About Julianne Bartolotta
Julianne Bartolotta is the founder and CEO of the apparel brand Julianne Bartolotta (JB).
Grew up in Huntington, New York, Julianne began her fashion career by double majoring in Apparel Design and Fashion Merchandising at the University of Delaware. After graduating in Spring 2018, Julianne joined Saks Fifth Avenue’s Private Label Brands as a Product Development Assistant Manager. Julianne was involved in designing for the men’s brands, Saks Fifth Avenue Collection and Saks Fifth Avenue Modern. Although a relatively small team, the experience allowed Julianne to “wear many hats” and control the entire design process from start to finish. Julianne and her team also designed for many product categories, including sportswear, tailored clothing, dress shirts, swim, and personal furnishings, to name a few.
After two years on the men’s team, Julianne moved over to help rebrand and relaunch Saks Fifth Avenue’s women collections. Her designs were adopted for Fall 21 collection and the experience allowed her to get familiar with the whole design process. This project also gave Julianne the knowledge and courage to move to the next career level.
In January 2022, Julianne left her dream job at Saks and started to build her own apparel brand. Officially launched in November 2022, Julianne Bartolotta has become a rising star in the luxury fashion world.
(Above: Julianne Bartolotta Pre-Spring 2023 collection. Photo courtesy: Julianne Bartolotta; Photo credits: Volio Fotos; Style: Marissa Petrone; Model: Caroline Bartolotta)
Sheng: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Julianne! What inspired you to start your apparel company? What makes it special and exciting?
Julianne: When Covid-19 hit New York in March 2020, I was furloughed from my job at Saks like many peers. I remember being at home when the house phone rang, and it was my dad calling to tell my mom and me that his nursing home ran out of masks and he needed us to sew 200 cloth masks for the nurses and staff. My mom and I ran to the only store open, Walmart, to buy fabric. We then set up a folding table in my kitchen and got to sewing. So we decided to choose a fabric with bright, colorful designs because we thought it would make people happy.
My dad got so many responses from the residents and the staff, saying that they loved the masks. They made the residents feel more comfortable and at ease when seeing their nurse, because it was as if wearing the mask was like wearing a smile.
After seeing the positive impact of my masks on the residents and staff, I decided to begin offering other mask designs on an Etsy Shop. My Etsy took off, and I started experimenting with scrunchies, headbands, swimsuits, and dresses, all sewn by me.
When I returned to Saks, I found myself craving the lifestyle of an entrepreneur. I enjoyed being my own boss and making creative decisions. Seeing people wear my designs and having a 5-star average on Etsy pushed me to take a leap of faith and pursue starting my own business. I officially gave my resignation in December of 2021 and began January 2022 with my focus solely on my brand.
Today, Julianne Bartolotta (JB) is a women’s Ready-to-Wear brand, offering a mini capsule collection each season. We offer sweaters, dresses, skirts, shorts, blouses, and even catsuits. My target audience is women ages 25-45, who live in urban and suburban areas that value fashion and look forward to dressing up on the weekends. She does not mind spending a bit more on a dress because she is excited to wear something unique, trendy, and well-made. We are a woman-owned, women-run, family business, where my mom is my Chief Operating Officer (COO), and my sister is one of my fit and marketing models.
Every item in the collection is designed by me and made in Italy, using the same manufacturers as other household luxury brands. Each style is meant to act as a “statement piece,” meaning there is something statement-worthy about the design, color, fabrication, or buttons. During my time at Saks, I learned from studying selling reports that the styles with “statement-worthy” details had the highest sell-throughs across most brands. I learned that women want to show off their cool clothes! They would rather spend $250 on a dress that stands out than $250 on a dress that probably won’t get her much attention.
My intention with this collection is to make women feel like a light in a dark room, just as my masks did during such a scary and unpredictable time. Clothing is how we portray ourselves to the world. My brand prides itself on making quality clothing, with statement-worthy designs, to show the world a woman’s femininity and confidence. With JB, the clothing speaks for itself, so you don’t have to!
Sheng: All your companies’ products are “Made in Italy.” Why is that?
Julianne: While at Saks, we used factories in Italy, China, Spain, and other countries worldwide. When President Trump imposed higher tariffs on China, it pushed us to revisit our supplier base. We eventually decided to move almost everything to Italy because the tariff duties were lower and the “Made in Italy” label is very desirable. People love clothing made in Europe, especially Italy. Italian factories pride themselves on their craft. They are very artisanal and view fashion as art. The factories are also smaller, with about 25-50 people working on the main floor. Because of this, the garments are being handled by fewer people, so the workers will spend a lot of time taking care of each garment. So if you were to compare this to factories in Asia, for example, there would typically be hundreds of workers on the main floor, and each worker would have a particular job, sewing a specific part of the garment and passing it on to the next worker (i.e., productin line).
When branching off to start my own business, I took this sourcing knowledge with me and chose to work with Made in Italy factories. Because the factories in Italy are smaller, they are also able to offer lower minimums. Being a starting-out designer, it’s important not to over-buy. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you are sitting on inventory and can’t move it.
The “Made in Italy” label is also an homage to my Italian heritage. I am actually a dual citizen, so I have American citizenship as well as Italian citizenship. I have family in Italy that I have visited in recent years and communicate with regularly. Having my garments made in Italy is a way for me to give recognition to my family’s roots and uphold a standard of luxury at the same time.
