Go inside the worlds of art, fashion, design, and lifestyle.
Since Theory’s inception in 1997, when the fashion industry was much different, the brand’s design has stuck to a subdued color palette. With a recent introduction of more color, sustainable projects, and new styles, Theory is no longer just a theory.
On the fifth floor of its headquarters on Gansevoort Street in New York, we recently met with Theory’s founder, Andrew Rosen. His office, with a view of the Whitney Museum, is expansive, tidy, and minimal. Sitting casually with one leg swung over the side of his modern chair, he proved the function and nature of the Lycra material in his famous stretch designs. After all, that’s what put the brand on the map 20 years ago.
WHITEWALL: You’re celebrating your 20th anniversary!
ANDREW ROSEN: I’m not big on the anniversary thing. I’m more focused on what the company is going to do in the next 20 years. I think that in today’s world having heritage is a great thing, but it’s also a difficult thing. The world has changed so much in the way consumers shop and are influenced. Companies that have been around for a long time have to constantly evolve their thought process and methodology. Having the heritage, aesthetic, and culture that has survived a long period of time is good, but the methodology has to constantly be updated. The thinking of the organization has to constantly change. You have to adapt.
WW: How do you adapt?
AR: Work hard. Practice. I spend a lot of time with the leadership group in our organization, thinking about how we need to act and think differently, and I have some people come in from the outside to help us do that. But really focusing on how the company can continually evolve and move forward and stay relevant.
We live our lives in so much more of a curated way. We can determine what we want, when we want it, and how we want it. A lot of how we used to do research for things has changed. A lot of the ways people used to do research on what they wanted to buy was to go to a physical store to see. Now they do it in the comfort of their own homes. Now, when they go to a physical store, it’s because that’s where they want to go. They go because they’ve already done the research on it. For me, I want to be much more curated with the experience that we provide—both inside our company to our employees and outside our company to our customers. It’s got to be special.
WW: How are you making it special?
AR: We’re doing lots of things. The level of service and focus on customer service and the customer is heightened and has totally changed. We have all sorts of concierge and styling and hospitality initiatives going on within our retail organization. So much more focus on the customer.
We started as a wholesale company, and as a wholesale company your brand is the most important thing. It has to be desired by the retailers. The retailers are then responsible for selling to the consumer. So we’ve focused a lot on the brand, and now we have to focus on the customer.
WW: Why did you originally decide to go from being a wholesaler to a retailer?
AR: We had to take more control of our business. We had to take more control of our customer experience. There’s also the ability to reach the customer directly. We didn’t need to be as dependent on third-party stores or customers. We could go directly to the customer and reach them socially, or digitally through e-commerce. We could open up stores all over the world and reach them. Twenty years ago when I started, that wasn’t anything that I even thought about.
WW: Let’s take a few steps back. In 1983 when you were 26, your father passed away, and you took over his brand, Puritan Fashions Corporation, which was started by your grandfather. It was the foundation of your knowledge for the beginnings of Theory. At that age, what was it like to take over what had been, at that time, a company that was making $300 million per year? Were you always interested in fashion?
AR: [Laughs] Wow, you want to take more than a few steps back. You know, I started working for my dad when I was 19. My dad worked for his dad and took over the company from his father, so my grandfather really started the business in 1910. There have been many, many years of learning—from my grandfather to my father to myself. I’ve always been around my dad’s work, and had an unusual relationship with my father in that, yes, he was my father, but I didn’t have any problem working with him and he didn’t have any problem working with me.
Instead of going to college, I basically spent the rest of my father’s life learning from him how things worked. I operated a piece of his company for many of those years, and, not that I would say now that I was ready to do what I did, but then I thought I was ready. I was young and ambitious . . . and I didn’t have a choice. My father got sick and he was sick for about a year before he passed away, and he did as much as he could to prepare me.
