In conversation with Gabriela Hearst

Image courtesy of Gabriela Hearst

Image courtesy of Gabriela Hearst

In 2017 Gabriela Hearst was announced the womenswear winner of the 2016/17 International Woolmark Prize. I spoke to the designer for David Jones on the inspiration behind the esteemed collection, sustainable fashion, and what it was like growing up on a ranch in Uruguay. 

KATHRYN CARTER: You grew up on your family’s ranch in Uruguay, so sheep and wool have always
been a big part of your life. Did your father and grandfather teach you much about the fibre when you were younger?
GABRIELA HEARST: I wasn’t directly taught, but when you’re born around it, you hear it and you’re exposed to it – and I actually worked in the ranch – so it’s [more] by nurture [that] you learn about these things…

KC: Almost like via osmosis?
GH: Yeah, osmosis, and it’s really funny. And then you know about the grass, you appreciate all these things, but there was never any direct training, it just becomes part of your life. So when it was my turn to take over the ranch when my dad passed away, I was surprised that I actually knew a lot of what I was doing. 

KC: How did you dress when you were a kid?
GH: On the ranch they always dressed you in Goucher pants and the shirts, and when I was in the city I used to, we used to have our clothes made by a seamstress – the fancy clothes – so I had a few party dresses that were, like, very very nicely made. And then, I always was trying to find a little bit of an edge with my clothes when I was a kid, because I went to a school where you needed to wear a uniform. So I wore the same uniform from age 5 to 17, so I was always looking for ways to find an edge.

KC: Your Woolmark collection aims to demonstrate the utilitarian side of wool within a fashion perspective. Is functionality always a priority when you design?
GH: Functionality is very important for me. Something for it to be just pretty is not enough for me, it has to have a function, and there has to be a comfort as well, and there has to be [attention paid] to the way it’s constructed. I start with the materials, so the materials need to be beautiful, and of the utmost quality I can find. And then the social aspect of who makes your clothes [needs to be considered]. So it has to be wonderful hands that know how to make the product.

KC: I loved hearing that your factory is owned by a woman in Italy – brilliant. 
GH: Yes! And the shoes, the shoe factory too! And it’s all a coincidence as well. And then our knits, they’re made in Uruguay, made by Manos del Uruguay, which is a co-op that supports women and it’s all shared profits through women, to support women. So yeah, we’re a very women-driven business. And we’re a 100% women team. We get things done! 

KC: When working with a material like wool, do you sketch a piece and then choose your fabric, or do you choose your fabric and then form your design? 
GH: It’s a mix of both...I do start with a concept, and then when I’m finally sure of it I start sketching around it, and so the base starts with sketching. Then [other times] there will be fabrics that I see, and I know exactly what it is [immediately]. I’ll see exactly what that fabric will do…

KC: You almost see a silhouette pop into your head?
GH: Yeah, yeah immediately. So it’s a mix of both, but I always start with sketching. 

KC: That’s great, I know that a lot of designers work differently, some use mood boards, others draw, some drape.
GH: I’ve always drawn. I find it easy to communicate with sketching, and also words. So sometimes I’m in bed and I’ll have an idea and I’ll grab my phone and I’ll write down what the concept is, and [reading] that will trigger the vision again, of what I had [in mind] originally.

KC: Working with quality materials is an integral part of Gabriela Hearst designs. What do you love most about working with Australian Merino wool?
GH: Well Australian Merino is the best Merino in the world. Yesterday we were at the farm of Dave and Sky Ward – it’s called Springponds – it’s just less than two hours from Sydney. And I saw their specimens and I saw their wool and it’s really superior. I mean, I could see the difference, I could see the difference of the animal and the genetics and the wool…

KC: So nice for you to be able to experience that up close, as well. 
GH: Yes, yes. And for me to see the actual merino in the fleece form. I mean of course I’ve been exposed to my own Merino in this form, but I could see that this is a superior product. 

KC: Can you tell us something we might not know about wool?
GH: Well wool is flame resistant; it will be slow at catching fire. I have a funny anecdote of my grandfather. When people would say that something was 100% Merino [he would test it]. So you can imagine him in David Jones, and he would be testing if things were 100% Merino with a lighter.

