c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
NEW YORK — “I’m in a completely virtual space,” Julie Gilhart said recently.
On the eve of her umpteenth Fashion Week, the former fashion director of Barneys, now a fashion consultant whose biggest client is Amazon.com Inc., was reflecting on how much the pace of shopping has accelerated since her 18 years at the department store.
“It’s ‘global’ at your fingertips, 24/7,” she said. “It puts tremendous pressure on everyone from retailers to designers and everyone in between.”
Gilhart is 55, but she has plunged into the churning waters of e-commerce with a millennial’s enthusiasm, bringing her famous eye for brands to the Amazon platforms Shopbop, MyHabit and Amazon Fashion and advising the company on the 40,000-square-foot photography studio it opened in Williamsburg last month. (She has leased a personal office in NeueHouse, the Gramercy private workspace collective.)
“Obviously I didn’t plan this, but with the Internet it’s like I leapfrogged,” Gilhart said, praising the transparency of the online environment in the way it allows retailers to track customer preferences, among other data.
But, she said, “fashion can’t be just a technology equation, It is filled with instinct, emotion and an eye into the future.”
Gilhart herself has run the full gamut of emotions during her time in the industry, including shock when she was fired by Barneys’ current chief executive, Mark Lee, as part of a management shake-up in 2010. “I was like, ‘What? Come again?’” Gilhart recalled of getting the news in his office. “I remember, in slow motion, putting my coat back on. After that, it was just sort of a haze.”
Sporting a deep tan from a Costa Rica surfing trip, the tall Gilhart, a Texan, seems to have found clarity in a flexible role that allows her to devote more time to pet causes like ecologically conscious clothes. (Eventually, she said, customers “will not just be seduced by the ‘fashion’ but also by how the fashion is made.”)
But it was difficult going for a while. Gilhart’s dog died and then she injured a disk in her back. Her longtime Barneys crew, which was “like family,” she said, had splintered (Judy Collinson, the executive vice president and a close friend, was also let go). And without the powerful establishment behind her, she said, “every relationship in my life changed.”
One that got better was with Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor. Gilhart said Wintour had never been “particularly close” before the bad news but was the first to call after she was let go.
“She said, ‘It’s going to be fine, these things happen,’” said Gilhart, who would go on to broker Amazon’s sponsorship of the Costume Institute gala in 2012. “She had me immediately talking to people. She was like my fashion fairy godmother.”
In an email message, Wintour wrote of Gilhart: “She has always been a fearless yet kind advocate for young designers in this country and beyond.”
Indeed, at the CFDA Awards in June, there was Gilhart, with her characteristic prescience, wearing a cutout frock by Suno, which that night won the Swarovksi Award for women’s wear.
“She’s awesome — this cool, creative spirit in how she sees things,” said the line’s designer, Erin Beatty, before collecting the trophy.
Gilhart started in the business in 1979, with a summer job after her junior year at the University of Texas, in the epicure department of the then-new Neiman Marcus in Dallas.
“That was when Cuisinart first came out,” Gilhart said. “I cleaned up that summer.”
As a top saleswoman at the store, she was soon promoted to designer clothing.
“I was so over college,” she said. She never graduated, getting an unofficial degree in 1980s fashion. (“Perry Ellis, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren,” she said reverently.)
When a position as assistant to the well-respected buyer Benita Downing opened up, she pounced.
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“She had traveled with Stanley Marcus,” Gilhart said. “She discovered the Missonis, discovered Ungaro. Karl Lagerfeld would write her birthday cards.”
Downing took Gilhart to Europe for the collections and refined her eye.
“Looking back, I think she’s the one who taught me how to nurture talent,” Gilhart said.
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After two years, she was promoted to buyer in European knitwear, which included then up-and-comers like Azzedine Alaïa and Issey Miyake.
“I was so unprepared,” she said. “I was saved in some way because business was booming.”
The late ’80s and early ’90s were all about runway extravaganzas, she said: “Scene-y in a different way. You would be at a Gaultier show, and you weren’t quite sure if you were going to get into the show or not. Today the scene is a lot more sedate. There are a lot of cameras now, a lot of people posing. There was none of that then. You were there for the show. It wasn’t about getting your picture taken.”
Gilhart arrived at Barneys in 1992, when it was in the midst of a national expansion. She recalled Gene Pressman, whose grandfather Barney Pressman started the business in 1923, as “a totally intimidating experience. I went into his office, and he was tossing this football. He said, ‘I only hire really good-looking people.’ I was like, ‘Uh, OK.’”
She was hired as a divisional merchandise manager, overseeing a team of buyers. Pressman became a mentor.
“He was never afraid of things like Comme des Garcons,” she said. “Here’s the big difference: Nowadays a lot of people look at a designer and think, ‘Can we sell that?’ And the training here was, ‘Look at a designer — your only hurdle was whether it’s good or not — and we’re going to figure out how to sell that.’”
One memorable appointment in Paris was with a 20-year-old Belgian, Olivier Theyskens, showing for the first time.
“This was not a junior collection,” Gilhart recalled, animated even years later. “It was already super-sophisticated.” And Pressman didn’t need convincing, she said. He operated on instinct. “You have to feel it,” she said, alluding to some private equity firms that assess fashion companies based on their spreadsheets. “There is no formula.”
Although Theyskens’ initial designs were not manufactured, Barneys scooped up his second season. “They did the best buy,” said Theyskens, now 36 and the creative director of Theory.
When the Pressmans were forced out in 1999, Gilhart took over fashion direction, and despite Barneys’ financial problems, continued to take risks. For the fall 2003 season, the store bought the entire thesis collection by two Parsons School of Design students, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez. Gilhart’s confidence in them “kick-started Proenza Schouler,” Hernandez said.
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She “was there through our ups and downs,” McCollough said, adding that the duo still values her advice.
Gilhart also continued to endorse Theyskens. When the designer took the reins at Rochas in 2002, she arranged private runway shows where he could meet with select top shoppers.
“I have a very strong memory of that,” Theyskens said. “It was one of the first times I had a real, engaging talk with specific customers. At the end of the day, our work, that’s what it’s about: to get presented and to have the customer have a relationship with the clothes.”
Now that Theyskens is based in New York, the two might grab coffee and walk through the company’s meatpacking district flagship store, as they did one summer morning. Gilhart fingered a few knits and lingered over a supple leather cropped jacket. The cut was easy, a marked departure from Theyskens’ earlier work for Rochas and later Nina Ricci, which drew some criticism for their impossibly skinny fits.
Gilhart, though, is adamant that buyers not intervene too much with the visionary process.
“You can say things to the designer, like ‘We want more dresses,’ but you’re just following this person, lucky to engage with this talent,” she said. “And if you have a hiccup in the business, it’s like ‘How can we work this out?’”
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It’s unclear what kind of traction Amazon will get in the world of New York fashion, but Collinson, now at Dior, seemed confident that her former colleague would survive regardless.
“Julie is like a dog with a bone; she is constantly searching,” Collinson said. “She was, is, tenacious.”