As a member of the Hearst dynasty, and with a stylish home in Manhattan and her own ranch in Uruguay, fashion designer Gabriela Hearst is more used to fine dining and finer jewellery than sweltering in the heat of drought-ridden east Africa. As are the 1,500 women whose names are on the waiting list for her sell-out Nina handbag (named after Nina Simone).
But a recent trip to Turkana, Kenya, an area affected by the drought and famine that the UN has described as the worst humanitarian emergency since World War II, spurred Hearst to take action. She’s pledged the entire margin of each sale of her coveted handbags, which are available for the first time via Net-a-Porter and Bergdorf Goodman from today until October 8th, to Save the Children.
Through the initiative Hearst hopes to raise $600,000: $55 per month for each of the Kenyan families that Save the Children currently doesn’t have the funds to help. The money will go towards providing clean water, food and livestock for the remainder of the drought, which is expected to last eight more months.
The donation arose after Hearst accompanied Save the Children to Turkana, where the drought is affecting 2.5 million families. One in eight children under five years old is suffering severe acute malnutrition and is at risk of death. For Hearst, it was a harrowing, thought-provoking experience.
“Having grown up on a farm, I can understand what it means to lose your livestock,” says the designer, who is a member of Save the Children’s Celebrity Cabinet. “They are not only a source of milk and meat but are used as currency; livelihoods are linked to it. The Turkana women now have to find alternative sources of income.
“The women themselves are so inspirational,” she continues. “They build their own houses, dig holes with their hands on dry river beds for water and carry the containers for miles. Their sheer intent to persevere is incredible. I met one woman, a widow, who had 10 adult children. One of her daughters had three children of her own, one of whom had already died as a result of the famine. But you could see that this matriarch of the family was still fighting for the whole group’s survival.”
Being faced with such sheer human desperation was a culture shock to say the least. “When I came back to New York, it was hard for me to adapt to the reality we live in. I felt removed and honestly a bit ridiculous with our way of life.”
After discussions with her husband, Austin Hearst, who received The National Humanitarian Award in 2014, she realised she had no choice but to make a significant, concrete donation. “In the current turmoil the world is in, the only way forward is to wake up to the severity of what we’re facing as a species and help one another,” she says. “We can’t continue to think that starvation is a problem of past generations: it is real and happening right now.” There’s never been a better excuse for a new handbag.
Gabriela Hearst's Demi bag (£1,495) and Nina bag (£1,695) are available at Net-a-Porter until October 8th
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