Born in Uruguay and raised on her family's ranch surrounded by horses, there's an obvious utilitarian thread to Gabriela Hearst's designs for her eponymous label. A veteran of the industry (the former model turned fashion designer founded the luxe boho label Candela in her twenties), her 2015-launched namesake line reflects a thoroughly modern, masculine-neets-feminine aesthetic. And as it turns out, all her hard work has oaid off: she's just been awarded the 2016/17 International Woolmark Prize for womenswear. Here, she talks about the label's conception and direction.
You launched a new label nearly a year ago and before that you had another successful brand Candela. Why did you decide to start a new chapter?
I started Candela when I was young, in my early twenties. It was more in the contemporary category. In the past few years, when I was thinking about clothing, I realised that I always had a strong passion for making things in the best quality possible. And you cannot take a brand with a certain price point to another price point. We had to create something new and I think that Gabriela Hearst is much more reflective of what I do today as a woman, of what I believe in and what I want to do in general.
There's a brilliant new wave of women in America who are making new fashion that manifests modern femininity. Designers like Rosetta Getty and Rosie Assoulin. Do you feel you have something in common with them?
Well, we are all women. These designers are very talented, so it's an honour for me to be seen as one of them. We all have our own distinctive styles and I think we're all trying to say something different with our clothes. But the main point of comment is that we are all very passionate about what we do. There's a certain point of view when women design clothes for women. We all have different backgrounds. For example, I was raised in Uruguay. When it comes to my clothes I combine luxury with rustic elements. So you cannot take a girl out of [the] country.
Do you think this new wave in American fashion is a modern phenomenon?
I can only talk about what I'm doing, which is thinking about the whole process and combining beautiful materials with great design and functionality. I want my clothes to function; I want my coat to protect you from the cold weather. In this weird world that we live in today we are travelling so much and I want these clothes to adapt. I want to make sure that it's made to last and that you don't buy it and then throw it away later. I feel completely averse to buying and throwing away. I want to make sure of that - that's just the way I grew up. I'm sure that people in Russia feel the same way. I think that you also only had a few things, but they had to be good because they had to last a long time.
Do you think women are a bit tired of weird proportions? Maybe they just want simple pieces for their daily lives. Could this be the reason behind this new wave of designers?
I think that women are doing a lot. We are working and we are doing a lot. The clothes have to communicate that. Women want to feel strong and comfortable, but they also want to be attractive. I don't want to use the word 'simple', because maybe it translates as something different.
Maybe we can call it functional?
Maybe functional or well thought-out, but also it's not about clothes that say 'me, me, me, look at me' all the time. It's about an understanding that somebody has made an intelligent choice in what they are wearing, because it's well made, it comes from a good source and it protects everyone.
Is there a big difference between your personal style and the look of a woman who you are representing in your collections?
Well, our design process is always collaborative. Overall, our vision shows what we think and what I would wear as a style. I only have one point of view but that doesn't mean that the women that I'm going to dress will have the same point of view. I try to send the message directly but we are only doing as much... There is nothing in my collection that I wouldn't wear myself. Everything that is going to be put out there - I would wear every single piece. If I wouldn't wear or buy it, then I don't approve it.
I found a quote from one of your interviews. You said: "It makes me comfortable when something is not perfect". What kind of imperfections do you like when creating your pieces?
I like things to have a raw edge. If you touch the material on this skirt, you can feel how beautiful and soft it is; yet there's a structure and draping to it. But then the edge is going to be raw and the pattern will be a little bit loose. You cannot keep perfection when you have an active live. And I don't believe in perfection. I believe in trying to get it, but I don't think it exists.
You style is very minimalistic and very urban but with a sense of poetry. You also use a lot of rustic elements. How do you find balance between minimalism and poetry?
You know, I think a lot about this. When I start designing a piece, the first thing that comes to my mind is a very strong image, a silhouette, an idea. Then I do some rough sketches, I talk with the team and we develop it. I think what I'm doing is abstracting. I'm taking everything out to see exactly what I need and then I add the character again because I don't want the clothes to be boring or one-dimensional. So at first I need to see what's the purpose of the piece and then I add more character to it.
What role does knitwear play in your work? I know you do a lot of knits.
Knits are so important! I have to thank my husband for helping me understand it. It looked so obvious from the outside. I inherited a sheep and cattle ranch in Uruquay from my father. On my mother's side I'm a sixth generation rancher. We have always produced and sold merino wool. So from the beginning I watched sheep being sheared. We sold hundreds of thousands of kilos of wool. And then I'm buying yarn in Italy to make my sweaters. So my husband said: "Why don't you use some of your wool to make your sweaters?" Now we take wool from our ranch, from the farm, we send it to be washed and spun and then we make sweaters in Uruguay.
And thus they become really authentic...
We are making a film about this. My husband is making a film that will add that layer of understanding. Everybody talks about 'from farm to table' - this helps you understand where your food comes from. When you live in cities, you forget where your food comes from. And this is the same thing - to think where your clothes come from, where does the wool come from, what's the place where it comes from and what's the process around it.
