Theory, the contemporary brand he cofounded that is approaching $1 billion in global sales, is looking to sharpen its sportswear offerings in the wake of the departure in June of Olivier Theyskens, who served as artistic director. The company has rehired Lisa Kulson, former vice president and head designer of Theory who left in 2001, returned in 2012 as a consultant and was named creative director of women’s design this past spring.
“The time to refresh and go to the next level is now,” said Rosen, the firm’s chief executive officer who cofounded Theory with Elie Tahari in 1997. “The world has changed so much. You think about the retail landscape and how the customer is changing and her reaction to things. What turns her on now? It’s a very different world. Companies like ourselves are very different today than we were five years ago.”
Rosen has always been a product person, first and foremost, and he admitted that the company got stale.
“What we’re looking to do is not lose the integrity of what the company stands for or the aesthetic of the company, but to continue to evolve our methodology of doing business,” he said. “We need to sharpen some of the things that we’ve gotten stale with. It’s things that I would notice. I really want to sharpen up.”
While Theory is known for being one of the first to inhabit the contemporary arena — which today has become oversaturated with brands — Rosen still believes strongly in the sector, pointing to the energy of the contemporary shopper and the contemporary floor.
“The contemporary area, in my opinion, has to continue to evolve.…Good clothes don’t necessarily have to be making the latest pages of fashion magazines. Our whole thing is making cool clothes and making clothes that have great integrity in the fit and the quality, the shape, the proportion and the fabric and the use of them, and obviously making them very cool,” he said.
In 2003, he and Tahari sold large stakes in Theory to two Japanese companies — Link International, Theory’s Japanese licensee founded by the late Ricky Sasaki, and Fast Retailing Co. Ltd. Tahari sold his entire stake, while Rosen held onto 11 percent, going on to become ceo of Theory, and, later, Helmut Lang, which Link Theory Holdings Co. Ltd. bought in 2006. In 2009, Link Theory Holdings became a subsidiary of Fast Retailing of Japan, owner of Uniqlo.
Rosen said he learned several things from the Theyskens experience. The Belgian designer joined Theory in 2010 to design a capsule collection under the Theyskens’ Theory label. The following season, he added design responsibility for Theory’s women’s, men’s and accessories’ collections. According to industry sources, the collaboration succeeded in bringing a higher level of recognition to Theory on a global scale, and the company was able to open more high-end specialty stores around the world, but the Theyskens’ Theory collaboration failed to ignite sales on the store floor. The line was deemed too advanced for the Theory customer and, although it garnered editorial credits in magazines, it never really built the momentum after the initial launch.
“I’m proud of what we did. I think we did amazing things together, and I think Olivier did some great work,” said Rosen. “If you go down to the [Theory Meatpacking District] store and look at the Runway Collection and what he did, and you look at the layer of fashion that he brought to the company, it’s really important. I think Lisa and I have talked about how we need to continue that.”
He called Theyskens “an amazing individual and designer.”
“There are cycles in fashion, and I understand why Olivier wanted to do something else. It was time.…I think the idea of bringing that level of designer to the contemporary market was a good idea, and I think it worked,” said Rosen.
Does Rosen think the customer balked at the high prices?
“I think the customer doesn’t have a problem with price. I don’t really think price is an issue for the customer. It’s not clothes a customer wears once or twice, they become part of the wardrobe,” he said. Going forward, Rosen said he wants to offer one line, but he likes the high-low aspect of it.
“Right now there’s one line, and that line will have a lot of levels to it. It will have that high-low, which I like and Lisa likes a lot,” he said. “Overall, we felt we want to elevate not only the quality, but the sophistication of the product,” added Kulson.
After leaving Theory and traveling for a while, Kulson launched her own namesake brand, Kulson, in 2003, working out of Italy. She closed it in 2008 and took time out to have a family. “Taking time off was really important. My life changed and my needs as a woman. It gave me a whole fresh perspective. Simultaneously, we had a recession and the emergence of brands such as Zara and H&M, and the Internet that became so important, much more important than when we started Theory. They were almost nonexistent,” she said.
Rosen added fast fashion is really a phenomenon of the last seven or eight years, as is the Internet. “And the pace of everything and the knowledge everyone has,” added Kulson. Rosen doesn’t believe that a brand needs to follow its customer as she moves through different stages in her life.
“I don’t believe that companies should grow old with their customer,” said Rosen. “I think that you enter the marketplace, and you have to continue to evolve and stay relevant. The truth of the matter is, when you do it right, you have a wide range of customers. You have the daughters, the mothers. I don’t think about an age group, I think about an aesthetic. I know myself, I’m getting older, but that doesn’t mean I want to dress older.”
As for the aesthetics of the line, Kulson said she’s definitely trying to push the Theory customer forward.
“What’s been missing at Theory, from what I’ve seen, is just a little bit of femininity and a bit of sexiness in a sophisticated way. Having worked extensively in Europe and Japan myself, I know that customer very well. She wants a little bit more of that. I think that Theory has become maybe too much known for career wardrobe and the ‘go-to’ place for your suit. We want to be redefining what the woman’s wearing to work. With this new spring collection, that’s a lot of what I did with my team,” said Kulson.
For spring, the collection has more color. There’s a base of neutrals, such as natural linen jackets, ivory, pale grays and natural white. There is also pale blush and, for the second delivery in February, there are earth tones. “Besides color, there are more current and sophisticated silhouettes that are a little bit more fashion-forward. We really want to get back to this woman’s lifestyle,” said Kulson. Theory will be putting accessories together just for the freestanding stores, such as shoes and handbags. Theory has no licensed lines, nor any interest in that. Rosen said he’s intrigued with doing collaborations with other companies instead. “I think there’s a real modernity to doing collaborations. It’s an interesting story of companies and design forces coming together and working on a project,” he said.
