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If any group reveres Julie Gilhart more than the luxury fashion industry, it’s the sustainable fashion industry.

During her 18-year tenure as VP and fashion director of Barneys New York, Gilhart used her vaunted position to promote a more principled approach to apparel production, and she lent important support to ethical labels including Loomstate, Alabama Chanin and Organic by John Patrick. In 2008, she even challenged the likes of Martin Margiela, Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren to create sustainable looks for an in-store fashion show–the first time, according to Gilhart, that many of the participants were tasked with incorporating environmental considerations into their design process.

Speaking with the sustainable design publication Ever Manifesto last year, Gilhart said it was the exorbitant cost of a Parisian couture show that woke her up to the excesses of the fashion world.

“Someone told me it cost over a million dollars to produce,” Gilhart said of the show. “At the time, there were an increasing amount of discussions happening on 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.”

Since parting ways with Barneys in 2010, Gilhart has worked as a fashion consultant, counseling brands and conglomerates on sustainability strategies, as well as helping Amazon hone its approach to luxury retail. This month, she and friend Simon Collins, former dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons, launched the first of what may become a monthly event series called Fashion Garage, during which the two dispensed free advice to anyone seeking it.

“I was surprised at the questions that came in terms of responsibility and sustainability. We had a lot of people asking about how you can incorporate that into what one is doing,” Gilhart told Redef in a lengthy interview following the event. “That surprised me, but also made me really excited because it’s a platform I do love to explore.”

fashion garage

Gilhart and Collins during the inaugural Fashion Garage. Photo via style.com

As always, Gilhart's views on sustainable fashion are nuanced and insightful. Here are four things, ranging from encouraging to eyebrow-raising, that she said to Redef on the subject.

1. Customers do–or will–care.
“If you’re in the fashion business, you do one of two things: you follow trends, or you pick up on energy and you create energy. I think that sustainability–or responsibility, or ethics, or whatever you call it–is an emerging trend that does have energy. You have to pay attention to it.”

2. This movement is in the hands of small brands.
“There are three things you can really look at [in creating a sustainable brand]: What is your supply chain? What are your materials? And how and where do you produce–who’s actually making it? When you’re big and already have a developed business, it’s really hard to go back and re-do. If you’re small, it’s easier to build.

“Sometimes it seems more costly, so you have to examine it. The first step is to be conscious and aware of where you are right now and start to chip away at it. If you think you’re going to build the Pyramids, it seems impossible. But if you start with one stone, eventually you’ll get the Pyramids built.”

3. Ethical fast fashion is not an oxymoron.
“We spend a lot of time talking about the bad things. Take fast fashion. Everybody bashes fast fashion. In my dreams, I would love to see a fast fashion brand that’s made well, that has a proper supply chain, that uses great materials. That pays homage to the human part of it, to the labour. I think it’s possible.

“We need to look at the way the world is now–pretty soon we’re going to have nine billion people on this planet. That’s a lot of people to clothe. We still need to push ways of rethinking the way we buy and use clothes. It’s going to take a lot of changing consumer behavior, and we all know that behavior is hard to change. We need to chip away at that, but we also need to accept the fact that fast fashion will probably exist–so let’s make it better. You can still be a profitable business and be a responsible business.”

4. It may be investors, not consumers, who ultimately bring about change.
“The other thing about sustainability that I think is very interesting is the investor scene. We’ve seen the tragedies that can come from not doing things in the right way–for example, Rana Plaza, where over a thousand people were killed. So, what does that say if I’m an investor? I want to invest in something that’s pretty much risk-free, [and] we’re seeing how risky not being sustainable can be.”


Gilhart also shared her take on whether fashion designers are overworked, why breaking into fashion is easier today than ever before and plenty more. Read the interview in its entirety on Redef.

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