Photo by Nordic Fashion Association

For Julie Gilhart, senior vice president of Barneys New York, fashion has always been a reflection of our times. And in the past 18 years she’s been with the luxury retailer, Gilhart has seen many changes. “The big change now is that we must do things differently in order to save our planet, both from an environmental perspective and a humanitarian one,” she said on Wednesday at the Fashion Summit in Copenhagen, which coincided with Day 3 of the UN Climate Change Conference. “We need to work hard to make the business of fashion consciously cool, yet at the same time, not lose profitability.”

Julie Gilhart of Barneys New York at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Photo by Nordic Fashion Association

INCONVENIENT TRUTHS

Gilhart admitted that about five years ago, she became disenchanted with her industry. “I felt for the most part it was wasteful and money-driven,” she said, adding that the millions of dollars that went to producing fashion shows could feed a lot of starving people.

“We need to work to make fashion consciously cool, yet not lose profitability.”

It took Al Gore’s game-changing documentary and a meeting with the Dalai Lama to present Gilhart with a new fashion mission, but one that had to be grounded in reality. “Barneys was my employer,” she said, “and as a retailer, we needed to create business to sell merchandise and make a profit.”

Discussions with the Barneys CEO led to the store’s “Have a Green Holiday” campaign, and for every tree-shaped, 22-carat gold necklace sold, the store planted 100 trees. “It doesn’t sound like a radical idea now,” Gilhart said, “but in 2007, in the high-end luxury market, it was.”

Have a Green Holiday at Barneys New York

GIVE A LITTLE, GIVE A LOT

Decking its holiday windows with Rudolph the Recycling Reindeer and Frosty the Fair-Trade Snowman was one thing, but Barneys also enlisted its vendors to produce merchandise that had “more consciousness,” or at the very least, to contribute a portion of their sales to social and environmental charities.

“Once they learned the impact of what they could do, there was no turning around.”

Throwing around words like “recyclable,” “sustainable,” and “fair trade” was internally controversial for a company that wasn’t built on a green business model. “Something unique happened, though,” Gilhart said. “It engaged everyone to do better and once they learned the impact of what they could do, there was no turning around. They had to start thinking about product that wasn’t so wasteful and was purposeful. One they embraced that, things shifted.”

Loomstate, an early collaborator with Barneys Green

BARNEYS GREEN

A litany of designers and initiatives soon followed, from the casual Loomstate for Barneys Green collection to a high-end Stella McCartney line based on organic, sustainable principles. “When we decided to be more conscious in the things we sold in the store and therefore educating the customer, there was a lack of merchandise,” Gilhart said. “We had to go out and and create some of it, so we went to the most talented designers.”

Although not perfect, Barneys tries to walk the talk without shouting in the face of the customer.</blockquote

Although not perfect, Barneys tries to walk the talk without “shouting in the face of the customer,” Gilhart said. In fact, the retailer has found that it’s more effective to present stylish merchandise that makes the customer look and feel good before delving into the story of sustainability behind it. “We’re not there yet in terms of the customer asking or demanding merchandise,” she said. “She’s not. But I feel that one day in the future she will change.”

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