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Can a mainstream luxury fashion brand built on “it bags” and ever-changing seasonal trends operate without detriment to the environment? That was the question put to designer Gabriela Hearst, a pioneer of sustainable fashion at her eponymous New York label, after her first Paris catwalk show since being appointed designer at the historic house of Chloé.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe it was possible,” replied Hearst on a Zoom call. “To see if it is possible – that is exactly why I am here.”
Hearst begins designing by choosing fabrics on environmental grounds, with sketches and silhouettes coming later. Practical changes already made at Chloé include eliminating virgin synthetic and artificial cellulosic fibre, and raising the percentage of cashmere yarn used for knitwear that is recycled to 80%. In the show, models carried secondhand Chloé handbags that had been bought back by the house from eBay sellers, patchworked and braided in leftover fabric remnants in the design studio.
Also in the line-up were coats made from upcycled streetwear, included in order to spotlight the work of Sheltersuit, a non-profit company that makes weather-resistant, design-led coats from recycled sportswear to bring “warmth and dignity” to homeless people in need. Hearst, who has supported Sheltersuit at her own brand, has now extended the partnership to Chloé. “This is how I strengthen Chloé for the future, which is my job as custodian of the house,” said Hearst.
Hearst’s confidence that an industry predicated on desire-driven consumerism can ever be truly sustainable is not universally shared. But her arrival at Chloé, where she will work in partnership with sustainably minded new CEO, Riccardo Bellini, points to a radical shift in strategy among mainstream luxury brands who believe that values, rather than aesthetics, are the key to an aspirational image which, in turn, will drive customer loyalty.
Hearst, who put herself forward for the Chloé job by submitting a 92-page proposal outlining a purpose-driven vision for the house, represents a significant change in mood at Chloé, which has long been a breezy, carefree sort of brand. With Stella McCartney also a longtime fixture on the city’s fashion week schedule, the new Chloé places Paris fashion week in pole position to lead the industry in the era of values-led fashion.
Lockdown ruled out an audience for Hearst’s debut, and travel restrictions on models saw the designer herself wearing one of the 30 looks in the collection. With Paris under a night-time curfew, Chloé was granted a permit to film a show on an eerily deserted Boulevard Saint-Germain. The quintessentially Parisian location had an extra significance for Chloé, whose house founder, Gaby Aghion, staged her very first catwalk show in the Brasserie Lipp, the backdrop for this film.
Hearst, who in 2019 staged the first ever carbon-neutral catwalk show at New York fashion week, recently predicted that “hedonistic luxury” would be “totally dead” after the pandemic. “I think and hope that people will now opt more for craft and quality,” she said.