It’s nearly a year since Gabriela Hearst took Chloé under her wings, and it’s quite unbelievable how many sustainability goals the designer has already achieved. And those aren’t just words – numbers and statistics don’t lie. “To give you the exact facts, 70% of the product offer since I came in became lower impact. Compared to my first collection, (what) we did is up 40%”, she summed up. Women who are living under a cloud of post-COP26 anxiety might take some cheer from how openly Hearst is tackling the environmental and social problems inflicted by the workings of the fashion industry. The way she speaks of it, implementing the changes that lie within her power is as much her purpose as the mission to dress women in Chloé clothes. “Empathy, collaboration, lower impact – the right values need to come to the forefront. Collectively we at Chloé are working toward weaving that into the DNA of the company.” The clarity of style she’s brought to the house has become completely visible four seasons in. It’s streamlined and slick, a grown-up boho look infused with classic Chloé-isms and her own handcrafted, macraméd, whipstitched energy. She’s carefully corralled all the legacies that women designers have imprinted on the brand for decades: the reputation for a boot-cut, ’70s-ish pantsuit that Stella McCartney laid down; the balloon-y broderie anglaise sleeves that Phoebe Philo played with; and Chloé founder Gaby Aghion’s scalloped edges and taste for pinkish orange, the color of the Egyptian desert of her childhood. Meanwhile Chloé’s horsey heritage is a natural for Hearst, who brings her own Uruguayan ranch upbringing to her feeling for caped coats, French-style riding boots, and the thick leather girth strap she’s turned into a belt. “I love this buckle that I found in the archive from Hannah MacGibbon’s time,” she said. “We oversized it.” It all looks a lot like Hearst herself: tall, strong silhouettes; a practical modern vigor; a touch of the hippie sophisticate. Yet the main imprint she’s stamping on Chloé is in becoming one of the very few luxury fashion creative directors who are making it impossible to detach the conversation about pretty clothes from talking about what’s in them and how they are made. Moving rapidly along the vectors of transparent reporting, partnerships with women’s employment projects, environmental certifications, Chloé’s freshly acquired B Corp status, and new membership in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (which champions circularity) – and shining a light onto the multitude of fashion’s hidden processes – is a business that continually brings up more questions.
Hearst is happy to point to several achievements in this collection. Botanical dyes are part of it—like the shade of Gaby Aghion pinkish orange in the merino wool skirt-and-sweater set. There’s also biodegradable denim, which Hearst cut into a pair of high-waist flares and a matching jacket. “This is the third season we’ve been working with Adriano Goldschmied [the legendary denim expert] on this project to resolve circular denim, following the Jeans Redesign Guidelines published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,” she said. The production of the new Chloé jeans eliminates rivets, which never break down, and the fabric is a mix of 70% recycled cotton and 30% hemp, “which is grown in France. Hemp and linen cultivation emit less greenhouse gases and require less water compared to cotton,” she noted. But to vegan and vegetarian customers – and anyone who’s read recent reports about fashion’s links with cattle farming and deforestation in Brazil – the noticeable amount of leather in the collection will raise eyebrows. “From the point of view of sustainability, I have a very specific position about leather,” argues Hearst. “Leather is biowaste of the meat industry. I am very against industrialization of meat – I’m really against the way livestock is being industrialized. I don’t think we can afford eating a high-meat-protein diet, and definitely don’t recommend it.” But while she accepts that moving toward plant-based diets “is better for the environment,” from her perspective, “the truth is nobody’s killing the animal for the leather. The price of leather is going down and people are wasting it.” That in itself creates an environmental disposal situation. “What are we going to do with the leather, other than just use it?”
The Chloé press release states how the sourcing of the Chloé leathers is certified by the Leather Working Group, which is “an international organization made up of stakeholders across the leather supply chain, working to promote environmental best practice within leather manufacturing and related industries.” The organization looks into the operations of tanneries, “meaning that the leather process is done properly, meaning not wasting water and not using harsh chemicals,” as Hearst puts it. Around 75% of the leather handbag offering is sourced from Leather Working Group–certified tanneries. Nevertheless, there is always further to look into. A report in The Guardian on November 29 spotlighted research by Stand.earth, a supply-chain research company partnered by the Slow Factory and Model Activist, showing that the Leather Working Group’s remit stops at capturing what happens in tanneries and slaughterhouses. Its visibility doesn’t reach back to what happens at the farm level, and therefore “does not ascertain whether hides are linked to deforestation.” Under normal practice, hides come into tanneries from multiple sources and are often mixed up, meaning that fashion brands – across luxury and mass manufacturing alike – are “at risk” of unknowingly buying into the destruction of the Amazon rain forest with the finished product. “As many Amazon leaders have warned,” the Slow Factory writes on its Instagram page, “this is a human rights/climate/biodiversity/public health crisis with consequences for the entire world.” That’s a much vaster issue than Chloé. It spreads across the entire industry and puts question marks over every leather bag, shoe, and coat we buy (it’s also an issue in the auto industry, which is the second-largest user of leather after fashion.) Only diligent and widespread normalization of tracing and labeling, and the development of sounder alternatives, can solve this. Knowing Gabriela Hearst, she’ll be among the first to step up to working on finding those answers.
Collage by Edward Kanarecki.