As a student designer in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Jillian Shatken, BFA07, never aspired to be the head of a fashion label. But if her time at Washington University taught her anything, it’s that when a creative opportunity with lots of responsibility presents itself, you take it.
And that’s exactly what she has done with Saylor, a national ready-to-wear clothing company she co-founded in 2014. It focuses on empowering women, creating eco-friendly designs, and being a good community partner.
And all Shatken wanted to do when she graduated was make enough money to live on her own in New York City. That she managed, getting hired at J.Crew after graduation and then, a few years after that, joining the shoe company Dolce Vita, where she began working on the company’s lesser-known clothing line. Soon, she was in charge of it and given a wide berth to make her own design decisions and learn about the business side of fashion design.
“I was able to create all these relationships that were solely mine—with factories and pattern makers, using the resources already in place,” Shatken says. “And I was young, and just very honest about my level of experience, and that gave partners a lot of space to teach me what they knew.”
So much so that Shatken established solid relationships in the industry. In 2014, when Dolce Vita was sold and its new owner didn’t want the clothing line, she knew exactly what to do. Shatken partnered with a colleague, Patty Moran, and the two women decided to restart their own collection, tapping into their own experience and working off relationships already formed.
The result was Saylor. “Everything was already in place—factories, materials, customers,” she says. “It was just a matter of starting it back up again.” She makes it sound easy, but there was much to do, and Shatken was at the helm, tapping into skills formed as a fashion design student at WashU: creativity and efficiency.
“I remember I was always pretty fast at finishing my work as a student,” she says. “Sometimes a lot of what holds progress up is indecision. You can look at a garment for hours and overthink it. But I have a vision, and I execute it. In this industry you have to make quick decisions every day.”
The company was thriving when the pandemic hit—but she kept it going, even with a lot of fashion production dependent on overseas factories. “When the pandemic shut [factories] down, we had huge orders that had to be canceled, but we just said, ‘Hold all the fabric. We will get back to you.’ We managed.”
Now, Shatken is managing with a new view on the world: She is a new mom with a baby girl—a reason why sustainability is more important than ever.
“It’s her world now,” Shatken says. “We have to be responsible and strive for sustainable fashion. In this industry that’s not always possible, but it’s not necessarily an all-or-nothing enterprise. You can take small steps, too, that can make a difference.”
It can be tough in New York’s fashion industry, but Shatken doesn’t think it has to be ruthless. “The fashion world can be very exclusive,” she says. “People don’t necessarily like to share secrets or even resources at times, but that’s just never been the way I approach things.
“I look at my career as an open book,” she says. “If you need a good button person or a good overseas factory, I’ll share it with you. Everybody gains from that.”