Layers of Creative Elegance by Mark C. O’Flaherty/Livinginside | 1st September, 2017 | Personalities
Fashion designer Gabriela Hearst lives in Manhattan with her husband Austin and their three children. She grew up on a ranch in Uruguay, married into a distinguished U.S. dynasty and went on to conquer the fashion world with her soft, sensuous designs.
When she says she likes to mix up furniture from “the castle” with more contemporary pieces, there’s no need to ask, “what castle?” Gabriela Hearst is a New York-based fashion designer who needs little introduction. Or perhaps she does. While she’s married to Austin Hearst, the grandson of William Randolph Hearst (oft cited inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane), she’s not just another Manhattan society woman flirting with her own fashion label. Back in 2004 she launched her first brand, Candela, with a sunny, laid-back style complicit with her South American ranching roots. Three years ago, she launched Gabriela Hearst, a more luxe line, but still significantly far removed from the froth of Oscar de la Renta and the Upper East Side ladies who lunch at The Mark and The Carlyle. “My work is about layering,” she says. “It starts from the inside out. I do a lot of underpinning, and I work a lot with very thin knits and soft textures.” Much of the work comes from Hearst’s own style, which she describes as “a uniform.” It’s a look that has more in common with Patti Smith than Nan Kempner.
On the day we meet, she is wearing a simple single-breasted blazer, fitted black pants and no make up. There are artful snags and rips in her T-shirt, her hair is pulled back and there’s a tattoo on her wrist. “I’d say my look is masculine,” she says, “but the older I get, the more feminine I become. You become more comfortable with your sexuality. The women I dress don’t put everything on show – she might reveal a shoulder, or there will be a slit on the leg, but not simultaneously.”
“I’d say my look is masculine, but the older I get, the more feminine I become.” Gabriela Hearst
As well as fostering a burgeoning fashion brand and winning the International Woolmark Prize in Paris earlier this year, she is a hands-on full-time mother. She shares her Manhattan brownstone – originally an apartment building that counts James Baldwin as a past resident – with her husband and their twins, Mia and Olivia (9) and son, Jack (2). She’s mastered the art of maximizing sleep with a baby: “I just take him to bed with us,” she says, “and he feeds when he wants to. It’s funny – it reminds me that I’m just a mammal.” Having a baby has also informed her designs: “For autumn I’ve designed a pair of knits,” she says, “a skirt and a turtleneck. They have a nice swing to them, but they suck you in and make you feel skinny and tight. It’s a second skin.” Hearst has always been down to earth. She was brought up as part of a gaucho family in Uruguay in the 1980s. “We had no cable TV or McDonalds, which was no bad thing,” she says. The walls of the Hearst house are covered in pictures of horses, showing members of her family, and the Hearst family, riding. “We come from very different backgrounds, but we have one point of juncture – our families love horses more than humans.” As well as pictures of the Hearsts on horseback, and equine fashion shoots, there’s a significant picture of Gabriela’s mother riding barefoot. It’s as chic as it is candid and free spirited. “It’s from 1971, and it’s the picture that started everything for me,” says Gabriela. “So many people think it’s me in the photo, we look so alike. I had it silk screened onto T-shirts for my first collection.”
The Hearst family gravitated to the West Village for their family home because, as Gabriela says, the area provides the same ambience that it advertises on the tin: “It really does have the feel of a village, and these are the most beautiful streets in New York City. I like the trees. It’s like London, which I have always loved very much. I also appreciate the fact that you’re close to the water.” The tranquility of the area has changed somewhat in recent years. The Hearsts’ pool deck is now partially overlooked by the new Whitney Museum, “and the High Line brings a lot more people down to this part of town now too,” says Gabriela. But once the family is inside and the doors are closed, all is calm. Apart from the view from the pool and roof decks, this could be a house in the Kent countryside. “I wanted something that was a little rustic,” she explains. “Without wanting to sound corny, a home for me is like a temple for the family. It has to be warm, and not too precious. It’s where we connect, love and fight.” Gabriela is big on sensual touches. Some of the vintage pieces of furniture she has sourced have been covered in her fine suiting fabrics, and the whole house smells strongly of fresh mint, ginger and pepper – while it’s mid-morning here in Greenwich Village, there are supersized Cire Trudon Abd El Kader scented candles ablaze in each fireplace. This is a house that really does mix up classic Hearst heirlooms with modern tastes. There is a Matthew Hilton wooden dining table and chair, a Lindsey Adelman chandelier above a richly ornate occasional table (“from the castle”) and a media room in the basement with sofas designed to sprawl and nap, covered in cushions from Anthropologie and ABC. Everywhere you look, there are grand oil paintings, or remarkable family photos featuring royals and presidents, and an impressive collection of Latin American contemporary art. Gabriela is a keen collector, with a great eye – recent acquisitions include pieces by Argentine hyperrealist Diego Gravinese, Julio Alpuy and Fernando Botero. For all the difference in Austin and Gabriela’s backgrounds, they’ve found some surprising familial common ground beyond a love of horses. Tucked away in the library is a medical topography from the 19th century. “It’s remarkable,” she says. “Austin’s great-grandfather wrote it, and we were reading it one day and discovered that he visited and studied in Uruguay. And that was when no one from the U.S. went to that part of the world.” From stallions to art to fashion and literary treasures, this New York City branch of the Hearst dynasty is adding new layers of history to one of the most famous names in American history.