Representing the creative future

Julie Gilhart on fashion in the times of a crisis

Chief Development Officer of Tomorrow Ltd Julie Gilhart shares her views on how fashion showrooms are dealing with the pandemic and her advice for emerging designers

Julie Gilhart on fashion in crisis

It’s clearly a pertinent time to be talking to Julie Gilhart, the Chief Development Officer of Tomorrow, a fashion sales platform, and President of Tomorrow Projects, as the fashion industry claws to contain its own crises, those exacerbated, if not caused by the Coronavirus pandemic

Having consulted personally for a concentrated, influential set of clients from Amazon to LVMH, Julie has worked with the likes of Goyard, Jil Sander, and Prada and was crucial in helping launch the inaugural LVMH Prize for Emerging Talent. For eighteen years, she was Senior Vice President, Fashion Director at Barneys New York – the now-closed luxury department store – where she saw the company through a recession, bankruptcy, and the aftermath of 9/11. ‘I’ve had some good experience with crisis management,’ she explains, ruefully. Of late, Julie has been instrumental in speaking with designers and other industry experts behind the scenes – crucially, via a WhatsApp group set up at the outbreak of COVID-19. Facilitated by Imran Ahmed and Business of Fashion, the conversation started on these channels came into the public eye in May 2020, in the form of a manifesto: Rewiring Fashion.

The numbers of those involved in this group spans ‘50-100 people, I think… I’m not counting heads,’ Julie laughs. She tells me it started as ‘a call with designers and some other people in the fashion business to sort of assess what’s going on, like, a group call.’ There are also subgroups involved, different issues raised with specific individuals. ‘All of a sudden, designers were talking with other designers – some were luxury brands, some more contemporary brands – and retailers were talking to each other,’ says Julie. ‘There were subjects that were being talked about in diversity subgroups, sustainability subgroups. People that were not talking to each other, were now talking to each other. When the looting happened – most prevalent in New York City, but also in LA – these groups of designers were talking and [those who had] become store owners shared [their stories]. And they’re like, well, this is what happened to me and this is what I did.’

When it comes to offering her own advice to emerging or aspiring designers, Julie has five pieces to offer:

  • Be creative and think outside the box.
  • Be able to tell your compelling story.
  • Create your community.
  • Focus on your responsibility for sustainable longevity.
  • Develop your digital platform.

In explaining the thought processes behind these concepts, the words ‘transparency’ and ‘authenticity’ dominate. The final piece of advice is indeed something which the Tomorrow brand has been working on in the past months. The digital showroom has seen content created in the form of show reviews of Tomorrow brands, Instagram Lives, interviews, and more. Editor-in-Chief, Mimma Viglezio, and Fashion Editor, Georgina Evans, both former SHOWstudio editorial staff (full disclosure: so am I) have been creating content for the audience to browse when checking out Tomorrow’s site.

“I get up every morning and think that what I want to do is be purposeful in my work.” – Julie Gilhart

‘I get up every morning and think that what I want to do is be purposeful in my work,’ Julie continues. ‘And so, if you do that, you share. And by sharing, you create abundance, right? That’s just the personal philosophy that I’ve had, and it works.’ We discuss the potential tension that could emerge when a professional consultant offers their highly coveted services for free, but Julie doesn’t see the harm; she’s insistent upon her responsibility to offer her knowledge at this time. ’John Lewis had a really good [saying],’ she says. ‘It was like, if you see something that’s not right, you do something about it. If you see something that you can help with, you try to help with it. If you have something that can be useful, then you give it. And sometimes, that is business. I’m a consultant, I can help you with that.’

At Tomorrow, this help is offered to a curated and directed group of clients. Defining what this leading fashion sales platform can offer a brand is complex and I’m keen to understand exactly how Julie would do so. But when I ask her about the need for showrooms in the physical, at a time when much of that job can be successfully done online, she is quick to correct me. ‘Tomorrow’s not a showroom,’ she says. ‘That’s just one component, a service that they offer. It’s definitely on the menu. There’s so many other things Tomorrow has developed into.’ Ok, what else is on that menu? What are the other services a brand can expect to receive from Tomorrow? ‘There’s the showroom,’ she concedes, ’but there’s now a digital platform. There’s investment. There’s advice. There’s the marketing, there’s consulting. And with Tomorrow, if there’s something else that we can do, we’ll do it. We’re interested in anything that can grow businesses in a responsible way.’

“You can’t work with someone that you don’t respect. You can’t work with someone that you’re not in love with. It’s business, but also you have to connect.” – Julie Gilhart

Julie cites A-COLD-WALL*, Coperni and Colville as a few of the beneficiaries of this interest. ‘Digitally, we created a platform that not only could you sell your collection from but held a lot of content. That was very successful,’ she explains. ‘We can do a go-to-market initiative like we did with Greg Lauren and Paul & Shark. And we’ve done the same thing with Samuel Ross and with Glenn Martens of Y/Project.’ The list appears to be varied, although the brands are indeed agitators. But what is the criteria a brand should fulfill in order to be considered attractive to Tomorrow and worthy of the services she highlights? ‘A lot of it has to do with the people that are behind it. And if there’s a connection. There has to be an authentic connection,’ Julie responds. ‘You can’t work with someone that you don’t respect. You can’t work with someone that you’re not in love with. It’s business, but also you have to connect. Obviously, all of the brands we work with are entrepreneurial and they’re creative. And they also want to have the desire to build their business. So they’re super solid in terms of the way they approach things.’

What about those brands that aren’t lucky enough to have the backing of a company like Tomorrow at this time? What about those just starting out? The advice Julie offers to them is similar to that which she tells me she has taken herself. ‘Be efficient in the way you do things,’ she offers. ‘I think we’ve learned that to cut out all the excess is really important and to be responsible about how you produce things. You know, it’s okay to reuse fabrics. It’s okay to reuse things that already exist. It’s okay to recycle or upcycle. I think being cost-effective is really important. You don’t want to waste materials or supplies or time and you don’t want to waste money.’

“The best lesson we can take away from this is that anything can happen to shift things. So you have to make your business very flexible.” – Julie Gilhart

In regards to the challenges faced at Tomorrow during these unprecedented times, she offers a similar approach, one that promotes scaling down: ‘We got hit. And so everything had to be very pared back. Most people have had to really pare back what they were doing and make it very high end, not excessive, and very efficient. You had to take a really hard look at how you were doing business and what was working and what’s not working. We have to [think] how do we move forward?’ The lesson Julie has truly learned is that Tomorrow’s brand has to be as open to the unexpected as the day after this one may bring: ‘what COVID has taught us is that we have to make decisions not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s very scary. But when you look at it, that’s very real – do we ever know what’s gonna happen tomorrow? No. We think we can predict, but we can’t. The best lesson we can take away from this is that anything can happen to shift things. So you have to make your business very flexible. Going forward, I want to apply that to all the things that we do.’

Julie’s message and advice advocate communication, support, and community. Her final words of advice are ones that celebrate exactly what it is she does. ‘I think you have to have partners,’ she concludes. ‘I think it’s very difficult to not have partners. That’s where I feel very proud to be part of Tomorrow because I think we can be helpful partners to the people that we’re attracted to and are attracted to us. And we’re not the only partners out there, but I think [it’s important] to find good partners and also to develop trust.’