During her eighteen-year stint as a buyer for Barneys, Julie Gilhart defined the effortless, quirky chic that became the store's trademark. Her breezy, hippie-girl style, set off by her deep tan and friendly Texas drawl, was always a welcome sight in the front-row crowd at fashion week, where she'd cheerfully confess that she'd rather be surfing. The fashion world was aghast, therefore, when Gilhart was abruptly let go from her position as women's fashion director this past November, amidst widespread re-shuffling under the company's new CEO, Mark Lee. She's since laid low, working primarily on pet projects involving eco-fashion and Japan relief, and she recently took a three-week trip to Mexico to regroup. But Gilhart fans rejoice: She's diving back into the fashion trenches, taking a number of fashion consulting jobs and working with the National Resources Defense Council to promote sustainable clothing. "Right now, I want to have my fingers in a lot of different pies," she explained. We called her up to hear about her future projects, her shopping strategies, and why no girl should wear a shoe that's heavier than her foot.
You're a big champion of eco-conscious fashion, but it can be really difficult to convince people to buy something eco-friendly when their top priority is looking good. How do you reconcile that?
Well, it's really about making conscious decisions that aren't wasteful. Like with Lanvin, one of my favorites, there's nothing organic about it. But Alber [Elbaz]'s clothes tend to be very well made, and they never go out of style. So in Lanvin's case, you're buying a jacket that you can wear for years. I have a jacket that I bought that's from 2001, and I'm still wearing it. It's very difficult to buy 100 percent organic or sustainable, but the number one conscious decision is to not buy more than you need, and to buy things that last. If I had a choice to buy a T-shirt that's made in New York City versus a T-shirt that's made in China, and they're very similar, I'm probably going to choose the one that's made in New York, you know? And if I choose the one that's made in China — and that would be because it has a certain look, or a certain fit, or a certain price that's appealing — then I'm going to buy it and keep it and wear it for a long time. It's just about not being wasteful.
How would you describe your own personal style?
It’s natural, but with some intention. I'm very aware of what I'm wearing and where it came from. Many of the things in my closet are from someone I know. I really like to know where things are made and the person behind making them. I think that holds a certain energy, and that energy creates a certain style. Right now, I'm at home, and I've got on a pair of sweatpants that somebody gave to me, and even though I don’t know who made them, whenever I put them on I think of that person who gave them to me.
Where do you like to shop?
I like Mollusk Surf Shop in Williamsburg, because I can walk in that store and feel like I'm just about to go surfing. If you can't be in the ocean, then you can go to Mollusk. They've got boards and wetsuits and books and films about surfing. And all the guys in there are really cute!
What's a shopping pet peeve that you have?
Bad customer service. When I shop, I like for people to know what they're selling. It’s an exchange; selling products is an old tradition, and I think it’s nice to uphold the tradition of knowing the products you're selling and trying to connect with who's buying it. Otherwise I'll just shop on the Internet. But if I'm going to go out and shop, then I want to have an experience with another human being that's pleasurable.
Do you shop on the Internet a lot?
No, I actually don't. I’m not a big shopper in general, to tell you the truth. I shop when I need something, but when I do, I usually don’t shop on the Internet, because I like to go in and try it on. But I have to say, some websites offer really good customer service. I was on Patagonia recently, and I was on there for five seconds, and a little box popped up, and it says, "Hi, my name is Dave, can I help you find something?" [Laughs uproariously.] And I was like, "Yeah! I'm looking for a women's wetsuit!" It was just so quick! And he really helped!
What's something you bought recently that you really love?
Ooh, I bought this necklace in Mexico directly from the guy who had hand-carved it out of wood. It was a carved feather made of wood that's indigenous to Mexico. Every little groove in the feather had been hand-carved. I love it.
Are there any trends that you really hate?
Clunky shoes on girls. Half the girls right now look like they're wearing Frankenstein shoes. It looks like they put their foot in cement and pulled it out. One of the sexiest part of a woman are her legs, and you can put an amazing shoe on a woman and she can rock it. But if the shoe is heavier than your foot, then you're not rocking it. And another thing I don't love are those baggy low-crotch pants. I mean, I get it — they're stylish, and they're comfortable, and they look cool on very cool girls, but I'm not buying it!
What's something you're saving up to buy?
I'd like to have a really good sound system for my very small apartment.
What are staples that every woman should own?
I think sexy lingerie is really important, because it makes you feel like a woman and it serves as a foundation. I love Araks and VPL, and Deborah Marquet — she's great.
Would you ever consider designing?
I have been in such awe of designers for my entire career that it would be if like someone was watching NFL football and said, "I think I'd like to give it a go!" So, I don't think so. I'm not trained as a designer. I'm also a little too star-struck to consider myself one of them.
What's something you never leave the house without?
My rings. I have a Lion of Judah ring that I got in Ethiopia, and three moonstone rings, and two water buffalo rings that I got in a tiny little village in Sumba. They're sort of like my talismans. And then I have another little gold ring that is by friend Aurora Lopez, just a simple gold ring.
You’ve been really involved in Fashion Girls for Japan. What other projects are you working on?
I was just in Mexico for nineteen days, and since I got back last week, I’ve been trying to nail down a few projects. I've started consulting for a large e-tailer, and I'm writing about sustainability in fashion for a few sites. I’m still in the contract phase of some other fashion consulting projects, too. I'm also involved with the NRDC, which has a great program called Clean by Design, which is about manufacturing textiles and creating criteria for factories to reduce their carbon footprint, especially in countries like China and Bangladesh and India.
Would you want join a specific brand or store again?
Right now I want to have my fingers in a lot of different pies. I worked at Barneys for eighteen years, so I want to explore and taste some new things before I decide if I want to settle down and do one thing again.
I read that you initially only wanted to work at Barneys for a year.
I know! I said, "Okay, okay, I'll work for you, but only for a year, I just want to be perfectly clear." And they were like, "Fine!" Then I don't know what happened. But it's definitely a reflection of fashion. I started working at Barneys in 1990, and fashion has changed so much, so I never got bored or restless, really, and there's amazing talent. So a year turned into eighteen years, and that was that.