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Q&A: Andrew Rosen

WWD Collections spoke to Rosen about his role in the industry, what it’s like running a modern company today and where he sees the business headed.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Collections issue 11/14/2011

Andrew Rosen’s family has been in the garment business for more than 100 years. Today, besides running Theory and Helmut Lang, which generate more than $600 million in total revenues, Rosen has an ownership stake in several hot contemporary brands, namely Alice + Olivia, Rag & Bone, Proenza Schouler, Gryphon and Aiko. So it’s not a stretch to think of him, the president and chief executive officer of Link Theory Holdings, as the connector of fashion’s past and future.

Last year, Rosen tapped Olivier Theyskens as artistic director of Theory, which has ignited the contemporary sportswear brand in multiple ways.

Rosen spoke to WWD Collections about his role in the industry as fashion’s godfather, what it’s like running a modern company today and where he sees the business headed.
 
You’re viewed as the bridge between the old guard and the new guard. How do you see your role in helping young designers, and what are they looking to get from you?
I don’t know whether I’m the bridge between the old guard and the new guard, because I still consider myself the young guard. I’m always evolving to stay current. To be successful in fashion—and the world—you have to continue to evolve. I’m able to continue to be involved [by] getting inspired by young people and young designers. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to work with some of the really talented designers in our industry over the years, and I recognize that I’ve been in the industry a long time.

Tell me about your apparel background.
My grandfather started his business in 1910, so my grandfather, my father after him, and myself [have been in this business]. I spent the first six years of my career working very closely with my dad. I was able to understand a whole other generation of clothing, manufacturing and creativity, from my dad who learned from his dad. My dad [Carl Rosen, chairman and ceo of Puritan Fashions Corp.] was really a visionary and way ahead of his time. When I went to work for him, he made me work in the factories and the warehouses and the pattern room. I spent really the first year and a half of my career learning the industry from a whole other side. I think to some degree I have the advantage of understanding the industry from many different perspectives. People don’t get that opportunity today.

I was the ceo of Anne Klein, so I understood big business. But then, at 40 years old, I started back at the beginning. I started Theory from nothing. I think I totally understand what it takes to start a business from nothing, and to be able to build a business. So many people helped me along the way when I was learning the industry, and I have a lot of respect for that, and so many great mentors. Young people starting in the industry today have the passion and creativity but don’t have the experience. I think, hopefully, I’ve been able to provide a lot of that experience.

Do you think a young designer today could ever build the business the size of a Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren?
I see it happening. Some of the young designers I see as the next generation of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. Maybe it’s presumptuous to say, but back when Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein were starting, I think there was the same situation that there is today. There were companies that had been in business for a long time, and had a certain position in the industry. And Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein came and thought differently, and had a different perspective on fashion and what was going to turn a consumer on.

Today, you look at companies like Rag & Bone, Alexander Wang, Alice + Olivia, and what Helmut Lang is doing, and many other companies, and they think differently and are changing the way business is done. And they will be the next generation of Calvin Klein, Donna Karan. Proenza Schouler is another good example of that. They’re really an American luxury company. These young companies I see, they’re not all going to pan out to be Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein or Donna Karan, but that will happen again.

You’re already running a thriving business. It seems like the young designers are icing on the cake.
I am very inspired every day by my work at Theory and working with the people I work with, and building a global business. We have two great brands, Theory and Helmut Lang, and it’s inspiring to be part of that. I’m also lucky to have other businesses that inspire me, too, but in a totally different way. In Theory, I am responsible for doing the work. In the other businesses, I’m only responsible for doing the thinking. I don’t have to do any work. It’s a whole different thing. I don’t believe there’s one way to do business. Every company has to have a culture and an aesthetic, and the stronger it is, that’s what makes the company successful.

Why did you hire Olivier Theyskens as artistic director, and how is it being accepted at retail?

I was inspired to hire Olivier when I met Olivier. I wanted Theory to evolve. I felt that someone like Olivier, with his creativity and inspiration, could generate a whole other platform for Theory. Olivier could resonate on a global scale, he could understand the contemporary customer, and could create an exciting concept. That’s been very well received. Not everything I’ve done with Olivier has been perfect, but Olivier has brought an incredibly fresh inspiration and spirit. Our business has grown dramatically. Not just because of Olivier coming in but the incredible work that a lot of people have done in expanding our brand globally.

 

We sell [Theyskens’ Theory] in our own retail stores, and we do it in a few department and specialty stores in America, Europe and now in Asia, but as a percentage to the total, it’s small; it’s less than 10 percent on a global basis. More like 5 percent.

How are you doing with Helmut Lang?
Helmut Lang has exploded. Back in 2005, we bought the name Helmut Lang from Prada. We did not have a good start there. We started in 2006. Starting a company, sometimes you make mistakes. I don’t think it’s bad to make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t learn anything or get anywhere. What’s going on in Helmut Lang today is right on the money. The whole team is doing a fantastic job. We’ve had our first fashion show and opened our own stores.

Can a company be equally successful in accessories as well as apparel?

