The Future of Fashion: Julie Gilhart

Julie Gilhart is fashion’s free spirit: a passionate surfer, an early champion of ecologically minded clothing, a vocal supporter of political causes. But as the fashion director of Barneys New York, she’s a free spirit who guides the buying decisions of a multimillion-dollar, multicity luxury retailer. When she joined the company, she told them she would work for them for only one year. Eighteen years—and at least three changes in ownership—later, she’s still there. During our phone conversation, somewhat condensed here, she discussed the need for the fashion system to change, the importance of keeping your ear to the ground, and why she hates markdowns.

Does selling by season still make sense? Sure, it was cold in New York this winter, but the way people live now, a lot of time is spent indoors, in air-conditioned or heated environments. Are seasons still important?
From a psychological perspective, seasons are really important. And coming from Texas, where you don’t really have a lot of seasons, to have fall, winter, spring, and summer is really, really nice and romantic. And to build the spirit of fashion around that is really nice. In the past, it’s been the reason why you shop: “I need my spring clothes. I need my fall clothes.” I think the new paradigm is, “There are new things in the store, what do I need?” Today I have on a dress that I can wear all year round, and in the winter I put a coat over it. The rules of what you buy now are different. What we’re trying to say is, buy quality, know what you’re buying, buy things that are going to last a long time and that you’re going to wear frequently. Maybe next season you won’t buy a coat, but you buy a nice pair of boots. It’s probably the worst thing for people to say, in retail—because retail is all about consumption. But the thing is, if you define yourself as a place that has quality and integrity and always brings to the table good design and value, you’re going to get customers to shop in your place, because you’re actually really thinking about that. Seasons are now more defined for us as a chance to buy new things. It’s antiquated to say, “I’m going to buy my spring wardrobe, my fall wardrobe.” Now it’s, “I think I’m going to buy pieces that I can wear and need and can wear for as long as possible.” But there’s [still] a reality to it. You need your boots if you live in a snowy place, and you need hardly nothing if you’re living in L.A. in the summer. So there are different needs for different places.

How does the proliferation of collections—pre-fall, Resort, and so on—play into this?
It’s a flow, so that you always have new things coming in the store. But I think it’s been abused, and everybody needs to edit that down a bit. We don’t need so many things…I’m being very frank. The runway collections actually come late in the season, and the reality of the way American retail is set up, things go on sale not that long after the runway pieces come in. So there should be less pieces in the runway, and our buys shouldn’t be weighted in the runway. They should be weighted into the pre-collections, so you have longer to sell, and you can put a mix together and it looks like a more edited exclusive product in the store. Balenciaga is one of my favorite shows to go to because Nicolas [Ghesquière] only does 35 exits, which is really small for a show, but you can almost memorize those 35 exits. They’re put on, they’re shot in every single magazine, they’re everywhere—so by the time they come in the store, I don’t know if I so want the whole runway exit thing. Maybe I want a piece of it, but the bulk of what we’re going to sell in a collection like Balenciaga is going to come in before those runway pieces come in. Does that make sense?

Yes. I don’t think any of us have the answers yet, but there’s a general sense that there need to be some changes in the system.
Definitely. I think you’ll find retailers, designers, press people uneasy about the system right now. It needs to change. But [ New York Times photographer] Bill Cunningham told me one time that fashion was just a reflection of the times, and I think that’s so right on. We’re in the situation right now where what has worked in the past isn’t working any longer, so we really need to change a lot. What that means, I don’t know. But that’s where the creativity of fashion comes in. We need to look at these people that are doing things in a really good way. The way the designer sees things is a big platform for us, too. Where are things made, how are things made. All of that’s becoming more important.

