Rooney Mara conjures several figures to mind: the angel-faced Erica Albright who broke Mark Zuckerberg’s heart and inspired The Social Network; the leather-clad, ink-skinned vigilante Lisbeth Salander better known as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; or Therese, the salesgirl at the centre of mink-trimmed sapphic drama Carol. In the past year, however, the 34-year-old actress has become known for another role, as designer and animal-rights campaigner. In 2018, she co-founded Hiraeth, a Los Angeles-based vegan label, alongside Chrys Wong, a former personal shopper, and Sara Schloat, a childhood friend. Her public appearances, meanwhile, have been a subtle platform on which to showcase her cruelty-free designs.
Mara’s decision to launch a fashion label was born of her own frustration at not finding animal-friendly clothes. Vegan for the past eight years (her fiancé, the actor Joaquin Phoenix, has been plant-based since the age of three), Mara found herself among a growing tribe of consumers seeking conscious choices but finding nowhere to go. Mainly she wanted vegan combat boots, which were near impossible to find – or produce, it later transpired – but which can now be purchased for $650 from the Hiraeth site. Despite the early focus on shoes, things soon “snowballed” into ready-to-wear. Today, they offer two collections a year, everything is manufactured in Los Angeles by people paid a living wage and they sell both on their own site and worldwide at Dover Street Market. Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market, says the decision to stock the brand was informed principally by “the magic and beauty of the clothes”. But, he adds, the brand’s “socially and planetary responsible” standpoint reflects also a growing trend among his customers. “There is definitely a growing awareness that we should all do whatever we can, in however small a way, to be more responsible for our actions.”
Vegetarians, vegans and other flexitarian categories currently account for around 11 per cent of the world population: around three per cent of the US population is vegan. And the numbers are growing. Mounting evidence shows that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of developing numerous chronic diseases over the course of one’s life. The World Health Organisation classifies red meat as Group 2A, meaning that it is “probably” carcinogenic to humans; processed meat is classified as Group 1, meaning “there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer”. It’s also better for the environment. According to a study by Harvard University, approved in 2013, around 30 per cent of the word’s total ice-free surface is farmed to support the chickens, pigs and cattle that we eat. And livestock production – which includes meat, milk and eggs – uses one-third of the world’s fresh water.
Mara’s conversion to veganism, however, was an ethical choice. “From when I was very little, I was obsessed with animals – and I was always a really picky, bad eater – but it wasn’t until I was in first grade, aged about 10 or 11, and I met a new friend who was vegetarian that I discovered what being a vegetarian meant. I didn’t even know it was an option – to choose not to eat something. So, as soon as I met her, I was like, well, I’m vegetarian too. I don’t want to eat animals. And then about seven or eight years ago, someone sent me one of those undercover videos of a pig farm and that led me down this YouTube black hole of horrific videos. And I’ve been vegan ever since.”
A life of oatmilk lattes is one thing but, as Mara soon realised, her new adopted lifestyle came with other strings attached. She didn’t feel comfortable wearing wool – and her favourite biker boots and leather jacket were completely verboten. “That took a minute,” says Mara of the dawning realisation that her dietary choices had sartorial implications. “And then it was something that I really grappled with because I love clothes and I didn’t want to get rid of them. But even wearing leather I had already felt kind of hypocritical because I am an ethical vegan – I do it for the animals. So I decided to transition my whole wardrobe.”
Then came the fix. “There were so many things I couldn’t wear any more, but I couldn’t find an alternative,” says Mara. “Hiraeth came out of my own necessity.”
Hiraeth is a Welsh word meaning homesickness for a place that may never have been. It reverberated with Mara because she liked its echo of displacement. “I think we’re in that place right now as a society with every facet of our lives,” she explains. “Who are we? Where are we? Where are we going? We’re all so uncomfortable and trying to figure out where to go next. That word, Hiraeth, just really resonated with me. It was always a feeling I’ve had of being a very romantic, nostalgic person, just always feeling like… wanting to return to some place that doesn’t really exist.”
That sensibility is felt also in the clothes, which combine girlish, feminine fluted organzas and artisanal vintage-style shirts and dresses with tougher looks in vegan leather in a monochromatic palette. “We try and have it be a fusion of nostalgic pieces plus more minimalist and modern things,” says Mara of the collection, which she wears when she’s “someone else’s date” or for public engagements when she’s not wearing Givenchy (with whom she has a pre-existing contract). “Certainly the clothes reflect things that I was always drawn to… I loved playing dress-up in all my mom’s old nightgowns and stuff, and I love the clothes from the ’30s and the ’40s and Victorian clothes, so it’s definitely inspired by those things.”
