The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gabriela Hearst is dressing women for a new era of political power

Fashion designer Gabriela Hearst wants to make clothes that become hand-me-downs, not castoffs. (Ben Sklar/For The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Suits don’t usually cause a stir, but this one did — in part, because it looked so sharp and snazzy.

Teal-blue skinny trousers were matched with a trim jacket dubbed the Angela. Contrasting stitching outlined the blazer’s pockets and its extra-wide lapels, giving it a retro aesthetic that called to mind the late 1960s and ’70s, the heyday of black activist Angela Davis, after whom the jacket is named.

The suit was modeled by then-incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in the pages of Interview magazine. A stylist had paired the suit with the kind of spiky, high-heeled pumps that look incredible but feel awful, to create the perfect visual of power at its most romanticized, fine-tuned, Aaron Sorkinized best.

When critics pointed to the expensive suit as proof that Ocasio-Cortez was not the friend to the working class that she claimed to be, Ocasio-Cortez not so gently explained via Twitter that she didn’t get to keep the suit just because she was photographed wearing it. She also defended her politics, and instead of apologizing for her fashion pursuits, she declared a discerning eye for style, an admirable and valuable skill.

That suit was created by Gabriela Hearst, an American designer who thinks that fashion, power and politics can be mutually beneficial. Hearst, who was born in Uruguay, launched her namesake company here three years ago premised on translating female authority into a fashion aesthetic.

“I’m trying to create something that is timeless,” Hearst says. “People use this word, and sometimes they associate it with boring. But for me, timeless is a Greek earring done in the third century A.D. It’s like a design that is so intriguing that it can’t be put in one era.”

Hearst’s clothes are for women uninterested in fashion as daily costume or as the equivalent of a snuggie, but who instead view it as a tool that can help smooth the road to success — however that might be defined. Not a lot of brands aim to serve a woman who is in the thick of her life, who is done with adulting and is a full-blown, glorious adult. Of the few brands that did, many have cut and run.

Hearst stands firm. She is the rare designer who has set her sights on the professional woman who is proudly tethered to reality.

From the beginning, Hearst assumed that her clothes were not likely to appeal to the typical starlet or influencer looking to cause a social media stir. Her designs aren’t flashy. Hearst was more attuned to a boardroom badass, a contemporary Georgia O’Keefe, a loudmouthed activist — and her mother.

Her cropped trousers, blanket pattern dresses and fringed throws are based on memories of her self-possessed mother roaming the family ranch in Uruguay on horseback. “My mom had some really beautiful clothes, but she didn’t have a lot of it. When it was a special occasion, [she] would have some things done with the seamstress, and the nicest thing you could do was buy European fabric and make your own clothes,” she says. “The clothes that she had were beautifully done, but not in abundance.”

In the past two years, since the presidential election put Donald Trump in the White House, Hearst has also used fashion as a language of political engagement.

She’s been inspired by rebel-rousers such as Davis, who wore wide-lapel jackets with turtlenecks. Hearst designed a “ram-ovaries” sweater, with a stylized depiction of the female reproductive system emblazoned across the front, to benefit Planned Parenthood. She has made handbags reminiscent of the lunchboxes that early female coal miners carried to work. She plastered images of Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) on her mood board for motivation.

Hearst’s work is beautiful — not in an ostentatious, look-at-that-embroidery way, but quietly. The drape of a coat is luxurious. The lines of a blazer are well-defined. A sweater is as light as a cloud. Her handbags, with their distinctive geometric shapes, feel solid and substantial, without a burdensome heaviness.

The clothes are sometimes sexy, and unabashedly chic at a time when so many of the big luxury brands are trafficking in eccentricity, youthful transgression and a stubbornness to be as self-consciously ugly as possible. Fashion has been obsessed with pajama shirts, track pants and, most recently, prairie dresses. A modern power suit — an old-fashioned term but nonetheless an accurate one — is so rare that it might as well be the stuff of wide-eyed fantasies. Suits are a Hearst signature.

