the right to vote. We have always been very progressive. And because it is a small country, we can experiment with ideas and concepts and take them to the next level. I think it's about talent and how good you are rather than what gender you are. I'm going to look for the right person and the gender will not influence my decision.
We have Phoebe Philo, Stella McCartney, Carolina Herrera, Miuccia Prada, Vivienne Westwood and many other talented women with the queen of all of them - Elsa Schiaparelli; this is the list of women who have elevated fashion and taken it to the next level. But men have always been there.
Can you please tell us a little bit more about life in Uruguay? Does it inspire you? Do you go back there often and how do you spend your time there?
I've just had a baby so I haven't been there for a while, but I'm going there next week. I'm very excited! I'm going straight from Moscow to Uruguay. What inspires me about my country is that its population is only 3.5 million people, it's very small, and so we can only do quality. We cannot compete on quantity.
What do you do at your ranch? Do you ride horses?
Oh yes, I was born riding horses and I've been riding all of my life. I don't remember anyone teaching me how to. I remember being taught how to ride a bicycle, but not a horse. We have plenty of horses and all of the women in my family ride horses. Everybody is a rancher, that's what we do.
Do you feel that New York is still the capital of the world? Some people say that London has taken its place.
I think that the world is a global place; there are different capitals for different things. We obviously know that every capital has its particular strength. I love New York. It offers freedom of choice. If you work really hard and you put your heart into it and you're really focused you can achieve a lot of things. It's a place where opportunities can manifest.