In person, over tea at a quiet downtown restaurant at the Ludlow Hotel in New York, Mara appears part gothic heroine, part punk fairy. She radiates an otherworldy kind of beauty - ethereal is the word most often applied. Born in Bedford, New York, in 1985, she had a childhood of extreme affluence – and sport; her mother’s family (the Rooneys) founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, while her father’s family (the Maras) founded the New York Giants, an NFL dynastic union said to be worth more than $3bn. She and her older sister, Kate, both started acting in their teens, and Rooney has built a powerful career playing soulful, intense, cerebral female characters. In January, she will start work on the new Guillermo del Toro film Nightmare Alley after a three-year absence from a film set. When we meet she has just returned from a week of being “a plus one” to Phoenix at the Venice film festival, promoting Joker. Their relationship is one of the reasons why Mara has now settled in LA.
As for running a business, Mara insists it’s a group effort. “We do have roles, but everyone dips their hand in everything,” she says of the team, which remains in single digits and is largely dependent on the “amazing talent” of Lily, a former intern and student of London Central Saint Martin’s who turned up with some sketches and now part runs the show. “I would say that Chrys is the glue that holds it all together because she’s the only one of us that has any sort of real experience in the fashion industry,” adds Mara. “And Sara does a lot with sales and the business side, which I just have no tolerance for.”
Mara is an unlikely entrepreneur. “All of it,” she says when asked which feature of the business she likes the least. “Any conversation with a lawyer, or anything related to something that’s not a creative… The maths. I’m just like, do I have to have this? It’s like that in acting, too, when you’re making a deal for a movie. I’m just like, I don’t really care, just do whatever. I’m the worst.”
She’s reluctant to take much credit for the design either. She’s mortified when it’s suggested that she may have been inspired by the designers Clare Waight Keller or Riccardo Tisci, with whom she has worked in the past. “I can’t even think about myself in terms of them because, like I said, those are real artists. I don’t think of myself in terms of that. But yes, I’ve always bought vintage things and then had them tailored differently so that they would fit me the way I wanted, and I’ve always very easily been able to imagine up dresses that I wanted made. And I’ve always had very specific tastes and know what I like and know what I don’t like. So, yes, that came naturally to me, but I’m not a designer and I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t claim to be.”
Mara’s view is pretty stoic, but while she’s quick to proselytise about mushrooms (I went to a vegan dinner she hosted in Paris that testified to her commitment to the cause), she’s a very gentle activist. “I know so many people who have gone vegan really suddenly overnight,” she says of the dangers of jumping on the plant-based wagon. “They’ll see a documentary and they’ll be enraged and try and change their whole life the next day, and it doesn’t last that long because it’s too much change at once. Obviously, I would love for people to change their entire way of doing things overnight. There’s a part of me that wants to shake people and be like, look what you’re a part of, but I know that, even from arguments with people in my family not pertaining to veganism, those kinds of arguments don’t get you anywhere. So I try to be an example as opposed to being a loud voice in their face. And I think it has the potential to get better results, but I don’t know.”
She’s quick to point out that her business brings with it other dilemmas as well. Such as the fact that vegan leather is plastic. “It’s hard,” says Mara. “Vegan leather is not all that environmentally friendly. But we don’t make that much stuff in the faux and it’s not meant to be fast fashion that you wear a few times and get rid of. And for me, the argument is, no matter what, using real leather is going to be worse for the environment, even if it is a natural fibre, because you still have to keep that animal alive. You need the land in order to keep that animal alive. Then you need more land in order to feed that animal. And water. For me, it’s not really a comparison.”
Mara didn’t anticipate that she would become so absorbed by Hiraeth. After months of immersion in growth charts and distribution and inventory and talk of investment, she’s relishing the chance to act again. “I’m so excited, I can’t wait,” she says of her real job. “As an actor, you go off and you make something and you give it all of your attention and it’s a very intense experience, but it’s three months and so it’s easy to give it 150 per cent and forget about the rest of your life. Hiraeth is also very intense, but it never ends. It just keeps going.…”
That said, she’s grown to enjoy the power that running a house brings with it. “It has been really nice having more of a say in things. I love acting, and being at the whim of everyone, especially the director’s vision. And not having to make hard decisions, and letting someone else lead. But, yes, it has been fun to wear a different hat and get to work in a different way.”
Will we see her take a more political stance in her on-screen work? For Mara, it seems, acting and veganism co-exist independently – although she no longer wears fur or leather for a role. “Of course, it’s incredible to have a platform to talk about the things that are important to you. It’s an amazing part of what I get to do. And I am a political person. But I don’t want to muddy the two things.”
Mara doesn’t think she’s saving the planet. The opposite in fact. Her ambitions are modest. “The most environmental thing would be for all of us to just not buy things,” she says. “And I struggle with that. But the thing is, people are going to buy things. And we’re such a teeny, tiny thing – it’s not like we’re making stuff on a massive scale. So why not give them an option that is a little bit more friendly?” Why not indeed? And how typically gentle.