Julie Gilhart, Senior Vice-President and Fashion Director of Barneys New York has long championed sustainable projects in high fashion. Here, with London based designer Duro Olowu – a man who knows a thing or two about producing beautiful clothes with alternative means – she discusses the influence the fashion buyer has on consumer choices and why sustainability is to be considered a movement and not a trend.
What does sustainability mean to the fashion industry?
I feel it’s about being more conscious of how clothes and accessories are made. Trying to ensure wherever possible that they’re made using organic or sustainable fabrics and supporting crafts people. The main thing is that high fashion is in a position to have less of an adverse impact on the planet than most kinds of mass production.
DO I remember early on in their careers, people like Margiela, Xuly Bet and other underground labels used recycling techniques as a means of expressing their avant-garde vision of fashion and how clothes could be worn. Is sustainability now what recycling was to the 1990s?
JG Yes, to some degree. Designers like that were concerned with showing how fashion items could be worked and reworked, used and reused. It was about defining individual personal style by designing collections using recycled fabrics and garments, and making a strong statement against mass production. Hardly ever did the words sustainable or organic show up in the descriptions of these designers and their work. And yet, because these labels grew slowly but surely, it showed buyers, retailers and the fashion press that this kind of production – though limited in quantity – avoided a lot of the waste going on elsewhere in the industry.
DO Why has the fashion industry been so slow to catch up with others in embracing sustainable or organic products?
JG The fastest awareness was with organic food and cosmetics. When I was growing up in Texas, buying organic meant shopping at a little market in town frequented by few. But, by the mid 1990s, the food and cosmetics industry were way ahead of fashion in embracing organic products and sustainable production methods. The main reason being that theirs was a more specific story that invited people to eat organic foods and use organic cosmetics. People became more aware of their health and wellbeing, and as such more conscious about what they put into their bodies and how these products were made. All by simply reading labels and content descriptions. Taste and feel were also very important.
DO How has this new knowledge and behaviour impacted on the current luxury goods industry?
JG Luxury is changing and the whole 1990s “expensive thing” is no longer seen as luxurious. Consumption cannot be stopped. However, in the current economic climate, the limited number of real customers for this industry must be made to feel good about their purchases, expensive or not. This “conscious consumption” is not a trend. It is a movement, one that has forced smart designers and brands alike to become much more transparent about where things are made, what they are made from and under what conditions they are produced. Issues of sustainability and fair trade are now part of the appeal of fashion and luxury goods.
DO And yet, rather than sacrificing aesthetics for sustainability, design remains at the forefront of this new consumer movement.
JG Extremely so. It is still about having beautifully designed things that fit well and feel good. What is new is that people are now aware that these things can be made in a sustainable way without compromising the result. And high-end fashion in limited numbers adds to the cache of the brand. Like with your work, which has always incorporated mixing unused vintage and rare couture fabrics with your own prints and other contemporary fabrics that you produce locally.
DO Absolutely. For me, beautiful fabrics and limited production are the keys to creating special pieces that are desirable to the client. Production conditions are also crucial.
JG For sure. Approved factory strategy is a major thing now. American companies manufacturing in countries like China are now stipulating the manufacture of fewer goods in better working conditions.
DO But doesn’t this conflict with the bottom line, cost efficient needs of these big companies?
JG Yes and no. As these companies become more aware of the disaster that the human race is creating on the Earth, they are seeking a new way of continuing to manufacture and sell more cost effectively without abusing the planet and its workforce. They realise that they can do this in a sustainable manner, one that requires pioneering programmes and legislation. In this regard, the conscious consumer’s awareness of the efforts put in by these brands saves these companies huge amounts of money as less advertising is required. Any thing that saves these companies large amounts of money in this dire economic climate is a big plus. For them, the new sustainability is about sustaining a business!
DO Barneys New York has always supported and sponsored organic and sustainable projects and products in fashion. For example, the Future Fashion Project in 2008, which invited major fashion brands to participate in a runway show using only sustainable fabrics. How successful was this and what does the future hold?
JG The event was a huge success covered by all the major fashion magazines and press. Over thirty designers, including Bottega Venetta, Yves Saint Laurent, Isabel Toledo, Proenza Schouler, Margiela, Versace, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and yourself all donated total looks and showed the power of the message of sustainability while maintaining fashion credibility. More recently, we have collaborated on the New Vintage collection with Yves Saint Laurent – a limited collection of classic YSL pieces, all made from material left over from past collections. We are also embarking on a “loomsgate” project featuring prints and patterns of endangered animals and all the proceeds are going to the Defenders of Wildlife organisation.
DO What’s the easiest way for the average consumer to start becoming more aware?
JG Start with being conscious of how you buy denim. Each pair of conventionally produced jeans contains, on average, enough pesticides to fill one zip lock bag. Read the label to see where and how it was made. It’s good for you and even better for the planet.