In the world of luxury department stores, Barneys New York has long been an anomaly. Unlike its peers, the store has elevated its personnel — creative director Simon Doonan and women’s fashion director Julie Gilhart — to near-celebrity levels. Doonan’s often quirky and sometimes downright wacky window displays have become legendary (this year, his foodie themed windows featured Mario Batali’s severed head ringed by mini orange Crocs on a platter). Gilhart, along with merchandising manager Judy Collinson, has become a beloved industry figure for championing young talent.
So it shocked the fashion world when it was announced on Monday that Collinson and Gilhart had been let go. Fashion insiders were dumbfounded by the decision. As Cathy Horyn wrote in the New York Times, “Designers have been accustomed to the hands-on, almost nurturing approach of Ms. Collinson and Ms. Gilhart, and people in the industry were not sure how to read the decision by Mark Lee, the store’s chief executive since August, to dismiss them on Monday — without warning, according to two individuals familiar with the matter.” Simon Doonan, meanwhile, is “still standing amid the carnage.”
Many believe the shakeup is primarily due to Barneys financial troubles. Izzy of Racked NY writes, “[Collinson and Gilhart's] departure suggests that Barneys is suddenly more interested in being profitable than being edgy—a reversal for a chain known in recent years for having impeccable taste but boatloads of debt.” Echoes the New York Post, “In the year ahead, Barneys’ profitability will be a key issue as Istithmar — which shelled out nearly $950 million to buy Barneys in 2007 — struggles to maintain its grip on the company.”
The personnel changes may translate into retail offerings catered to a more mainstream audience, and the result may be better sales. But as many stores attempt to make more personal connections with their clients via social media, it seems odd to summarily dismiss two figures that so embodied the brand of Barneys.