There are designers who sketch and then there are designers who can sew and construct. What do you do best?
I can sketch but it's not perfect by any means. I can communicate via drawing. I'm fairly good at communicating an idea by drawing it and then talking about it. I don't have the technical training in garment construction, so I surround myself with good people who are very technical and we collaborate. Sometimes it's a bit of an impairment and I have to try really hard to communicate what I want. I wish that I had a proper education for it. But I think that after ten or twelve years in design you do get an idea.
How do you work with fabrics? How do you treat them what are your favourite ones?
I get very excited when talking about yarns, looking at all the different yarns, touching them, and discussing trends. I can think about the clothes and how I want them after I find the material. I like things that are very soft to the body, so I go for silk chiffon or a very thin tissue type of cashmere. I like wool flannels and everything that's good for layering. When choosing the fabrics we spend a lot of time in this thought process, discovering. And it's a balance, because sometimes you think of silhouette first. It's a little bit like songwriting. What do you write first: the music or the lyrics? Depending on who you are, it comes in different ways. Sometimes I see the silhouette first and then I find the fabric for it.
How interested are you in what's going on in the fashion industry and the whole buzz around it? Do you follow the news? For example, lately everyone was talking about the creative directors leaving big fashion houses.
I think it's very interesting what goes on and what people are trying to communicate. For me, I was always questioning myself: is this what I want to do or not? At one point I decided that I want to be really good at what I do. I'm trying to achieve that, trying to be the best I can be in my job. And this is the medium that I choose to communicate with. I try to make sure that the message comes from the clothes. It's business and you are selling a product, but you are also sending out a message. I think that now there's so much attention on fashion, unlike ever before, so fashion is an extremely good vehicle to communicate with people. The designers at the big fashion houses have a responsibility to make beautiful clothes - that's wonderful. And they need to make sure that the right message is behind them too, because people are paying attention.
What are your ambitions, maybe the less obvious ones? Can you see yourself doing your own line and heading a big fashion house at the same time?
I'm always open to the concept of getting better at what I do. I think what is really appealing about designing for other houses is the access to the craftsmanship and the workmanship. When you are a small designer, you have to do everything yourself, you go to great lengths trying to find the right people. So our process is a bit more difficult. But when you are with a big fashion house, you have access to their workshops and ateliers, so you can have an idea in the morning and in the afternoon you can see it manifested in a muslin fabric or you can have the dress made already. Our timelines are much longer and everything we do takes a long time, because we don't have that access. I'm curious to see what I would be able to do if I had access to all those things.
Do you think that the fashion industry is a little bit monopolised by men? Most of the creative directors at the helm of big French fashion houses are men.
It's not only in fashion, it's tough for women in general in all industries, because we have kids and we have other responsibilities. We are the same and yet we different from men. We should be regarded on the same level, but because we are different, maybe we should be regarded a little bit higher [laughs]. A little bit higher, because we do much more.
So men and women should be equal?
Yes, we are equal, but maybe a little bit more [laughs]. Add twenty per cent more.
Is Uruguay and Latin America (where you come from), in general, a little bit more conservative in terms of relationships within families?
Yes, but at the same time my country is very progressive. We are the eighth country in the world that gave women the right to vote. And because it is a small country, we can experiment with ideas and concepts and take them to the next level. I think it's about talent and how good you are rather than what gender you are. These talented men in the big fashion houses have to dedicate a lot of themselves to the work, but women can do it too. We have Phoebe Philo, Stella McCartney, Carolina Herrera, Miuccia Prada, Vivienne Westwood and many other talented women with the queen of all of them - Elsa Schiaparelli; this is the list of women who have elevated fashion and taken it to the next level. But men have always been there. At the turn of the century they have created the first fashion houses.
Tell us a bit more about life in Uruguay? Does it inspire you? Do you go back there often and how do you spend your time there?
I've just had a baby so I haven't been there for a while, but I'm going there next week. I'm very excited! I'm going straight from Moscow to Uruguay. What inspires me about my country is that its population is only 3.5 million people, it's very small, and so we can only do quality. Quantity is out of the question, so we go for quality. It is still a Latin country, so there's a relaxed atmosphere because the climate is good. So you can be a little bit 'ah mañana', if you know what I mean. I quite like to do things fast, but well.
What do you do at your ranch? Do you ride horses?
Oh yes, I was born riding horses and I've been riding all my life. I don't remember anyone teaching me how to. I remember being taught how to ride a bicycle, but not the horses. We have plenty of horses and all the women in my family ride horses. Everybody is a rancher, that's what we do.
Do you feel that New York is still the capital of the world? Some people say that London has taken its place.
I think that the world is a global place; there are different capitals for different things. We obviously know that every capital has its particular strength. I love New York. It offers freedom of choice. If you work really hard and you put your heart into it and you're really focused - you can achieve a lot of things. It's a place where opportunities can manifest.