For Document’s tenth anniversary issue, Chloé’s Creative Director is joined by the actor and model to discuss the intersection of environmentalism and artistry
It’s 1989, and Amber Valletta is in high school, taking modeling classes on the side at an agency in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Across the equator, on her family’s ranch in Uruguay, Gabriela Hearst is designing quinceañera dresses for herself and her friends.
In the next decade or so, Valletta will go to Europe, then to Manhattan, gracing Vogue cover after cover and hitting parties with the likes of Kate Moss, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, and Shalom Harlow. They’re the next generation of American supermodels—the collective face of ’90s fashion—dragging the industry into the cult of celebrity for the future to come. With that exposure comes influence: a platform with the power to move the crowd.
Meanwhile, Hearst is moving to Australia on scholarship. She takes a job at a local flower shop to support herself while abroad. She moves to New York, tries her hand at a communications degree, then enrolls at The Neighborhood Playhouse to study theater. She’s hostessing and waitressing to pay her rent. In 2004, something sticks: Hearst founds Candela—a contemporary brand specializing in silk-screened t-shirts. Before long, she makes her name as a designer.
Today, Hearst has her own eponymous label, and she heads Chloé as its creative director. In the big wide world of luxury fashion, she hasn’t treaded lightly, placing sustainability at the center of all that she creates. It’s a mission Valletta shares, serving as sustainability ambassador at both the Fashion Institute of Technology and Karl Lagerfeld. “I have two modes,” Hearst tells the model over Zoom. “I know exactly what to do, and I move full-force. Or I don’t know, I wait and I observe, and then I [take] action.”
Perhaps Hearst’s second mode is the product of her early twenties, when her passions took shape. The first is epitomized in her eventual impact on the spheres of fashion: For Spring/Summer 2020, Gabriela Hearst hosted a carbon-neutral runway show—an industry first. And at Chloé, the designer has orchestrated unprecedented changes: Her debut season at the French house featured garments made from deadstock material, reducing the collection’s environmental footprint by 400 percent from the previous year. Chloé has eliminated synthetic fabrics, banned the usage of fur, and pledged to no longer destroy any raw material or finished product.
The women’s shared source of conviction is respect for the ground we stand on—it’s instinctual, inherited, and rooted in childhood. At the time of their conversation, Hearst is in Uruguay; she ventures outdoors, showing Valletta the vistas of her youth through her iPhone camera. It makes the model think of her grandparents’ Oklahoma farm: “We spent all summer catching, releasing, playing, running, dreaming on that land. So I understand your sensibility,” she says to Hearst.
The pair straddle two realms—the energetic city and the mighty country, which are maybe not so different after all. To meet in the middle might be the key to evolving the industry they both chose. Fashion changes the world: It defines culture, it makes culture, and—in its current structures—it does so while damaging the earth. Hearst is optimistic, though, and completely resolved: “It’s time to change. The time is now.”
Gabriela Hearst: Hi! I’m in Uruguay. Have you been to Uruguay?
Amber Valletta: No!
Gabriela: It’s far, so a lot of people don’t come. But you should come. You will love it.
Amber: I would love to come and see you there, that would be epic. I don’t think I would just make a trip without knowing where to go.
Gabriela: I’ll send you a few pictures, and then you’ll be like, ‘Okay, when can I go?’ I’ll give you a little tour. [Walking outside] I’ll have you starting on the ranch first—the area where I grew up. That’s my little hut there, where you can stay. This is the common area. [Pointing in the distance] That’s my friend’s house. And this is the view.
Amber: Oh my God.
Gabriela: Here’s where we eat lunch. It’s all little huts like this. Super rustic, but comfortable. There’s really good surf 10 minutes away. Right now, it’s fall. The ranch has a lot of history and rawness—uninterrupted views, the ability to ride horses… My family has been in this place for 172 years, so it’s kind of about keeping the practices by oral tradition. Now my mom is starting to write [them all down], because they’re the same ranching farms from preindustrialization days. Anyways, it’s perfect that we’re talking here.
Amber: Your soil is probably really healthy [laughs]. You’re probably regenerative, and it’s not intentional—it’s tradition.
Gabriela: No, that’s what I said when people started to talk about regenerative [agriculture]. Like, ‘Okay, this is what my family has been doing for 172 years.’ You need the large-scale animals, because you need the shit to fertilize the ground, right? That’s basically how it works. And you cannot overgraze it, because everyone lives from this land. There’s nothing more circular than a ranch, than a farm.
Amber: It’s funny—you and I grew up in totally different parts of the world, but we’re very similar in a lot of ways. I grew up on my grandparents’ farm in Oklahoma. I saw everything live and die; they used the manure to fertilize things. Their neighbors grew food, so we would jump the fence and go into the garden. They had a freshwater spring that ran through their property, which had snakes and crawdads and fish and toads and frogs. We spent all summer catching, releasing, playing, running, dreaming on that land. So I understand your sensibility. My grandparents, you know—they were kind of just repeating what they had experienced in their own lives. They both grew up in Oklahoma and Texas, so it wasn’t like they were doing something modern. They were just living the way they had been taught.
