Farm to Label
Gabriela Hearst’s time on her rural South American ranch informs how she designs for cosmopolitan women.
Interview by Courtney Kenefick
Photos by Katie Thompson
April 17, 2017
Gabriela Hearst doesn’t care if she’s cool or not. The 40-year-old says, with a warm South American intonation, that it’s a confidence that comes with age, but as someone who effectively lives two lives—one as a cosmopolitan fashion designer and the other as a sheep rancher—her coolness is implicit.
The same can be said of Hearst’s eponymous womenswear brand, which is equal parts pragmatism and romance—just as a city-dweller might view the life of a rancher. Her upbringing in the lowlands of Uruguay makes it easy for Hearst to eschew the ephemeral, trend-driven nature of the fashion industry, opting instead to reuse what’s already available. (Seats for her first runway show in February came mostly out of her home and studio, for instance.)
At Hearst’s studio, in West Chelsea, where we met a few weeks after her New York Fashion Week show, mementos of South America sit among clothing samples and look books. Above her desk is a framed black-and-white photo of her mother, wearing jeans and a bandana, riding a horse. Another shows her father in typical gaucho garb. Hearst, née Perezutti, stands tall, clad in a red suede skirt and matching silk top of her own design—paired with a Mochila bag. Shelves are stacked with books on Argentinian artists, fashion photography, and feminism. Surface sat down with the designer to to discuss life on the ranch, her first runway presentation, and her famous last name.
You’re a Scorpio. That means you’re supposed to be resourceful, which makes sense considering the format of your fall 2017 runway show.
I am very resourceful. I don’t know if that’s the sign or because I grew up in Uruguay. Everything was kind of seamless and low-impact and really thought-out. I think that’s a very South American way, because we don’t have access to a lot of things, so you just have to make it pretty with what you have. And that’s part of our aesthetic.
Silk pieces from the fall/winter 2017 collection. A scorpion paperweight on Hearst’s desk in New York. The collection’s Catt bootie.
Tell me about growing up in Uruguay.
I lived in a very isolated place—when I was born there was more animals than people. I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could. Once I traveled around the world and lived in other places, my appreciation became evident. People tend to romanticize where they grew up, but this is a really romantic kind of existence. I was isolated from people, and it made me crave people. I wanted to know about other cultures, and travel the world.
But now you run your own sheep ranch there.
I inherited my father’s ranch when he passed away, six years ago, so I’ve been managing the ranch, but I have an amazing foreman who trained with my father, so he’s kind of like my dad’s clone. If it wasn’t for him, it wouldn’t be possible for me to have this dual life, because to get there takes twenty-four hours, door-to-door.
Did doing a runway show during Fashion Week instead of a presentation feel like a sort of graduation for you?
Definitely, and I think it was the right moment. A year ago we decided to do the show, but we wanted to do it smartly. A third of the collection is made with things that already exist: limited-edition Loro Piana fabrics, Swarovski crystals—they’re all stocks that we just chose. I’m having a aversion to using new stuff and throwing things out, because we can’t afford waste. We just can’t.
Gabriela Hearst in her office in New York City.
It’s also interesting how doing that creates an exclusivity to your collection.
That’s why it made so much sense. There’s only going to be ten of a certain coat and for me, that’s real luxury. By using something that already exists, I think we’re building on the positive, and building on positive is always good commerce. Maybe it’s a slower route for us, but I also have ten years of experience of making mistakes, so I can use what I’ve learned in a very efficient way.
What are those mistakes?
I started [the contemporary clothing label] Candela with $700. It had its advantages—you make money really quickly because you have to pay for your own light switch. You have to make it work, but you don’t have many choices. When you launch with better capital, you can choose to work with people who are really experts in their fields. When you work with masters, it elevates your work.
When you launched your line two years ago, what made you think it was the right time?
I couldn’t work with more crappy product. Straight up. I was in my late 30s, they were asking me to make cheaper product, and I was basing collections on, like, graffiti artists—I was communicating in the wrong medium. I was thinking of doing a high-end line for a long time, but it’s very hard to bring a line from a certain price to a higher price. That’s nearly impossible. You have to start all over.
And it takes time and experience to be able to make that change.
I’m at an age where, first of all, I don’t care if I’m cool. I don’t try to be cool, but I’m interested in how to seduce and allure people. I think comes with confidence. It usually comes with time for women. I think about women all the time, because at the end of the day what I do is a service. I dress women.
Looks from the fall/winter 2017 collection. (Photos: Courtesy Gabriela Hearst.)
Who are some of the women that inspire you?
For our fall 2017 collection it was Angela Davis, Oriana Fallaci, Kamala Harris, and Tammy Duckworth. All women who are very strong and very tough, but it’s what they are hiding—their softness—that’s powerful. Tammy Duckworth was a soldier who survived a helicopter accident, lost her limbs, was left for dead, rehabilitated, and then ran for Senate and won. They go through these challenges and put it in the service of others. I have huge admiration for them.
After your show in February, the Business of Fashion’s headline for your review was “Gabriela Hearst Proves She’s Her Own Woman.” Did you feel like that was something you had to prove?
I feel like a lot of the time because of the last name of my husband [media executive Austin Hearst], I have to work three times as hard. He had to live with it all of his life, so I got to experience a little bit of what he’s experienced. Some people had this misconception that I just woke up and created a fashion line. I’ve been schlepping for the past twelve years. I’ve paid my dues. Candela was never a huge success, but it was a medium success, and I was able to support myself with it.
Were you considering using your maiden name, Perezutti?
I did, but at the end of the day I think the name was the most truthful option. It was a right choice because it’s a family business. I’m the Gabriela, he’s the Hearst. We are the sole investors in the company. He’s still an investor, so I have to show a profit. At the end of the day, the product can be called whatever. If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t sell.
One of your best-selling products is the Nina bag, but you didn’t originally plan on making accessories. What changed your mind?
I just wanted to make one bag, so we worked on this bag for nine or ten months with no pressure. I had the prototype and I met Johnny Ives in the elevator of Claridge’s in London. I didn’t recognize him—he asked me who makes the bag. I was like, “I do. It’s a prototype.” I told him I may do twenty or twenty-five to give to women I know, and he said, “If you do, I’d like one.” He gives me his card. His name reads: Jony Ive. That was the sign.
Nina and Demi bags at the Gabriela Hearst showroom.