Her fashion career began in a torrent of fringe and ruffles. In 2004, Hearst launched a line of relatively inexpensive women’s clothes with a Bohemian sensibility and, in the process, learned a lot about manufacturing and production. When she decided to elevate the quality of her clothes, she realized she’d need to start all over, because the clothes she envisioned were going to cost a lot more — $1,000 for trousers and $3,000 for a blazer.

Hearst’s goal was to manufacture clothes “the way that I remember my mom’s clothes being made.” Each piece should outlast the use of the original owner, she says, to become “a hand-me-down.”

Hearst had always been drawn to the work of female designers — Elsa Schiaparelli, Chitose Abe of Sacai, Rei Kawakubo. She had also been a fan of Phoebe Philo at Céline. Philo crafted an aesthetic that spoke in a whisper, yet still commanded a room. And she attracted customers who were willing to pay handsomely for a white shirt with just the right proportions, or a pair of trousers with a perfect menswear slouch.

In 2017, Philo left her perch at Céline. She was replaced by Hedi Slimane, who gave the clothes his personal aesthetic, which might best be described as young-Hollywood-with-a-hangover. This staffing change roiled certain consumers like no other. Women decried the shift in aesthetics as symptomatic of an industry with few female creative directors at the most prestigious brands.

“There’s not that many women designing for women,” Hearst says. “I always say this as a joke, but it’s kind of true: I understand water retention. Right? Right. Our bodies change through the month. They change through our lifetime. And I think being in the body of a woman gives you an advantage.”

A provocative designer has just blown up a 70-year-old brand. But to what end?

A handful of design houses are now angling to step into the void. Bottega Veneta and Jil Sander show streamlined collections in Milan. Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri serves up her collections along with a feminist credo. Victoria Beckham injects a bit of working-mother pragmatism into her clothes. And The Row, with its $5,000 oversize cashmere sweaters, offers art-gallery-owner chic.

Hearst’s clothes speak at a more pronounced volume than Philo’s did, but in measured tones. The industry is screaming, Let your freak flag fly! Hearst’s clothes quietly murmur: “You could change the world.”

Hearst, and by extension her clothes, are part of a cultural conversation that revolves around institutional power and who has it. Fashion is not merely a guilty pleasure or the occasional symbolic gesture. From a historic crowd of pink pussy hats to the first lady’s Zara coat, fashion is increasingly being used as an exclamation point at the end of a pointed statement, as a wordless introduction or a middle finger.

Wanted: Fashion designers who truly respect women. Now more than ever.

In December, for instance, when now-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi walked out of the White House, along with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), after an Oval Office confrontation with President Trump, the high collar of her russet-colored MaxMara coat framed her face like a superhero’s cloak. And in a certain quarter of social media, a funnel-neck coat became a new symbol of female strength.

Women believe in fashion’s power — even when it outrages, frustrates and bewilders them. At a recent Georgetown dinner party, a group of excessively accomplished women lamented the challenge of packing for a business trip. The task left them exasperated, but compromising their style for the ease of mix-and-match black separates was not an option. And so, said the dinner’s co-host, journalist Katty Kay, they were left resenting how much “brain time” is taken up trying to sort out a “perfect pack.”

Hearst understands. “Women who are full professionals in their careers, they don’t have time to think about what they’re wearing,” she says. “They’re a little bit insecure because that’s not what they do all day.”

“I just want to give [women] uniforms for their lives so they feel comfortable in their power,” Hearst says. “I don’t want them to waste too much time thinking of what they’re wearing. I want to give you like, tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk, you’re done.”

To that end, Hearst has a lot of dresses in her collection that could fit under the category of perfect-for-every-occasion. They are comfortable knit dresses that always look sharp, not sloppy — the kind of dresses that live at the front of the closet. There are also dresses with sleeves that fend off roaring air conditioning. (And after all these years, how many more sleeveless sheaths can a woman stomach?) Her fine-knit sweaters slip easily under blazers. And, of course, there are suits.