Gabriela: It teaches you something, right? Obviously, [ranching] is the only thing that my family did. But I wanted to experience different things, and when I was young, I was just like, ‘I want to get the hell out of here.’
I’ve come full-circle to understanding how valuable that education is. I connect with people who have that connection to nature in their subconscious. You know, there are sounds that I hear now, I’m like, ‘Those are the sounds of my childhood.’ I can appreciate them and understand them. Or the landscape. Or, my mom decided to walk us through the place where I was conceived in the forest on the ranch. There are actually rivers that cross through her ranch. She’s very protective. You can’t cut natural forest. There’s a place where my family did camping for many generations. That sense of belonging to a place keeps you rooted. How do you preserve that? It’s really something special in [today’s world].
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in the city, or you’re in the countryside, the things we’ve seen, experienced, learned, or shared—it’s ultimately about acting on those values.”
Amber: My mom, she was an activist when I was a child, [fighting] to stop a nuclear power plant from being built on First Nations land in Oklahoma. She—with a whole group of people, for five years—fought the power company. They stopped this nuclear power plant from being built. It’s the same—you said your mom cares about whether a tree gets cut down, or [about] the rivers. It wasn’t quite that romantic, but my mom was actively trying to preserve the land around her for our generation, and for generations to come.
Gabriela: I spent half of my life in Uruguay. I’m 45, and I moved to New York in 2000. So half of my actual life, and most of my adult life, has been lived in New York. [That’s where] I started businesses, have my family. I always think of the extreme, right? These places are extremely extreme, and I feel very at home in both places. I realized: It’s the grit. Both places have a grit, and there’s an authenticity to them. It was very clear to me when, during COVID, I stayed in New York. A lot of people left. At times, it was quite dystopian. You couldn’t believe that this was our city. But, you know, I feel that I can connect to that energy. My parents cannot—my dad passed away, but my mother and my father just could not be in a city. My mom suffers when she’s in a city. Like, actually suffers.
It’s interesting, about your mother and her activism on the First Nations grounds, because my mom wrote this poem about the Charrúas, who were the natives of our country, who were incredible warriors. They fought the Spanish, they fought the Portuguese. They fought for independence, and then they were betrayed and killed in a genocide. The Charrúas were, like, ‘This is our land. We’re not gonna be working for you. We were here first.’ [The ranchers] wanted to move them. They gave money to the first president—I think it was Rivera, his name—and then he calculated that it was cheaper to just kill them all than move them to Argentina. So they created this fake war: The Portuguese were invading in the north, right? So they called the first caciques; they were fantastic warriors, and very brave. They called all the top warriors to come. They were smoking, preparing the tobacco. They spoke broken Spanish. And then, the new government, the Uruguayan first-generation, let’s say—they killed them all. Some escaped to the forest. They really went deep. In the north of Uruguay, you still have some Charrúas. My mother wrote this story [down], and now people know about it, but at the time they were not teaching you that in the history books. She wrote it in 1989 for the babysitter of my brother and sister—she was embarrassed to have native genetics, you know? [My mother] was, like, ‘Are you crazy? This is your jewel!’ She really wrote it for her to be proud of who she was, because these [people] were amazing.
You come from a place where those things were respected, and there’s a bond toward that. But I always think of a saying from my mom: ‘There’s assholes in the country, and there’s assholes in the city.’ [Laughs] It doesn’t make you a better person.
Amber: That story is heartbreaking. It’s colonialism that spreads. We experienced the same thing in Oklahoma, and US history is exactly that. My family is Cherokee, but they don’t originate from Oklahoma—they [were pushed] from the Southeast. I think what we’re talking about, ultimately, are the values that we carry today. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the city, or you’re in the countryside, the things we’ve seen, experienced, learned, or shared—it’s ultimately about acting on those values.
Gabriela: Can I read you something? I actually never prepare for an interview—it’s like, if I cannot answer a question, I shouldn’t be questioned on it. [Laughs] But I did prepare for ours, and I wrote something that I thought about a few days ago, which is about children. I don’t know if you have children or not?
Amber: I do.
Gabriela: This is what I was thinking about our children: ‘The question that we have to ask ourselves as parents: Are our children principled enough? When push comes to shove, will they make the right decision? The right decision is never, ever self-beneficial first. Because if it is first you, and nobody else, it’s never the right choice. We have to raise principled people. I don’t know how the world is going to look. They will understand it. But I know there will be hard choices, because every generation has to make hard choices. And you have to be principled for that.’
When I’m thinking of my kids, I’m happy that they’re progressing in that direction. You can strive to give them economical security, education, but you cannot guarantee what’s gonna happen. They need to be able to know how to move without a cushion, do you know what I mean? I really believe in that.
Amber: Beautifully said. Really.
Gabriela: I wrote that for you.
“There are multiple things that need to happen in unison for us to evolve as a species, to the point where we do not kill ourselves. I believe we are not a suicidal species. But we have to have a change of consciousness.”
Amber: I like it. I mean, my son is 21. And obviously, none of us are perfect. But I would want him as a friend. I think he’s an awesome guy, and he gives me hope for the future, for hetero… I don’t know all the terms right now, like…
Gabriela: ‘Cisgender males,’ I think it is?
