Gabriela Hearst in store now

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Uruguay-born, New York-based designer Gabriela Hearst believes in the superior value of quality. Katharine K. Zarrella meets this year’s International Woolmark Prize womenswear winner.

“You can be whatever you want, but never be boring. That’s my motto,” says designer Gabriela Hearst. Indeed, that credo describes both her eclectic life and her eponymous luxury clothing line, which she launched in 2015. The womenswear winner of this year’s International Woolmark Prize, Hearst designs strong clothes for strong women. “Every single one of my collections is inspired by women,” explained the 40-year-old talent while sitting in her Manhattan studio, the walls of which are covered with the work of artist Leigh Johnson (Hearst changes the artscape each season). Take spring 2016, which featured elegant, oversized outerwear, updated takes on the trench, evening trousers and sporty-yet delicate separates, and which was dubbed “For Famous Witches and Suffragettes”: Nina Simone, for whom Hearst named her latest handbag style, and Susan B. Anthony were among the designer’s influences.

Trailblazing Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, meanwhile, was Hearst’s muse for her International Woolmark Prize collection. “She interviewed the most dangerous men on the planet,” Hearst said of the late Fallaci. “She was not afraid of asking the hard questions, and she has so many qualities that I admire in a woman. She was tough and fearless, but underneath the toughness was a sensitive human being.” The resultant collection demonstrates the utilitarian side of wool within a fashion context, using super soft 14-micron yarns in baseball jackets, reversible puffer vests and knitwear. “What I try to do is empower women – nourish them with my clothes so they feel powerful,” said Hearst, noting that she designs for “women of action”. She added: “I want them to feel that they can go and achieve, because we all have our own missions every day.” 

Born in Uruguay and raised on her family’s sheep farm and cattle ranch there, Hearst grew up worlds away from the hustling and bustling fashion capitals. But she did have one strong connection to clothing: her mother. “There were no big brands [in my town] except Levi’s, but I was always very interested in fashion because of my mum,” recalled Hearst, who herself is a mother of three. “She would have a seamstress come and make her custom clothes out of European fabric – it was basically couture. I grew up seeing these well-cut, beautifully made [garments], and that’s something I want to preserve with our clothes,” she continued. “I want to make pieces that you can keep in your wardrobe forever. And for that, you need quality and timeless design.”

Hearst was always hungry to learn about other cultures and countries, so when she turned 17, she moved to Australia to get a taste of another life. In 2000, she made her way to New York to study acting, but ended up modeling and working for an independent designer instead of turning to the stage. “Immediately, I saw I had an inkling for it, and I could do the business part,” Hearst said. In 2004, she co-founded the contemporary line Candela. But it wasn’t until her father passed away and she inherited the family ranch in Uruguay that Hearst was moved to launch her namesake luxury label. “When my dad passed away, I inherited the ranch and had to take charge of it. And I said, ‘Why was I denying all of this? Why was I rejecting it?’”

She went on to become the sixth generation wool producer, and now uses the wool from her farm to make fabric for her wares. “I want to show the ultra luxury side of wool,” said Hearst, who produces the bulk of her garments in Italy. “People tend to think of wool as their grandmother’s hand-knit sweater, but it’s such an amazing fabric with immense qualities.” To demonstrate this, Hearst has used Merino wool for everything from velvet to sports-minded staples in her collection for the International Woolmark Prize. “Wool has benefited humans for thousands of years, but its qualities make it a fibre for the future,” she added.

Uruguay, according to Hearst, has also played an important role in her creative vision and outlook. “There’s always a rustic [element] to my collections, and there’s always a punk side. It’s feminine, but there’s a lot of tailoring, so it’s about balancing the masculine and the feminine,” Hearst said of her aesthetic. “I have a rural background, but I’ve been living in one of the biggest urban capitals for 16 years, so having these countryside values and this city life gives me a certain perspective. In a small country like Uruguay, everything is quite homogenous, so you crave to be different, and you crave to know more. But at the same time, there’s something very grounded about that life.”

Hearst has become known for her thoroughly modern take on luxurious, sophisticated classics, but in addition to producing some of the most covetable wares around (Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick, Emma Watson, and more are fans), the designer ensures that her company is socially conscious, too. For instance, this year, she collaborated with Tod’s on a “Love” shoe, 20 per cent of the proceeds from which went to charity Save the Children. And she produces her knits in Uruguay at a co-op called Manos del Uruguay, which helps women across the country. “You can’t live in a bubble,” Hearst insists. “We’re not creating products of need – we’re creating products of desire. So when you can put your creativity towards helping other people, it makes everyone feel good.”

Since introducing her range of contemporary classics, Hearst has experienced a somewhat meteoric rise. After less than two years in business, the designer is already carried by a wealth of major retailers, including Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom, Selfridges, and The Line, to name just a very few. “It’s a journey,” she says of building her brand. “It takes a long time to trust your instinct–to follow your gut. Nothing gets done without hard work. And you need endurance. You have to be careful of not burning out and knowing how to pace yourself,” she said.

For Hearst, winning the prize means a lot for her business – she plans to invest in the Enterprise Resource Planning technological system to help with efficiency and sustainability – and for her personally. “I wish my father and grandfather were here to experience this with me. Sheep and wool were an integral part of their lives as ranchers. It’s an honour to be recognised by the industry and to work with such an exceptional material that has supported my family for so many generations.” When asked what her brand adds to the already crowded fashion landscape, Hearst paused. “I’d like for our company to support quality, and quality is about people being passionate about what they do,” she said proudly. “I am passionate about taking old values of production and incorporating them into the modern era. There’s always a way you can do things cheaply, but there are enough cheap things in the world. I believe in doing things better.”

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