Asked whether Vince’s rapid growth (net sales rose 20.2 percent in the quarter to $89.3 million) has had an impact on Theory’s business, Rosen replied, “There’s plenty of business. It’s our ability to execute our vision and our ability to do what we set out to do. I think that there are a lot of things I think we do right and things we need to work on.
“I think aesthetically, you stay in one place, but the methodology of how you do business and the platforms constantly have to change because the world and fashion are constantly changing and you have to change with it. I’ve been very much wanting to move our company forward in a lot of ways,” he added. For starters, the company plans to freshen up and change the Theory logo.
Seventy-five percent of the business is women’s wear and 25 percent is men’s wear. At present, Theory does more than 50 percent of its business outside the U.S., and just under 50 percent domestically. The company has 217 directly-owned freestanding stores. Most of that international business is done through a network of freestanding stores overseas. The business in Japan, China and Europe is directly owned. It has a partner in South Korea, and it’s going to have a partner in the Middle East. “South America is not something we’ve looked at at the moment,” said Rosen.
Globally, a lot of Theory’s business has moved to the direct-to-consumer space, and the company has to think about reaching the customer directly, and not through retail partners. As a result, it seeks to develop a really strong marketing program and social media-digital strategy. All social media emanates from New York headquarters. “We’re investing a lot in the whole digital platform,” said Rosen.
Theory is in the process of building a state-of-the-art design and development center, a block east of Theory’s Meatpacking District headquarters. The company continues to explore bringing more production back to New York. At present, Theory does 30 percent of its manufacturing in New York.
Rosen is an investor in a host of brands, including Proenza Schouler. He declined to discuss a recent WWD story regarding LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s interest in buying the 40 percent stake owned by Rosen, John Howard and other investors, which they jointly acquired in 2011 from Valentino Fashion Group. Rosen is an investor in Rag & Bone and Alice + Olivia.
As for his other interests, he said, "I'm involved in a lot of different projects and get inspired by that. I have a lot going on between Theory and Helmut Lang and J Brand (of which he is ceo and is fully owned by Fast Retailing)….I'm very stimulated with what I'm doing." He called his investments in Alice + Olivia, Rag & Bone and Proenza "separate."
“I think it’s exciting to be involved in different segments of the industry. It helps me understand the different perspectives of the marketplace. I like to stay ahead of the game and be innovative in terms of what the opportunities are in the marketplace,” he said.
For fall, the company has started another line called Theory+, which is a street active concept. It is launching on Net-a-porter’s Net-a-sporter on Sept. 15, and will be carried in the Theory freestanding stores. It features performance fabrics and new technologies in manufacturing. There are about 25 stockkeeping units for women’s and men’s. Kulson said they are exploring expanding the brand into more casual sportswear: “We have a very strong dress business and we’ll try and expand that, too.”
Looking at the big picture, Rosen sees department stores making improvements in the way they do business.
“We believe in the experience in the store. You look at brick-and-mortar, and growth is low-single digits. Online growth is 20 percent-plus. It’s all about creating a better experience and environment in the stores. We’re working a lot not only in our own stores, but in our key department-store partners to change the dynamic of what it looks and feels like,” said Rosen.
The relationship between the department store and the designer-brand has to become more seamless, he said. “We have to sit on the same side of the table. We both have the same objective which is creating an environment and stimulating the customer. The business has to become an exciting experience. If you look at what Marigay McKee is doing at Saks, what Tony Spring is doing at Bloomingdale’s, or what’s happening at Nordstrom and Neiman’s, these guys are shaking things up and creating a whole new environment and community for the consumer to get excited about and shop in,” he said.
While he noted that the word “omnichannel” is overused, he said customers have so much access at their fingertips all the time, that the way they want to shop today has to be different.
“The experience of online, digital and traditional retail has to be merged together. You can’t go one way or the other. The customer wants to engage, and you have to allow her to engage where he or she feels comfortable. I do think that it’s critically important that the experience within the stores is changed.
According to Rosen, the customer who’s shopping in a Theory store today is going to a department store or Web site tomorrow. It’s all integrated. “What’s changed the game is digital. We’ve been doing business in an old traditional way of retailing for thousands of years. All of a sudden, five or six years, eight years ago, the digital platform is happening, and it’s changing every day. There are no rules. We as a designer brand have to really continue to evolve our methodology and the way we look at clothes and are merchandising clothes and designing clothes. It’s a new ball game,” he said.
Rosen described Theory’s current business as good. “I think it could be a lot better. My ambition is not for my current business to be the way business is. I have a plan, a platform and a program. I think we can raise the bar. We have a global business that’s almost $1 billion. I think we have a big global business, but I believe that we have to go further.”
Does Rosen think Theory can eventually become a $2 billion brand?
“I’m more interested in not only what we do, but the way we do things,” said Rosen. “There has to be a level of integrity and quality and innovation to what we’re doing. There are companies that have to continue to provide leadership in the marketplace. I think we’re one of those companies.”
Alberta Ferretti's "Rainbow Week" sweaters are back. The designer closed her #MFW show with a few day-of-the-week sweaters, which first debuted on the catwalk last January as part of the pre-fall 2017 collection. #wwdfashion (📷: @delphineachard)