Gabriela Hearst on How She’s Working to ‘Make Sustainability Sexy’

Sustainability may be many things, but Gabriela Hearst wants to add another descriptor to the list.

“I think we should make sustainability sexy,” the founder of her eponymous brand and creative director of Chloé said during Fairchild Media’s recent Sustainability Forum. “People need to understand how important this is. We’re talking about a matter of survival right now.”

Hearst was discussing why she cares so much about sustainability, the progress she has made with her own brand and how she’s incorporating environmental consciousness and consideration into her role at Chloé in a conversation with Booth Moore, WWD’s executive editor, West Coast.

For so long, there’s been a sort of separation of sustainability and design, where products either had one or the other, but as consumers become more discerning and less willing to sacrifice on either, fashion has to have both.

According to Hearst, brands need to have good design and the designs have to be well made. And with both, the constant need for consumption could wane, which is a critical component of progress on sustainability.

Recalling her feature in WWD’s “Ten of Tomorrow” six years ago, where she said in a video that a person only needs one good sweater, not 10, Hearst — who grew up in a home where her grandmother made her sleeping gowns and socks were mended — reiterated her position on consumption.

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“It needs to be back to that culture, let’s repair. We can’t consume anymore. It’s not feasible for our survival,” she said. Repair is something Gabriela Hearst provides for its customers, provided they didn’t, as she said, go through mud or wear the clothing to a rave.

“It wasn’t about quantity, it was about quality. Sustainability is not an option anymore,” she said. “We’re sustainable. You have to be sustainable. This is a requirement in order to have a business.”

At Gabriela Hearst, many decisions about sustainability are made at the design table. Basically, the number-one choice will be the environmental choice and the one with the lowest impact. When it comes to choosing fabric, they’ll choose deadstock over something else, even if it’s nicer.

“Because we’re working with the best mills in the world, the choices are nice. It’s good stuff. With the scale of our business, it’s easier to make those decisions,” Hearst said.

Gabriela Hearst was one of the early proponents of using old fabrics and remnants in her collection. Hearst used deadstock fabrics for her first show in 2017, something that wasn’t happening in luxury at the time, and now it’s common practice. “It gives me hope,” she said, adding that it fuels a move into circularity, which is so important economically.

Last year, the brand used 40 percent sustainable materials. This year, it’s 50 percent and next year the plan is to scale that up to 80 percent.

“The real jump is from 2021 to 2022,” Hearst said, noting that, so far, things are on track. “That’s the goal, and it’s doable, it just takes a lot of planning.”

And that type of planning and sustainable-first thinking extends across all levels of the business — wholesalers, manufacturers, and the supply chain — which has been a challenge for many companies to accomplish.

“When you’re  a small company like ours, it’s quite easy because it’s so ingrained in the culture,” she said. “They already know what not to show me, and what not to bring to the table.”

Between 2018 and 2019, Gabriela Hearst changed all of its shipping hangers to recycled hangers, which Hearst called quite an undertaking. The brand got pushback from some clients, and sometimes even chargebacks, but Hearst herself pushed back. “Our retail partners understand. Everyone in business today has to understand that it’s not acceptable that we’re in this situation and that we must change,” she said.

When it comes to the downstream part of the conversation and communicating the brand’s sustainability efforts to consumers and getting them to care, Hearst is hands on with that part, too.

“You’re  looking at the head of marketing as well,” said Hearst. “It’s a lot of marketing and storytelling. We perhaps can do better at it.” She acknowledged the greater ease of starting these efforts and conversations when the business was small, when she could look at how the product was made, where the material was sourced, why they chose a particular factory (whether it was solar powered or women-owned), why they chose a certain fiber (because it doesn’t take pesticides or herbicides or less absorption of water). “The choices that we make we want to make sure the client understands that we’re making them for them. The mission is very simple — the highest quality possible with the lowest impact to the environment.”

But that high quality, low impact often comes at a cost to consumers.

Asked whether she has seen any price resistance to a $4,000 sweater, for example, Hearst said, “Because we’re a small structure, everything goes to the quality of the product. We have a really high-quality product. I actually do think it’s an investment piece. I’m sorry that sounds like an infomercial. I really do think we’re offering a high-quality product for the price point. I do think I’ve never had resistance in the price, because the client knows I’m giving them the best I can. There’s not a lot of marketing in between.”

While one popular formula for companies is to introduce licensed products or less expensive products, it’s not a route Hearst is likely to take with her brand.

“Our growth has always been organic,” she said. “We’ve had opportunities to really blow up the business really fast, and that was something that we declined because of our long-term view on sustainability…it is a matter of how you grow. I believe you can’t grow luxury fast. It takes a generation to make a company that sustains.”

Addressing how younger companies that don’t have the capital, can approach sustainability, Hearst said, “It’s becoming easier and easier. We just made a donation of our fabrics to a fashion school in London. Today, it’s easier than ever to start. You can control your distribution. You can start with smaller quantities and can start with deadstock, there are lot of options. In my experience, I have not met one up-and-coming designer who is starting their collections without being sustainable.”

But how can the industry — including its longstanding, traditional companies — begin with sustainability and continue to hold itself accountable? It’s about targets, Hearst said.

“The best approach is to set the targets, try harder and try to achieve them because we’re running out of time,” the designer said. At Chloé, for example, it has to be many parts of the organization that wants this to happen. It has to be the CEO and the production people. “It’s having all the pieces aligned for the project to work.”

Of course, a certain amount is personal responsibility, and how does a consuming public cut its addiction to the new and the next, and more, more, more?

“It’s always very curated with what I own and what I consume,” Hearst said. “It’s always been quality and not quantity for us. You know when something is good. That’s not a very difficult education. It’s something you can teach people. That’s a culture that’s manifested in GH quite strongly. There’s no short cuts when it comes to quality.”

If we don’t care about the craft of fashion or protect how fabrics are made or the ingredients that go into them, they will lose that dimension, Hearst warned. “We have to make sure that clothes not only look good, but feel good and are good for you,” she said.

Asked whether fashion can reach that level of sustainability, Hearst believes the answer is yes.

“Some [companies] are doing it faster than others. You can see that accountability and transparency,” she said. “I think that I’ve seen a lot of changes in the financial sector and it’s being prioritized as a green investment. The wind is in the back for this change. We’ve lost a lot. Too much. But we have to make sure we’re not going to lose more. This is a matter of survival. I really believe that people understand the danger that we’re putting the next generation in.”



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