Amber: Yeah, exactly.
Gabriela: My daughter is woke [laughs].
Amber: He gives me hope in a different type of masculinity, that isn’t out to conquer but to support. You know, they are woke. Their generation is completely different.
Gabriela: I know. I have this same experience with my 13-year-old. They’re mind-blowing.
Amber: I really hope they get the chance to put their leveled-up practice into the real world, before it’s too late, you know?
Gabriela: I think a lot about this; I think that the world is theirs already. This is not ours, it’s theirs. We have to guardianship it.
I think that you are touching two key points: There are multiple things that need to happen in unison for us to evolve as a species, to the point where we do not kill ourselves. I believe we are not a suicidal species. But we have to have a change of consciousness. One, the empowerment of women—it’s critical. Because of the nature of who we are. [Women] are political, administrative. In a lot of different cultures, women are the ones who are making the house, [tending to] the animals, taking care of the kids, doing everything. We’re extremely efficient. We need to be in the positions of power, ASAP.
The other thing that is recently striking—this is something that I realized when we went to Scotland for COP26; for all the good and all the bad, there’s some lessons there. But there was a panel that was transgenerational. You have the elderly: Sylvia Earle, Johan Rockström. And then you have Xiye Bastida, this young activist. This generation of brilliant children needs empowerment from the elderly—not to contest them, because I don’t think you should ever fight the youth—but to guide them.
Amber: Do you know that quote, something like, ‘Men should stick to art and gossip, and women should rule the world?’
Gabriela: I couldn’t agree more. We have this social psychology that I’m proud my daughters don’t subscribe to. You were told to be more tame, and if you needed to get something you needed to be softer. You have to change yourself to get the guy. And I’m like, ‘What, that’s the prize at the end?’
Amber: I remember I got a note sent home [from school]. It said, ‘Amber is too full of herself.’ And I laugh—my mom was like, ‘Well, who is she supposed to be full of if she’s not full of herself?’
Gabriela: That’s cool that your mom said that.
Amber: I didn’t get in trouble, because I think she knew I was probably just being outspoken or challenging the teacher in some way. You know, maybe chatting too much with friends. But I would have never been rude to the teacher. I was just probably, you know, being myself [laughs].
Gabriela: The fact that you had a mother who let you do that is a great advantage in the world. I do think that people can confuse sweetness with being good. ‘Hard’ can be good, too. There’s a confusion in concepts there.
I played this song the other day, this Cat Stevens song, to one of my daughters—‘Hard-Headed Woman.’ I’ve always had not a rebellious, but an irreverent side. I don’t take things too seriously. But there was always a kind of manners mode that was holding me back, or a shyness, and I think that it really was as I hit 40 that I started to become very strong. Not that I changed radically, but it was an evolution to a point of, ‘Oh, I am certain of where I am moving.’ I have two modes. I know exactly what to do, and I move full-force. Or I don’t know, I wait and I observe, and then I [take] action.
Amber: I think it’s smart, if you don’t know something, to take your time to understand it. And especially with what I think we’re both trying to do within the industry.
Your namesake brand, you sort of have the freedom to do whatever you want. But to push Chloé in this direction, in a way that I’m sure they never saw coming—kudos to you. I’ve just been amazed to watch your rise.
“Everything I learn, I learn from the land, from where I grew up. My intuition tells me where to go, and then I educate myself.”
Gabriela: No, they did not. [Laughs] Not in that intensity.
I represent the effort of many, and the conviction. Because it’s never just you, you know? There were moments that—honestly Amber, I was like [throws head back], ‘I don’t know if I can do this!’ [Laughs] It’s gotten to a point where it cannot go back. The further I go into this—I mean, it’s been a journey of quite a few years for me—[I realize that] everything I learn, I learn from the land, from where I grew up. My intuition tells me where to go, and then I educate myself. The first thing is that we have to change our source of energy. [We have to] change where we are energetically right now. The reality is that the solar panels, the windmills, the renewable energies that we know are not ready for the demand. There are these transition energies, and the one that I believe in is fusion.
Amber: Is that nuclear fusion?
Gabriela: No. Fusion is the energy that the whole universe moves on. It’s basically fusing atoms at the temperature of the sun. The technology has been worked on for 52 years. There was just no focus or money going there. Now, there is. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all invested in fusion.
Amber: I want to study fusion! There are definitely many solutions, and it’s so important right now to have hope.
Gabriela: We can debate what we focus on first: on plastic, on all the plant-based meals. But we need to change the energy source that we’re producing everything with—because if not, it’s not gonna work.
Amber: Well, then you look at what fossil fuels are—they’re connected to plastic. It’s a petroleum-based material.
Gabriela: I’m going to leave you with this little pearl that I explained to my son. He wanted a new Lego. So I tell him what plastic is: Fossil fuels are just dead organisms from another geologic time. So we’re basically burning dead shit from this earth. Putting it into the atmosphere, warming the oceans. And somehow that’s a good idea? It’s time to change. The time is now.