NEW YORK, United States — As one of the fashion industry’s most influential consultants, Julie Gilhart takes joy in connecting designers and retailers to create concepts that offer more than making a simple sale. The former fashion director of America’s most influential department store, Barneys New York, Julie has been working with Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, for the past three years, advising them on how they can begin to engage with luxury e-commerce. Here, she discusses the most significant developments in high fashion’s approach to sustainability and what’s in store for fashion’s near future.
XC: When was the first time you merged your personal passions for environmental issues with your professional life, and what prompted that specific moment?
JG: It was at a couture show in Paris that someone told me it cost over a million dollars to produce. At the time, there were an increasing amount of discussions happening on the environment and the negative impact that we were having on the planet. Poverty, especially in certain regions of Africa where food and water were scarce, was a hot topic in the news. I was looking at the clothes, none of which were available for sale as everything was based on fantasy, and all of a sudden it did not make sense for me. It was a moment of change for how I would do and see things.
XC: What do you consider to be the most important moments of sustainability within the high fashion world?
JG: Stella McCartney saying ‘yes’ to making an all organic capsule collection — she was the first major designer to take on the challenge. Now, a good portion of her ready-to-wear incorporates some of these principles. In 2008, Earth Pledge’s Future-Fashion hosted a show during New York Fashion Week at Barneys where we asked noted designers to create one complete sustainable runway look. Many designers, from Ralph Lauren to Oscar de la Renta to Martin Margiela, did designs for the show. It was the first time some of them had ever tried to produce something with sustainability in mind.
XC: What is your personal interpretation of conscious consumerism?
JG: Conscious consumerism is a reminder that consuming affects humanity and the world at large. We need to remember our purchases have power to express our beliefs.
XC: You’ve previously said that eventually, customers “will not just be seduced by the ‘fashion’ but also by how the fashion is made.” What are the factors in play that would help customers awaken to this benevolent curiosity?
JG: The fact that news is broadcast and consumed on an almost instantaneous basis. The rise of young, worldly, conscious consumers who are deeply sensitive to the issues of others will cause a ‘pause’ where there was none before. For example, it’s exciting to know the traditional beading on your handbag may be helping a family sustain themselves. Or, perhaps the bead itself is made from a material that already exists — the way the product is made adds value. The mindset of the consumer is changing in the sense that they are becoming more aware that buying a product that has no regard for environmental or social impact is no longer attractive to them.
XC: Do you feel that people are becoming more aware of the connections between their spending habits, or lifestyle, with events such as the Rana Plaza disaster, or our increasingly strange weather?
JG: As long as we’ve been consuming, there has been very little, if any, awareness or information of what we shop for and how it’s produced. Until recently, people didn’t put any connection of what they are purchasing with its source and source ingredients. I feel transparency of information is a key factor, and not just from the traditional news sources — social media is having an effect on our collective consciousness. Images of loss of life at Rana Plaza, and wasteful depletion of natural resources, will have an impact on shopping patterns. It may take time but I believe change in shopping patterns is happening at a faster rate.
XC: From your experience of working in fashion, are we right to assume huge brands are able to swallow the initial small loss in profit to produce their clothing in a sustainable way?
JG: Maybe there could be an initial loss from switching from old ways to the new ones, but in the long term, actively engaging in production with sustainable materials and methods can actually increase profits. In essence, it’s all about smart decisions made by smart, aware people.
XC: And do you believe this change will come from customer demand, or should brands be leading the way?
JG: The responsibility lies with both, but at present, brands should be answering the call. Consumer thoughts in this arena are changing quickly. If I were a brand, positioning myself now... I strongly believe that when this consumer awareness becomes more prevalent, brands will be forced to change. In fashion, the ones that lead and innovate are always the ones, that if managed correctly, are the most successful.
XC: In a future characterised by an a amalgam of clicks and mortar, bits and bricks, what kind of benefits can big data technologies bring to the shopping experience?
JG: The rise of big data allows for the clever interpretation of shopping habits, needs, wants, and more. By effectively, respectfully, and consciously mining data, retailers can strategically plan wholesale orders to allow for less waste, thereby affecting the future of production so there’s less wastage — it’s a very positive future for the environment in that capacity.
XC: In a perfect world, what does our future shopping landscape look like?
JG: Ideally, the retailers who will rock the commerce landscape will be completely focused on sustainability through their construction methods, electricity usage and packaging needs etc... They’ll focus on consciously produced products without having to forego seductive style.
The norm will be that a percentage of profits are given back to effect change in some regard. It will be so fun and sexy, that anyone who is not participating in this way will look out of date and won’t be able to make their business work. They will be forced to change.
XC: What do you look for in a product or a service? What comes into play when you’re weighing up whether to splash the cash?
JG: I’m pretty diligent about that. When it comes to clothing, I try to find out where it was made, what is it made of... I think of all of that. And sometimes it may just boil down to the fact that I know that person, and I know the potential of that person. I will not buy anything that I don’t have some sort of connection to. It’s a really good way to edit things.
XC: What daily act could you we all do to make the world a better place?
JG: If everyone would meditate, the whole world’s vibration would change. And actually when you think about it scientifically, it would. I think that from trying to centre yourself, be more conscious and make better decisions, you may land on something that’s quite impactful. Even the intentions of doing that is really good.
XC: Are there things you know you shouldn’t do that you keep doing? What are they?
JG: Oh my god, there are so many. I think something that really bothers me is that every time I drink, it’s from a plastic bottle. Just try living for one day without single purpose plastic, whether it’s a bottle or a straw, and you’ll probably only last about an hour. It’s crazy how much plastic is in the world.
The third issue of Ever Manifesto, "Ever Conscious," focuses on the environmental impact of the fashion industry. It includes interviews with Yves Béhar, Pharrell Williams and Bruno Pieters. (Left: Sina by Carsten Holler, exclusive artwork cover for Ever Conscious, Issue 3 of Ever Manifesto)