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Chloé AW21: Gabriela Hearst’s Sustainable Vision

Feature: Long Read
Words by CLAUDIA CROFT

The first thing you need to know about Chloé’s new creative director Gabriela Hearst is that she’s a woman of extraordinary drive and vision. Bringing style and substance together, the Uruguayan-born designer has imagined a different, more sustainable future for fashion and is making it happen – one upcycled Edith bag and recycled cashmere knit at a time.

Hearst leads by example. Since she founded her namesake label in 2015, she’s established herself as a leading advocate for sustainable fashion and considerate capitalism. She even uses wool sourced from her own sheep farm in Uruguay – an end-to-end production cycle that helps minimise environmental impact. Hers was the first brand to introduce compostable bioplastics for all packaging in 2017 and, in 2019, her New York-based company staged the first carbon-neutral runway show. But Hearst knew that to really reduce the fashion industry’s environmental impact, she needed to go beyond her own label and helm a house with a truly global reach.

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Gabriela Hearst, Chloé creative director

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Chloé AW21

In 2017, four years before she was appointed at Chloé, she had a dream in which she saw herself leading the French house, which she has loved since she was a teenager. The first designer bag she ever owned was a Chloé Edith, which she still has. It’s well-loved and a little weather-beaten, and she brought it along to the first round of interviews she did after getting the Chloé job, telling journalists, “The love I have for this brand is completely authentic and genuine from being someone that grew up loving Chloé.”

Hearst is living proof of the power of positive visualisation. She was so certain that Chloé was the house for her that she actively campaigned for the job. “I knew I could do it,” she said, and lobbied the CEO Riccardo Bellini – at one point telling him to stop looking at other designers because she was the only one he needed to see. Added to that, Hearst pointed out that her nickname was also Gabi, just like the house’s founder Gaby Aghion. It was meant to be, but just to make sure, she produced a detailed 92-page document as part of her pitch, outlining the areas where her own brand and Chloé would share values, under the headings ‘sustainability’, ‘handcrafted’, ‘wholehearted’ and ‘purpose-driven’. Her debut collection brought all those threads together with an haute-bohemian aesthetic, in keeping with the idea of the free-spirited Chloé woman bequeathed to her by generations of designers, from Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney to Phoebe Philo, Clare Waight Keller and Natacha Ramsay-Levi.

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Chloé AW21

And yet, as the first model emerged from Brasserie Lipp (where Aghion held her earliest shows) and strode down the Boulevard Saint Germain, which served as the Chloé AW21 catwalk, it was clear something very new was also happening at the brand. Hearst’s confident, beautiful Chloé women were dressed in sweeping ‘puffchos’ – her poncho/puffer hybrid – and sturdy boots (she’s sworn never to make women suffer in uncomfortable shoes), roomy bi-product shearling parkas, and folksy striped knit dresses made from recycled cashmere. The brand’s signature scalloped edges hemmed the bib of supple ankle-grazing eco-leather dresses, and one dream coat was made from a patchwork of multicoloured scalloped leather.

Hearst used other aspects of the Chloé heritage, embroidering its butterfly motif onto skirts and knits, as well as collaborating with Dutch nonprofit foundation Sheltersuit on patchworked outerwear and backpacks made from repurposed pieces from past collections. Profits from those backpacks will support Sheltersuit, which employs refugees and others struggling to find work, to make its coat/sleeping bag hybrids for those in need.

What isn’t in the collection is just as fascinating as what is. There are no virgin synthetics, and a dramatically reduced amount of cotton, which Hearst takes issue with because of the huge amount of pesticides and water used to produce it, plus the fact that the cotton plant isn’t edible, so it doesn’t contribute to solving the hunger problems of an overpopulated planet. She’s swapped it out for deadstock fabric or organic cotton, or replaced it altogether with sustainable linen.

Upcycling was a big story in Hearst’s accessories, too. Models carried Edith bags that the Chloé team had bought on eBay and customised with offcut fabrics, knitted swathes and fringes from the collection, giving a familiar Chloé favourite a new look. Others carried pillowy plaited-leather bags that spoke of Hearst’s love of craft and an enveloping sense of comfort.

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Chloé AW21

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Chloé AW21

Hearst always imagined a big future for herself. She grew up in Uruguay, on the family’s 17,000-acre ranch, which she now runs. She describes an off-grid childhood, tending animals and riding horses in a rural setting, two-and-a-half hours away from the nearest city. It shaped her notion of luxury as something beautifully crafted and made to last a lifetime, and it also formed her ideas of a strong femininity. She would see her mother, who was a daredevil rodeo rider in her youth, doing everything that the men on the ranch did, and her own sense of gaucho grit has carried her forward in life.

Hearst attended the prestigious British School in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, and the expectation was that she would marry someone from a similar ranch-owning background and settle down. But she wanted more. She spent a year in high school in Australia; did a stint of modelling in Milan and Paris; studied acting in New York; and made her first foray into fashion in 2002, with a T-shirt business. In 2013, she married her second husband, John Augustine Hearst (known as Austin), a scion of the Hearst publishing empire, and he invested in her eponymous brand.

Getting the Chloé job in December 2020 was quite literally a dream come true, but it was a role that came on top of running her own New York-based label. As a mother of three (she has a son with Hearst and twin teenage girls from her previous marriage), she knew it would impact on family life, so asked for her husband and children’s blessings. They told her to go for it.

Backed by CEO Bellini, who was more than ready to reshape Chloé around a purpose-driven business model, Hearst arrived in a whirlwind of positive energy and began making changes immediately, including removing all electric screens from Chloé’s boutiques because they used too much energy. And even the brand’s Instagram feed has had a makeover, with its 9.5m followers being treated to stunning images of nature interspersed with product shots. Together, says Hearst, she and Bellini will “create a business that is socially conscious and in balance with our environment”. It’s an ambitious target, she admits, but one that “wakes me up every morning to want to do this job”. In her first season, she’s already made a significant impact. Her debut Chloé collection is said to be four times more sustainable than last year’s output.

GABRIELA HEARST


"When I think of Chloé, I think of joy, of freedom, of the strength of being feminine."

It’s a femininity and a ready-for-anything elegance that differentiates Chloé from Hearst’s eponymous label (the latter has sleek, minimalist tailoring at its heart). A hundred years after the birth of the house’s founder, a 21st-century Chloé girl has emerged, clothed in sumptuous feminine pieces that have a value beyond fashion.

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