European companies do that really well because they have the exposure to the great artisans in Italy to create bags and shoes. It’s an intimate relationship. There are very few companies that are able to do it here in America. I think the great clothing companies generally don’t have a good accessories business. You look at what Tory Burch is doing in accessories, you look at what Michael Kors is doing in accessories—both are doing very well in accessories. Their clothing wouldn’t be the driving force. Alexander Wang has a good balance between the two, and I’d say Rag & Bone is starting to have a good balance. I think the next generation of companies in America will do that. If you look at Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren, they’re really clothing companies, not accessory companies. Proenza has an exceptional accessory business, and has done something outstanding in that category, and their clothing—they won the CFDA Award. The next generation of designers will have a better balance of accessories and clothing. The Europeans have a good balance—I think that’s happening here in America now.

What is your feeling about department stores these days?
Department stores are being more innovative. They’re spending a lot of money on their infrastructure, in creating exciting concepts. You look at what Barneys has done, what Saks is doing, what Neiman’s is doing, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom—they’re all very aggressively modernizing the platform in which they work…more aggressively than in the past 10 years. One of their issues is that they spread themselves out all over the country with many branches. I think service is a challenge for department stores. Consumers want service, and the shopping experience is important. I think being turned on to shop is important. Department stores are seeing pressure from these modern retailers like Net-a-porter and Shopbop and creating a whole new experience online. It’s difficult for brick-and-mortar to be online retailers…the online retailers have created a fantastic experience.

Having said that, I do believe brick-and-mortar retailers need the support of an online platform for their business today—they can’t just be brick-and-mortar retailers. They need the support of online retail. But, generally, I see more energy and excitement with online shopping from the online retailers.

Why?
Go on and look for yourself. That’s their one method of doing business—online—and they’re doing it well. It’s just like, why does a jeans company make jeans better than a sportswear company? A jeans company lives and breathes jeans. Online retailing is a special business. The guys that do it as their only source of revenue do it best. I’m not saying that the department stores do it badly—they’re just not at the level [of online retailers].

Do you see your ratio changing as far as the business you do in department stores versus your own freestanding stores?
There’s no question that our business in our own retail stores is growing at a very dynamic rate, much faster than our department store business. I see that as a good thing. It strengthens a brand to have its own retail presence that is [a full] expression of the brand.…Our global expansion is more with our own stores.

Outside the U.S. is a much stronger model of leased departments, so there’s a lot of leased departments within department stores that are happening, too. Business in Asia is own-store driven, and that obviously is a big initiative for us. And business in Europe is a combination of own-store and wholesale business. Fast Retailing is very much a company that believes that all of its companies have to be global players. Tadashi Yanai [chairman, president and ceo of Fast Retailing Co. Ltd.] was somewhat inspirational of me bringing Olivier in. He very much wanted Theory to operate on a global platform and be a global company and not operate as a local company in America and Japan.

How’s your initiative coming along to bring more production back to the U.S. and create a one-stop manufacturing facility in Manhattan?
I always manufactured a lot of clothes in the U.S. [About 35 percent of Theory is made domestically.] When I started, the basis of my manufacturing was done in the U.S. I had a production setup in New York that my staff and I could watch really closely. I believe the fit and quality of clothes is as important as the design of clothes. And our platform always was incredible fabrics, fit and feel. That’s why our business has been successful over so many years at Theory. We still today have that same manufacturing setup in New York. I felt that there was a great opportunity for manufacturing to come back in a big way to New York City, with everything that is happening in China, with prices escalating and domestic consumption increasing and the ability to be able to make what you needed in the time frame that you needed it. I feel very strongly that we could invigorate manufacturing in New York. One of the ways is to create a facility that is consistent with the facilities that one would use in other parts of the world, where patternmaking, marking, grading, sample making, cutting and sewing would all be under one roof. In today’s Garment Center, it is spread out from street to street. I am working very aggressively on this. I feel that there’s an opportunity to bring that kind of quality and integrity of facility to New York. I think manufacturers in New York City would be inspired to [pay for it] if they have the support of the industry. So many of the young designers in our industry still manufacture a lot of their clothes in New York City. It’s important for New York City and our industry to have manufacturing in New York City, and I think it can be done in a more modern way than it’s being done. I’ve been working with the city. I think we are making progress. Have we got all the issues solved? No, but it’s something I’m passionate about and something I believe in. Forget that it’s good for my business, my business operates on that platform now. I think it’s good for our industry.

You own racehorses—are there a lot of similarities between running an apparel business and horse racing?
You gotta get lucky. In horse racing and clothing, you have to be able to predict the future a little bit and read between the lines. That’s why I love it. Things are always changing, and you have to read the signposts to figure out which way to go. Neither one is seat-of-the-pants. You have to have a strategy. You have to have a culture and an aesthetic. Horse racing is the same thing. You have to have a point of view of what you’re doing, or you get lost in the variations of the business. It’s no different than the clothing business. There’s a big learning curve in both. More experience just gives you a little bit better chance to be successful. It doesn’t ensure anything.

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