Talking of how things are made, you’ve been a vocal champion of eco-fashion, if that’s the correct term. I don’t know if you like that term. How important is that, going forward?
I think it’s actually about being conscious. Green, eco, all those words—it’s just about being more conscious. [Take] somebody like Isabel Toledo, who’s doing everything in New York…and only buys fabric to order and knows exactly where everything is being done and pays fair wages and is doing everything in a very sustainable way, as much as possible. It’s not easy to be completely conscious in the way of sustainability and organic and eco, because not all of the materials are available yet, and the resources aren’t there. I just had this experience with Colin Firth’s wife, Livia, who’s amazing. She [was] trying to go through the whole awards season wearing clothes that are made in a sustainable way, and [was] having a really hard time…She has to be in something that’s designed well and is glamorous, but is actually very conscious—and it’s not easy, it’s very difficult. But I think it should become easier…If I’m going to work in fashion, I don’t want to be part of the things that are contributing to a worse environment. I want to be part of something that’s contributing to a better environment, and so whatever little we can do, I’m going to try to do that. So it means supporting people that you believe really want to try to do a better job in that way, and actually it goes back to some of the things that the customers really want. They want things that are made well, that are made in a conscious way, that have long-term values, that are beautiful. All of that is part of the story. It’s not just about eco and organic.

In terms of the changing landscape, a lot of the major dominant designers of the twentieth century, the huge brands—a lot of those guys are nearer the end of their careers than the beginning. When you look at the really young generation of designers coming through now, do you see those people building up brands like that? Or are we in a different moment now?
It’s never going to be the same. It can’t possibly, because if you really believe that fashion is a reflection of the times, the times are changing. It’s never going to be the way [it was] in the eighties and nineties and early part of the last decade. It’ll just be different. Sure, there will be huge businesses that grow out of this young group that’s coming up, but it’s going to be expressed in a different way. There’ll be more to choose from. One of the things with the big brands right now is that the customer is really reacting to them in the sense that they’re so over-marketed. [Customers] don’t want that anymore. They don’t want to see what they’re buying everywhere. They want to be able to buy something that is more special. And when they see it advertised and editorialized and on celebrities too much, then I think their reaction is a little bit not as it was. That old formula is not working. We have some of our best customers coming in the store and they’re so interested in things they’ve never seen before…It’s interesting, and you have to keep your finger on the pulse because it can shift. It can change. We’re all trying to predict stuff, but none of us really know, either. You’ve got to really keep your ear to the ground and not get caught up in everything but really be listening and aware and feeling it. You have to feel fashion. You can’t read a report and then all of a sudden say, “Oh, that’s what it’s all about.”

On some level, Barneys helped drive that change in consumer behavior. I’m thinking of Co-Op. You guys were really in the vanguard of the mix-and-match approach.
We’ve never been a head-to-toe-look store…We never thought of Co-Op as a place where you find secondary collections. It’s a place where you find something different. But what’s happened in the last few years, and this is a new shift, is that people that are in Co-Op not only have a lot of style for a much better price, but they have the feeling of a big-time designer or a designer that’s really going to develop into something. I’m talking about people that have really shifted the energy, like an Alexander Wang, a Phillip Lim, all those people in that genre…You go to an Alexander Wang show, you feel like you’re going to a designer show in Paris, practically. It’s got that energy and that vibe. Maybe it’s not quite there, but it definitely is so close. Some of our top customers, they’ll buy pieces from designer and then they’ll buy pieces in Co-Op, and these are people who can buy anythingthey want…I kind of look at in stages. You had that whole Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein thing going for a while, then—boom, you have Proenza Schouler, you have Zac Posen, you have Derek Lam, you have all these other people who came onto the scene, and you’re like, wow, they have really captured all the energy. Those are the shows that you want to go to. And then all of a sudden you have people like Phillip Lim and Alexander Wang and Vena Cava and Band of Outsiders and all those people, and you’re like, wow, they have a lot of energy. It’s fun to go to their shows. So it shifts around.

