Are Fashion Directors Necessary?

By
Barneys fashion director Julie Gilhart. Photo: Patrick McMullan

The fashion director is a threatened species in These Times. Michael Fink lost his job as fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue in January. LaVelle Olexa recently lost her job as fashion director of Lord & Taylor. Julie Gilhart, fashion director of Barneys, is safe, but, according to the New York Times, should be scared. The position of fashion director is increasingly viewed as expendable as retailers lose boatloads of cash and slash staff. What do fashion directors do, exactly? They decide which trends, products, and designers a retailer store should promote, and how. They might put a bunch of pink men's shirts in a window with a banner that reads "Think Pink." They discover and promote new talent, conceive ad campaigns and floor displays. They tell buyers what to order. They create a store's image.

But in this economy, image isn't nearly as important as not losing any more money, God help us. (Saks lost $99 million in the fourth quarter.) Retailers are more interested in commercial items that will sell than, say, having the latest Balenciaga no one can afford in the middle of the store. But also, with shows like Project Runway and blogs like this one that anyone can comment on, anyone can be a fashion director in their own right. We don't need real fashion directors to tell us what to wear. The all-powerful Internet and reality TV will guide us! And let's not forget fashion's living, breathing stimulus package, Michelle Obama, who can shut down J.Crew's website merely by wearing a pair of the store's gloves.

Since fashion directors operate under a diminished role, they busy themselves these days with things like making store appearances, talking to reporters, and making Internet videos, serving more as the face of their respective retail establishments than as merchandise influencers. It's only a matter of time before one of them lands a reality-TV show, which Julie Gilhart should definitely be trying to do right now. It would keep her job safe and be genius, obviously. Bravo, we'll take a commission on that idea via PayPal. Thanks.

What the Fashion Seers Didn’t See Coming [NYT]