When Nina, Diana and Joni come to town, women clamour to meet them. Only, we’re not talking the famous women associated with these names, rather a series of handbags. Not just any bags, though. These are Gabriela Hearst’s impeccable leather creations, the sort that are usually only available via lengthy waiting lists in London and New York, or at exclusive pop ups around the world. For the next two weeks only, you can find them at Lane Crawford, in an impeccably-styled installation that doesn’t so much shout chic, as whisper it.
The woman behind all this strides into the store in an immaculate, tomato-coloured suit. Hair pulled back to reveal a smattering of tiny tattoos around the nape of her neck, 43-year-old Hearst strikes me as equal parts business-like and bohemian. As you learn a little bit about her, this juxtaposition makes total sense. She spent the first half of her life growing up on the family ranch in Uruguay. “We were off the grid, two and a half hours from the closest city. We made our own soap, we had a telephone you used to dial up like this,” she twirls her hand in the air. “We have a joke that, if the end of the world is coming, you move to Uruguay, because then you have another 15 years!”
In her early 20s, Hearst moved to New York, where she established her first fashion venture, a contemporary brand peddling t-shirts. Then, four years ago, she changed direction. “As I grew older, after my father passed away and I inherited his ranch at home, I was just feeling like my heart wasn’t where I was. I was having to produce fashion at a lower price point, which meant a lower cost. And, what type of cost? Not only the price, but also the cost to the environment.”
And so, the two seemingly unlikely forces of a seventh-generation sheep ranch and luxury fashion joined together in an eponymous offering that launched in February 2015. Quickly, the Gabriela Hearst brand made a name for itself for two things; elegant, extremely luxurious ready-to-wear and impeccable sustainable credentials. “For me, that was the type of luxury I wanted to create,” shrugs Hearst. “I mean, the world doesn’t need another fashion brand, but we put so much pride in the product and where the materials are coming from. And, it has to have desirability. Because, no one is going to buy this stuff for my good intentions, on that I’m pretty clear.”
The women who do ‘buy this stuff’ – her sleek separates, sharp suiting and ridiculously soft cashmere sweaters knitted by a non-profit back home in Uruguay, “so soft, they’re like Prozac!” she laughs – have formed an army of dedicated followers who already can’t imagine how they dressed before. “I always talked about this dynamic professional woman in the world, and my service is to make sure she has the armour to feel professional and ready to go,” she says of her clients. “Some are bio engineers, others work in healthcare, some are lawyers. These are tough jobs in really tough situations, and they want to look good.”
These women love her interesting colour palette, feel fabulous in her intricately pleated dresses and obsess over the details, just as Hearst does. A blazer might have pockets lined with anti-radiation fabric, “so you can put your mobile phone in it,” a simple cream blouse may be given an upgrade from cotton to cashmere gauze. You’ll find bags with secret openings (the Mitchell), intricate, fan-like shapes (the Diana), and, as a latest offering, her signature Nina, this time swathed in a corresponding, hand knitted cashmere Mochila. “Everyone kept asking me to do a cross body bag, and I was like, ‘no! It’s going to look like a kidney!’ But this is special, it’s different, and it’s actually pretty practical.”
With two stores in London and New York, and a minority stake in her business taken by LVMH, Hearst has everything she needs at her disposal to continue on her quest to reimagine luxury. “There’s this idea of endless cornucopia, that we have endless resources, which is simply not true,” she says of the urgent need for change. “We’re seeing this, it’s happening right now. And, in five years, everybody is going to be concerned about where everything is made and where it’s coming from.” She plans to be right there with them, answering the question of how luxury fashion can possibly be compatible with a world where collateral damage is simply not an option. “I want to do this for the rest of my life,” she shares, with a steely intensity. “When you give creativity parameters, it becomes very focused, laser sharp.” Not unlike her own, impeccable, tomato-coloured suit.
The pop-up runs until 15 November at Lane Crawford, IFC Mall, 8 Finance St, Central
CreditLead photo: courtesy of Lane Crawford