When sourcing fabric for my garments, it would be typical to attend fabric shows in Milan and Florence to pick the best fabrics for my designs. Because of Covid, I could not travel to attend these shows, so I had yarn books and color cards sent to me instead. I was able to get pricing and pick the best suitable fabrics that way, but in the future, I plan to go and network with the mills as well.
Sheng: Can you share with us your sourcing practice? For example, what are your vendor selection criteria? What does the importing process look like?
Julianne: Currently I work with three factories in Italy, all specializing in different realms. One specializes in knitting sweaters, one works with woven fabrics, and the other works with jersey knits and stretch materials. I selected these factories because they were able to offer me low minimums. I was also given net payment terms, so I don’t have to pay my factories upfront for my clothes, which allows me to use selling time to help pay for the invoices.
When selecting my factories, I also made sure to know what other brands they work with. Big retailers like Saks have special ethics codes in place that the brand’s factories must comply with to sell to their stores. This includes ensuring that the factories don’t overwork their staff, the work environment conditions are safe, and the workers are compensated appropriately for their work. I made sure to use only reputable factories that produce for other luxury brands so that I comply with the same standards.
When I am working on costing for my styles, I have to contact my broker for each item’s landing factor to get my landed cost. A landing factor is a number that includes the exchange rate and duties on a specific style based on the type of article of clothing it is (blouse, jacket, pants, etc.), whether it is woven or knit, what the fabrication is, and where it is coming from. The landing factor for an Italian wool sweater could be different from the landing factor on an Italian wool coat. Landing factors usually range from .5 to 1.9. For example, if an item has a first cost of 30 euros and a landing factor of 1.5, the landed cost would come to $45. Landing factors can change over time, so it’s important that I check in with my broker every season to make sure I know what to expect when it comes time to ship.
My landing factors do not include the shipping cost. Because my orders are so small, and my production timeline is shorter than other big brands, it is in my best interest to air my goods. This isn’t the case for most brands, as airing goods can become quite costly. Usually, goods would be shipped by boat, but when Covid hit, there were fewer workers to unload the cargo ships in New York, which caused many retail orders to become very delayed. I wanted to avoid this altogether, and since my boxes are small, I chose to air my shipments instead. As I work on my production timeline and grow my business, I will probably have to move towards shipping my goods by boat.
Sheng: Regarding the apparel business environment in 2023, what are the opportunities and challenges? What trends shall we watch closely?
Julianne: The apparel industry right now is tough, but there are still opportunities for fashion businesses. Inflation has caused many people to rethink how much they are willing to spend on clothing. People want to feel like they will get their money’s worth on their purchases across the board. This is where social media marketing comes into play. If you can create a strong social media presence, and gain credibility through the right PR tactics, people will be more inclined to shop for your brand. Influencers are becoming modern world celebrities. If you see Danielle Bernstein wearing a dress from a small named brand, you suddenly give the brand credibility and want to check out their Instagram. With more people joining Tiktok, Instagram’s algorithm shifting towards reels, and influencers gaining more popularity, there are plenty of opportunities to spread the word; brands need to take advantage of these social media tools in the most compelling way.
It is becoming more common for people to start a side hustle in today’s world. Many people work from home and have the extra time and effort to put towards their small business. This means that the market for fashion startups is becoming saturated, but if you can create a brand that stands out from the rest, and put out engaging social media content, your audience can really grow and take off.
I would pay attention to how big and small brands are trying to take advantage of Tiktok and Instagram. Big brands are joining the Tiktok and Reels bandwagon and putting out more relatable content. They are using influencers, giving them discount codes to share, and sending them PR packages to show off on social media. It’s also interesting to see how small startup brands can utilize the same influencers and tactics to bring awareness to themselves. Social media creates a stage where small and big brands can coexist and compete for the same customers. Through social media, small brands can become more relevant, and big brands can try to stay relevant.
Sheng: Any reflections on your experiences at UD and FASH? What advice do you have for our current students who are preparing for their careers after graduation?
Julianne: Looking back on my college experience at UD and in the Fashion and Apparel Department(FASH), it feels like it was just yesterday! I double majored in Apparel Design and Fashion Merchandising, so I took a majority of the fashion classes offered, but if I could give any advice, I would say to be involved as much as you can. Utilize the amazing learning and career development opportunities that UD FASH offers you! Also, interning as much as possible– whether you get paid or not, it could be a valuable experience. I would suggest interning in a few different fields in fashion (if you can) to see what you like best before applying to jobs. For example, I had market week internships, product development internships, and fashion design internships, and I worked in retail. These experiences helped me decide what I liked and didn’t like.
Also, it is competitive out there, so don’t get discouraged! For example, the interview with Saks was a long process but I am so grateful that it worked out the way it did.
If you are a designer and want to start your own business, I would HIGHLY recommend working for someone else first. When you work for someone else, whether a big brand or a small startup, you learn the business’s ins and outs and network. It is much easier to start a business when you have connections then trying to start a business having to cold call vendors. Starting a business is also much easier when you understand the production calendar. Knowing what needs to be done and in what order will avoid a lot of mistakes! Put your time in, learn and grow, and you will be able to achieve great things!