That goes to the question of fashion shows and how important the live experience still is. Does the energy you see on the runway somehow boil down into the garment in a way that you can’t necessarily describe?
It has to be well designed. You’re not going to get excited about a show that has great music, great models, and not great clothes. But if you have all three of them, you’re like, wow, this is great, totally inspired. It’s the $64,000 question. How valid are fashion shows? If the Rodarte girls didn’t have a fashion show, would you be able to get the essence of that collection? You would look at it in the store and say, that’s really great and that’s really interesting and unique, but I always go back to that [Spring 2010] fashion show, and I’m like, wow, I loved all that smoke. I loved the way the models looked so goth and how they mixed in that plaid and the boots were all thigh-high and strappy. It gives you the feeling that these girls have a certain power, but if you were just to look at it in a store, it’s just a dress on a hanger. It came from that source, so it’s our job to express the power behind that. That’s where a comes in, [saying] that’s what we saw and it’s kind of amazing…I love, it’s the Wikipedia of fashion…It’s really like, just the facts, ma’am, please. Here are the pictures and here’s what we can tell you about the show and here you go. That’s one of the things that has changed fashion,…it’s like Xerox and the copier. is an amazing Internet engine. You put it up there with Google and all that other stuff. It’s pretty incredible—it’s changed a lot of things.

Beyond, has the whole model, the whole way of looking at fashion shows, changed? It’s not about a top-down dictatorial approach anymore.
That’s why I think some of the big brands are struggling right now. “What do we do?” They’re feeling it, they’re feeling the shift. And they’re all trying to figure out what to do.

The old ways aren’t working, and people are questioning things. Is that a direct result of the recent recession, or has it been a gradual process over the last few years?
The recession was just an environmental disaster. The bigger picture is that things are changing…We will recover [from the recession], but the world is changing. I’m super positive about it. I think we’re about to enter into an extremely creative time, and I don’t think it’s going to be as much about a facade and excess and all of that. It’s going to be about things that really matter, that have quality and a lot of integrity. You’ll have fun with it. It’s going to be great. Things like the recession can only help. It makes you think about what you can do with only a small amount of resources, and sometimes some of the best creativity comes out of that. There’s a lot of kids that are so well informed now, and their creative juices are working at a much younger age. Their sensibility is really great, and the ones who are born creative are going to express themselves in different ways. I don’t think any of this new breed are saying, “I want to be like that.” I mean, some of them are in awe of people before them, but a lot of them are saying, “I want to be famous for what I do.” I think if we pay attention we can make [this decade] really great. And people like you, the press, that have so much power, you [have to] ask the right questions and promote people you really believe in. The customer is reading that. What’s really frustrating is when you see things being promoted and you know the story behind it, and you’re like, whoa, that’s not true.

One consequence of the recession was the deep discounting by luxury retailers.
That was a dark day in fashion. That was a really dark day. I hate sales. I think everything should go on sale in January and in July and call it a day…I hate sales.

But is there a way to break that cycle?
No [ laughs]. There are some things that are going to be impossible. But we have to work around it. It’s like a given, so how do you work around it?

Is everything just moving too fast, at this point?
Everything is moving too fast, way too fast. Whatever we can do to slow it down, I’m all for. But again, it’s going back to fashion being a reflection of the times. Things are moving too fast. We have to build into our system spaces where we can be creative, where we can rest. I mean, pity the poor designer. Oh, my God, I talk to so many of them. Most of their job is working on things that continue their brand but aren’t necessarily the creative part of what they love to do. I don’t think that’s really appropriate, to tell you the truth. I mean, it’s like an artist having to sell his paintings and do all the cataloging. Really, his talent is doing the art, so let the guy do his art. Let’s give him enough time to do his art, and if he needs to run the business, time to do that. But they’re all scrambling. It’s really a lot. I talked to someone recently and he’s definitely one of the top designers in the world and he’s burned out. I’m like, oh, my God, I feel so bad for this person, because he works so hard and it’s just not right. He’s super successful, at the top of his career, but just struggling with the amount that this business requires of this person. I wish had a solution for him.