Gabriela Hearst On Why Sustainability Is Imperative

Gabriela Hearst

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When we met Gabriela Hearst this summer, the sustainability champion remained optimistic about the future of the industry. Hearst, who just received the CFDA’s Women’s Clothing Designer of the Year award, also wanted to set the record straight on the misconception that being green means spending more. She spoke to ELLE as part of our look at the future of fashion:

Do you think the current economic climate will help or hinder the sustainability movement?

In fact, I see COVID-19 as an accelerator of these problems. The kind of hedonistic luxury that felt old before is totally dead now. I think and hope that people will now opt more for craftsmanship and quality.

It’s very complex and there are so many layers, but if you look at the two main carbon emitters of greenhouse gases, 1/4 is raw materials and 1/4 is transportation. Obviously the transportation has been slower these days so we pay a lot of attention to materials. There is this misconception that we live with this endless cornucopia of resources. This is of course not true. This virus is of course incredibly dangerous but unlike the climate crisis, it does not threaten our existence as a species.

What have you been working on lately?

I have been so attached to ensuring that we take as little as possible on this planet, while preserving our quality and our know-how. As of 2017, we have only used items collected from our living room and have since introduced compostable packaging. More recently, for Spring 2020, we launched a project called Garment Journey, which is a QR code tag that takes you to our website to explain the fabric choices. For example, we chose hemp for a garment because it uses less water and does not contain pesticides. We have selected a specific plant because it uses renewable energy and has all the certifications we need to have peace of mind.

model walks among salvaged fabric from the Hearst Fall 2020 show
Model walks among salvaged fabric at Hearst fall 2020 show

Victor VIRGILEGetty Images

Your goal is to use only dead stock and salvaged tissue. Is it difficult to find materials of sufficient quality?

It is an incredible challenge. You basically have to go hunting and gathering, talking to the mills and buying everything ahead of time, figuring out what you can make of it, how much you can sell. And if the fabric is recycled, you need to make sure it’s made mechanically, not chemically. Our goal this year for the resort collection is to be at least 50% dead tissue. I want us to be the luxury trash can, where we can get the most beautiful and precious materials and turn them into something extraordinary.

So you say movement is now more vital than ever?

Post-COVID, we are all [going to be] using less, spending less. We’re going to want to have things made to last. I think the new paradigm is if you are a person or a business and you can help, you have to help. Being sustainable is essential. It is not a choice. And I think what sometimes turns off a lot of people, and certainly big companies, is the idea that they have to be perfect because they will be judged. People are so quick to point out the mistakes of others rather than celebrating their efforts. I made tons of mistakes along the way. The important thing is that we try.

There is a misconception that being environmentally friendly costs more, but it is not. It is a question of waste. The less you waste, the more economical it is for your business. I was reviewing our shipping and it was extremely high so now we are opting to ship by sea over air.

gabriela hearst fall 2020
Gabriela Hearst fall 2020.

Victor VIRGILEGetty Images

How are you approaching next season?

I am always very skeptical when things move too fast. I had already purchased the fabric as it was out of stock and we almost managed to keep our team intact with no pay cut which I am extremely proud of.

One incredibly beautiful thing that happened in the wake of the pandemic was when I received next season’s first set of samples from our Italian suppliers. They were obviously hit very hard and the clothes were so perfect; they had taken so much care. I had expected the seams to be deliberately tousled but they had poured so much love into their work that I didn’t have the courage to remake them.

There is something terrifying about not knowing if you are going to be able to return to the job that you love. We were able to produce this collection remotely. Now it’s up to Part B, which will answer the question of how we show it to the world.

[Editor’s note: In July, Hearst announced she would be presenting her spring 2021 collection on Paris. “When we started to assess with the team what the best course of action was to navigate the changing landscape as a result of the pandemic, we realized that for many reasons it became increasingly clear that we will have to present in Paris from an environmental perspective and from a logistics and transportation perspective,” Hearst said in a statement.]

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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