They don’t come in 50 shades of beige — they swagger in full color. They signify Establishment clout but without the stodginess. They are Establishment 2.0 or, perhaps, even 3.0: post-St. John Knits, post-Giorgio Armani.

Hearst, 42, describes herself as a feminist, an environmentalist and a mother of five — ages 3 to 23. She’s married to John Augustine Hearst, a grandson of the “Citizen Kane” Hearsts. She hesitated to use the Hearst name on the label for fear she’d be pigeonholed as a dilettante. But her maiden name, Perezutti, was a challenging mouthful, and her husband was also her business partner in the privately owned company.

Temperamentally, Gabriela Hearst comes across as sure-footed and blunt; accommodating but without a golden retriever’s need to please. Physically, she has the sleek figure of a model, which she once was, and the kind of short, choppy haircut that makes bed-head cool.

Her modest showroom on the far West Side of Manhattan is filled with sample boards and bolts of fabric, and one table is covered with handbags. Her private office sits just off the workroom and is dominated by a large white cashmere sectional that makes her desk look like an afterthought. A photograph of her mother on horseback is the dominant artwork.

Hearst became a U.S. citizen shortly after the last presidential election and is evangelical about voting, which she did for the first time in November. “I felt very emotional to vote,” Hearst says. “Uruguay was a dictatorship when I was born. . . . The democracy came in 1984, and sometimes I don’t know if Americans realize how fragile that is.”

“Civic responsibility and professional responsibility and personal responsibility,” she declares with a gentle thump on her desk.

Her company has tried to build sustainability into its business. A sweater is likely to have been knit from wool from her ranch’s sheep. A coat might be constructed from remnants from a luxury fabric mill. The brand has set April as its deadline for using all biodegradable packaging, including recycled cardboard hangers.

“People say, ‘Oh you know we need to save the planet.’ No, no, no. Obviously you do not expose yourself to nature. You think you’re going to save the planet? Nature is a natural force. We are going to get exterminated,” Hearst says. “First it’s going to happen to the people that have the least, but then it’s going to happen to all of us.”

Her lodestar on sustainability is the outdoor gear company Patagonia, with its recycling programs and environmental activism. “I have the luxury of selling people things that people don’t need,” Hearst says. “If we’re going to do that, make sure it’s good and that you’re doing some good.”

Luxury fashion brands are going green. But why are they keeping it a secret?

In the fall, Hearst opened her first store, in the Carlyle hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The small boutique carries the full complement of her products, including her handbags, which she sells directly to consumers. She did the math and realized that with a 50 percent markup taken by retailers, “we needed to make double the amount of handbags, which means double the amount of natural resources, to make the same amount of money. And why would you do that if you’re to get the same money at the end? The only reason you would do that is to become very well known, very quickly. But if you’re doing this long-term, you want to pace yourself,” Hearst says. “Obviously for us, we’re a small company. It’s easier to make these choices because we’re not a publicly traded company.”

On a winter evening, several women are browsing in the store; a gentleman is eyeing the shoes and a tourist is debating the sales tax advantage of shipping her purchases back to Texas.

The company is profitable, Hearst says, with wholesale revenue of $18 million in 2018. This month, Hearst announced an investment from LVMH Luxury Ventures, a division of the Paris-based luxury conglomerate, a sign that the industry sees potential in Gabriella Hearst LLC becoming a significant global business.

The designer has won awards and has been elected to the board of Save the Children. And there have even been red carpet sightings of her work on actresses such as Laura Dern, Danai Gurira, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union and Zoe Kravitz. More than one of them was wearing a suit.

Dig Deeper: Fashion + Politics

Want to explore the importance of fashion in politics? Check out our curated list of stories below.

How we got here: The politicization of fashion

When the campaign started, the “Make America Great Again” hat had multiple meanings, but now it’s been weaponized for broader, divisive causes.

How the fashion industry influences politics

According to experts, an appearance of Michelle Obama in a particular brand’s clothing could generate $14 million in value for the company.

Understanding how politicians signal who they are with clothes

Barack Obama’s studied look during his campaign reveals how political candidates punctuate their campaign persona with clothes.