When I started Theory, I was very much opposed to big corporate business, and wanted to do something really small—something that had a point of view, and create a culture and an environment that people would be proud working in. I think that up until that time I didn’t have a choice in what I did. For the first time, I had an opportunity to do something that was really, truly, authentically the way I believed it. The good thing was that I had had 20 years in the industry to understand what it was that I thought was appropriate. I wasn’t learning on the job.
Not that the first 20 years of my career were easy, by any stretch of imagination, and there were things I had success in and had failure in, but I learned a lot and understood the marketplace in a way that prepared me for the next 20 years. Now I have to get prepared for the next 20.
Even though I worked closely with my dad and learned from him, I was able to develop my own sense of style and point of view and way of doing things. He probably caused a lot of this to happen because I never tried to be like him; I tried to be like myself. My parents did a great job of teaching me how to be who I am and not anything different—about authenticity. Who you are, what you believe in, what you say, and what you do. I was lucky that way.
My views and philosophy are very much represented in Theory.
WW: “In Theory . . .” Why did you name the company Theory?
AR: When I started, I was making all of the clothes out of stretch fabric. I was going to call it Stretch Theory, and at the last minute I thought it was too limiting.
There was a theory to what we were doing. I wasn’t just making clothes for the sake of making them and hoping something worked. There was a real philosophy around the fabric that we were using, and the fact that the world was changing and people needed clothes that were more versatile. They needed a wardrobe with more individual pieces, rather than outfits.
At that time, I wanted to buy the best fabrics and construct them in the best way and fit them in the most modern way. Because I was only dealing with fabrics with Lycra, all of my people in the company were focused on perfecting the best fit, quality, and construction.
WW: You once said you were interested in making “game-changing, heroic pieces that your wardrobe evolves around.” What would that be in the Fall/Winter 2017 collection?
AR: One of the things that we’ve done this fall, which we stated before but have continued to expand on, is color—whether it’s in outerwear or sweaters, or this sustainable wool program that we have. Color for Theory is a new weapon. There are so many great clothes that we used to just make in black, navy, and gray that we now make in color.
Also, the double-faced pieces that we’re making for women. They’re amazing. We also have new tailoring, new blazers. We have an amazing assortment of jackets that are really important.
But because I started in the jean business, I always think about pants first. That’s always been the backbone of Theory—our pants, the fit, the shape, the proportion. For men, I still love our technical Neoteric pants. I don’t wear any other pants than these. I’m also loving all the technical fabrics and suits.
WW: On the topic of sustainability, let’s talk about fast fashion and discounted designer sites and stores. How is Theory navigating those waters?
AR: We’ve created a whole accessory program that’s just for our own stores, and we’ve priced it with a great value to it, and one price every day. We’re pricing aggressively, and using that directly through our retail channels, and never going on sale. We have a bunch of different programs coming up that are in our spirit. As I go forward, there are going to be much that we develop for a more limited or curated distribution, thereby having more integrity in terms of our pricing and distribution strategy.
Sustainability is critically important to all of us—what effect we have on our environment and our universe. The more companies can do in terms of relooking at how they behave responsibly is critically important. We have a lot of programs around sustainability and we’re working on more.
WW: You’re also the chief executive of Helmut Lang, and an investor in other brands like Rag & Bone, Alice + Olivia, and Proenza Schouler. How does that change your perspective or the way you conduct business?
AR: Theory has been, and continues to be, my focus during the day. Everything that happens here is a direct reflection of my expression or point of view. For other companies, I am just helping them achieve their dreams. I invest in people that have a good idea, integrity, and a lot of talent. I work with them to achieve what their vision is.
I don’t try and impart my aesthetic or my culture into them; I try and help them and accentuate theirs. All of the different brands have different aesthetics and culture, and nothing gets intertwined in any way, shape, or form. In a lot of ways, it also keeps me very fresh on my perspective in the industry. I’m getting a broad perspective of the marketplace. It helps my perspective a lot, and I hope it helps theirs.
When I come to the point where I get stale or don’t have any ideas or can’t contribute to the company or our industry, that’s when I’ll step away. But it’s going well right now. I still feel relevant and I still have a lot of ideas for our company.