About three-quarters of the way through my interview with Gabriela Hearst and Norman Foster, the 84-year-old British architect – perhaps the most famous in the world, having designed such skyline-defining buildings as London’s Gherkin and City Hall, Hong Kong’s HSBC Tower and Apple’s new Californian HQ – begins sketching.
Hearst, the American fashion designer who owes the warm minimalism of her soon-to-open London store to Lord Foster’s superlative vision, is transfixed, but continues to trawl through her plans to eliminate waste from her supply chain.
Five minutes later, Foster holds up his Daler-Rowney A4 sketchbook.
A beautifully proportioned bench is sketched out in black ink. “I was just thinking, if I walked into the shop and I sat down on the long, low sofa, I would want to reach for a book,” says Foster, in his slow, deliberate way.
“And I was thinking that maybe a nice leather… kind of… bag… on the side, with the books in it, could be a very nice way to casually display them.”
Foster is a fan of comfortable seats. He confides that when shopping with his Spanish wife, Elena Ochoa Foster, “if there’s a place to sit down, then a shop really goes up in your estimations”.
Hearst, who has a store in New York – strategically located next to The Carlyle and dominated by a giant U-shaped sofa (much to the despair of her CEO, who’d rather it was stuffed with scores of the brand’s cult jewel-box handbags) – nods vigorously. “Great idea!”
Luxury brands are always opening new shops, but few are able to enlist such titans as Foster to design them. Since January, the duo has been working together on Hearst’s first London flagship, which occupies a corner of a late-19th-century building in Mayfair, opposite Claridge’s (shops next to plush hotels are another of Hearst’s pet retail theories).
They met nearly 10 years ago, and the mutual admiration is palpable. Hearst jokingly refers to Foster as the architect of her marriage – or rather, credits it to his wife. It was Lady Foster who suggested to Austin Hearst, scion of the American media family, after a group trip to see War Horse in 2010, that his Uruguayan then-girlfriend Gabriela was “a keeper”.
“I’ll be forever grateful to her Latin spirit,” laughs Gabriela, seated opposite Lord Foster in his aircraft hangar of an office overlooking the Thames on the day of Vogue’s shoot, one sunny midsummer afternoon. “Elena is such a knowledgeable woman. Probably, she has forgotten about it, but for me and my husband it was a special moment.” Foster smiles beatifically. “My wife is wonderfully intuitive.”
Gabriela can’t have been a hard sell. Erudite and determined, she has a pronounced practical streak that, while unusual in the Upper East Side social scene, is even more uncommon in the fashion industry, where she is now one of New York’s most exciting names.
She credits it to a childhood spent off-grid on the family ranch in Uruguay, recalling how its remote location engendered a can-do approach: “Even in situations of danger, you have to take matters into your own hands. You have to get them done and you cannot let emotions get in your way.” Still, she has polish. It is impossible to read about her without encountering the words “timeless chic”.
Tall and willowy, at 42 she is handsome rather than beautiful, with the angular deportment of a cubist Duchamp figure, striding decisively around in a sensible, double-breasted navy suit of her own design.
Since launching her company in 2015, partly financed by her husband, Hearst has built a reputation for high-quality designs that convey stylish capability.
Her clothes and her wildly popular and extremely limited-distribution handbags – including the Nina and the Patsy, which resemble gently enlarged dim sum rendered in jewel-toned satin – are worn by intelligent women who understand that a quietly stunning wardrobe can be a powerful tool for success: the Duchess of Sussex, Arianna Huffington, Lauren Hutton and Laura Dern are all fans.
Tailoring is a signature, as are ankle-skimming dresses that swish purposefully, and cashmere sweaters that go with everything. Hearst is also carving out a reputation as a sustainability expert.
This year, she has changed all the brand’s packaging to biodegradable and compostable versions, and switched up her supply chain from air freight to shipping by boat to improve her carbon footprint, a decision which prompted a total rethink of her delivery timeline to accommodate an eight-to-12 week delay.
Next on the list are reducing to zero the use of non-virgin materials in her collections and making her spring/summer 2020 catwalk show, which will take place in New York this month, carbon neutral.
As she insists, “for many people, sustainability means granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging. But sustainability and luxury should go together.”
Hearst estimates that it will take her roughly three years to transform her label. “I have to figure out how I can have a business that is sustainable in every sense of the word: makes money, employs people, but does not make a negative impact on the world,” she says.
She will have to balance it with extraordinary growth: this year she has launched a menswear arm and received minority investment from the luxury conglomerate LVMH. In 2020, she plans to open a store in Hong Kong, where 32 per cent of her handbag business originates.
Her vision of sustainable luxury is, she says, “personal – I want my children to know I did the best I could.” She has five: 11-year-old twins, a four-year-old, and two step-children, 23 and 24, from Austin’s first marriage.
It sounds like a busy life, I say. She lives in the West Village in New York, a city she describes as “the most stressed out in the world”. How does she relax? “I am not relaxed! Ever!” she responds, with characteristic candidness.
Her green thinking further aligns her with Foster, who has made his environmental agenda a key tenet of his practice. Indeed, Foster & Partners is responsible for the office building dubbed the most sustainable in the world: the Bloomberg headquarters in London.
Sustainability has dictated almost every detail of the boutique. The custom-built Benchmark furniture has been made in Hungerford from a London plane tree that fell in a recent storm in Lincoln.
The floor is reclaimed oak herringbone, from a military barracks close to the Welsh border. The lights are on automatic dimmers. The leather has been dyed using non-toxic vegetable dyes, and the curtains are linen rather than cotton.
“Serenity”, rather than “sales”, is the other S-word that comes up repeatedly in Hearst and Foster’s hour-long discourse. “I like this idea of anti-retail,” says Hearst. “Things that don’t scream at you are important. Everybody gets so bombarded in their daily life, it was essential for me to convey the idea of coming in, taking a seat, just chilling out for a second.” “You need calm,” Foster agrees, describing the shop, which resembles an exceptionally elegant powder room, as “neutral but not bland”. They agree that “visual over-hyping” is to be avoided.
Serendipity has played its part. Foster was tickled by the discovery that the building was designed in the 1800s by the architect Sir Robert William Edis, a proponent of aesthetic design with a passion for organic materials. “Reading his manifesto, it’s like your manifesto in terms of your mission, sustainability, natural materials,” Foster remarks to Hearst. “It’s extraordinary – almost like fate.” Equally lucky was the acquisition of a painting by Big Spring, which hangs on the back wall of the ground floor, near where Hearst’s handbags are hidden. It depicts the Native American chief, a successful horse owner in the Peigan tribe, making raids, circa 1915.
“I have a connection with horses,” says Hearst, who could ride almost before she could walk. “Every period of my life there have been horses really close by me.” Underneath the painting is the bench Foster has sketched, where copies of the Paris Review will be elegantly stacked. “If I walked into the shop,
I would like to sit there,” he says. Hearst nods happily. “It’s perfect.”
Published on vogue.co.uk