KC: Are you serious?! 
GH: Yeah, I know right? He was like a crazy man. But we have a deep passion for Merino in my family, and we were one of the first to bring Merino to Uruguay. 

KC: Your tweed pieces were all handmade by local craftswomen with Merino wool from your farm in Uruguay. What was it like working with these women?
GH: I love working with Manos del Uruguay because they’ve been around for fifty years and they are very passionate about what they do, and they are very professional. They support women, they allow them to live in their [own] rural areas where they have jobs so that they don’t have to move to the urban areas where the lifestyle can be a challenge and much more difficult. 

KC: It's refreshing to hear that these organisations are still around.
GH: Yeah they’re still around! There’s not a culture of donation in Uruguay, so they needed to be resourceful and sustainable. So as a not-for-profit they had to find a way of making money to support themselves. So they did. And they’ve been functioning for fifty years, so I think it’s a great blueprint to be inspired by. 

KC: There’s so much bad news about the way fashion is manufactured, it’s beautiful to hear that good things are still happening; it gives you hope for the future. 
GH: I think that good things are still happening, and I feel complete if I know that my product has been made with the utmost quality; the social component is really important [to me]. What we’re trying to build is a luxury brand that has a conscience. At the end of the day who cares if we’re the biggest brand if we don’t have an environment that is
sustainable to live in for our people?

KC: I loved reading that your muse for your Woolmark offering was WW2 Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. Tell us more about how she inspired the collection? Was it her style, her spirit?
GH: Well, she was a very stylish woman. I read her book ‘An Interview with History’ [and] she was interviewing the toughest characters of her time and wasn’t afraid of asking the tough questions, the intimidating questions. She really was there. So I was always inspired by that book. And her bravado and her courage was very inspiring. But usually characters like that, which have such a tough exposed side, they guard a very soft inside. And for me, that’s the part that intrigued me. So that’s why the whole collection is based on layering soft pieces close to the body. Because it’s like armour that you’re building.

And the powerful [trait] comes from the vulnerability. So I think that that’s what I am attracted to in characters like her [Fallaci]. And I’m always inspired by women that use their abilities in the support of others. To be bold for other people. So I’m always inspired by women in general who have that quality. 

KC: In your work, tradition is far more important than trends, and there is a purpose to every piece. Why is it so important to you to create long-lasting garments?
GH: For me it’s important to have long-lasting garments because I don’t like waste. The idea with Gabriela Hearst was to have a collection that you wanted to pass down. That you didn’t want to throw away. Like the clothes that were made by a seamstress for my mother that I wanted to keep. Like the things that you want to appreciate, that you want to pass down. 

Fewer things, better made – that was the whole principle of it. I’ve been designing for fourteen years and I was in the commercial market before and they were pushing me for lower prices and lower quality and I was really suffering, because my principles were not there in what I wanted to do. 

KC: It’s about integrity as well isn’t it, believing in what you’re doing? 
GH: Yes, and I find that when I put the environment first, and the long-term view of things… having that has been successful for the business. So every time we make a decision with the environment and long-term thinking [in mind] it’s been the right decision.

KC: It’s almost like the universe is supporting you and telling you that you’re doing the right thing.
GH: Yeah! It’s like a real clear path in that sense. I mean I know the road ahead is really long, but I feel like we’re on the right path. 

KC: In previous interviews you've spoken of the concept of consciousness. The idea that you can feel that something has been made with attention to detail. You can really see that in your collection. There’s a passionate energy that defines your process, isn’t there?
GH: Yeah, and that has to be translated. It’s very important that you have the right team. Because nothing can be done without the right team. Like 10% is the idea, 90% is the make, in our case [at least]. And so it’s really important that everyone in the team is passionate. 

KC: Li Edelkoort, the Dutch trend forecaster, says a similar thing about vases and objects, about how the spirit of the maker ends up being in the vessel. And so that’s what sets a particular piece apart from all the rest.
GH: Yeah I agree, I think that that’s very important, I do think that your consciousness is there [in the product]. I’m very involved in all processes of the company, from the production to the business side to everything, because it’s obviously a baby for me and it’s like my child, and I always am looking for the utmost standard for it. And maintaining our values. 

KC: In your own words, what is style?
GH: For me, style is how you treat other people. It’s how you relate to other people, and how you connect with other people. That’s style. 

This interview was first published on David Jones's JONES blog.