Waste has always been a problem that the fashion industry is notoriously guilty of. Designers are increasingly pressured to churn out up to six collections a year in a bid to satiate the growing hunger amongst luxury consumers, and whatever doesn’t get sold in the end-of-season sales ends up in a landfill. Never mind that sustainability is a growing conversation amongst the elite brands; a 2019 report from the World Economic Forum found that there is about US$400 billion worth of clothing prematurely dumped into a landfill somewhere.
That’s something that Gabriela Hearst wants to lead change in.
The Uruguayan designer and winner of this year’s CFDA “American Womenswear Designer of the Year” – not to mention, recently appointed artistic director of Chloe – has long been committed to creating a luxury brand that puts sustainability at the forefront of how the label is run.
Since launching her first womenswear collection in 2015, she has created designs that are anchored in the two pillars of her brand: long term and sustainable. A collection two years later featured 30 percent of the pieces made from deadstock fabrics, and a year after that, in November 2018, Hearst unveiled her first New York-based flagship store “built with a conscientious approach, without the use of synthetics or chemicals, using natural, non-treated reclaimed oak, built-in light occupancy sensors throughout the space to reduce electrical consumption and a filtered water fountain that eliminates the need for plastic bottles. Ninety percent of the material waste generated during construction was recycled”.
Hearst doesn’t just talk. She walks the walk.
In tandem with the launch of her AW20 pop-up store at On Pedder Singapore, which is currently running in-stores, Hearst spoke candidly to A Magazine on how she first ventured into designing her line of uber-successful bags, how the pandemic has affected her company, and her vision for luxury’s road ahead.
Tell us how your line of bags came to fruition.
A friend of mine told me that after we launched our collection of ready-to-wear and shoes, I shouldn’t be carrying someone else bag. I thought he had a point, so I took my time to design a bag that I absolutely loved. It was in October of 2015 that I was carrying the prototype in Paris and people started stopping me in the street. I had a plan to do only 25 [units of the Nina bag].
Then in London, I was in the elevator of a hotel when a gentleman saw how the bag opened and told me it was very interesting. I said it was my prototype and I was thinking of doing a few more. He said if I did, that he would want one for his wife. When he gave me his card, I realized it was Jony Ive, the Chief Design Officer of Apple. I took it as a sign. A few months later I sent him one and he sent me an iPad Pro. Also, Brie Larson wore one of the first editions of this bag the night before she won her Oscar. This bag has been surrounded by good fortune.
For our bags, it takes an average of nine to 10 months from original conception to sample. We work on them for a long time and the production can take a minimum of three months, so I am attached to all of them.
Since launching your label in 2015, how have you observed the industry evolve, and how has your business responded to that?
I think it’s critical that the industry becomes more responsible for promoting sustainability and those values. It has become an actual need [to be sustainable], because we can’t continue how we are functioning right now. We have to figure out the way to do what we love and what we are good at. The business is something we create, but what is the real cost to the world and to our own humanity? We really need to rethink how we do things. The positive side of it is all the tools are already in existence, now we just need to make changes.
There is only one way you can grow true luxury and that’s slowly. For the last five years, we have been controlling our growth and making sure we are doing it organically. I think step by step, that’s how you do it. I am pretty clear with the mission I have for the fashion collections that I design.
Why is sustainability important to your brand and you?
I grew up on a large ranch in Uruguay, where we were exposed to the environment and we had to live sustainably out of purely utilitarian reasons. Our home was built in the 1800s by my family. It was made to last. We had wind energy, then solar panels decades after. Being in contact with Mother Nature from a very young age makes you understand her power and why we have to respect it.
I don’t care who has the biggest or most luxurious brand, if we aren’t protecting what it is most precious. It is very important for us to create something that doesn’t add to the problem and hopefully instead has a positive impact.
Sustainability and luxury aren’t competing concepts. Luxury must be sustainable [now], as it has been in the past. For us, sustainability is not another thing we do; it is the path that we are on.
You’ve also talked about using deadstock and reclaimed fabrics only. How are you progressing on that?
I was using a high-end mill that was appalled when I used to use the word “deadstock”. Now, they are sending me all their deadstock materials! It’s about changing the mentality. I am so excited when I see it becoming the norm. My team and I have now set a goal of eliminating all virgin materials by 2022.
Editor’s note: Virgin materials refer to production materials sourced directly from nature in its rawest form. Manufacturing using these materials can use up more energy and deplete natural resources quicker. A Seattle-based economist Jeffrey Morris estimated that producing a ton of office paper with virgin wood products will use nearly 3,000 kilowatt hours as compared to using recycled paper stock.
Speaking about the present times, how has the global Covid-19 pandemic affected fashion?
The big picture for us is looking at how we do business under a crisis. For the brand, our crisis is the environmental issues that pose an extinction risk on the human race. So when the Covid-19 crisis arrived, we were already used to working with strict parameters.
Obviously, we had to do some adaptations quickly, such as refocusing on our digital muscle and making sure it was strong enough to compensate for the lack of physicality in our retail, but our long-term vision hasn’t changed. When it comes to sustainability, we will never be finished. We will continue to evolve because it’s a key pillar of our company. It’s the heart of who we are.
This year, even amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, we launched several initiatives. One of them was to showcase the garment’s journey, which was to bring transparency to how we make products so our clients know where we are getting our materials and where everything is made. We want them to know what choices we take as we create a product that not only looks good but feels good. We also measure our carbon footprint, and we offset it with a donation to a non-profit organisation. We pushed our percentage of recycled and repurposed materials higher this year, compared with 2019. Those efforts continue driving us in order to start to be closer to the circular economy that we want to be in.
The Gabriela Hearst AW20 collection pop-up is available at On Pedder Singapore, from now to December 31st. For more information, visit this link.