Twenty years into his biggest fashion project, Andrew Rosen is taking Theory in yet another new direction.
The pre-spring 2019 collection, to be unveiled to buyers this week, represents the first designs by the new women’s wear creative director Francesco Fucci, an alum of The Row, and a merchandising strategy hinged on far fewer clothes, a permanent range of essentials and a more intensive customer focus.
“It’s about being very strategic about the clothing that we make, and the curation of the clothes and making everything perfect,” Rosen, chief executive officer of Theory, said in an interview, revealing the collection and the new strategic thrust exclusively to WWD. “The perfection of things, the curation of things, really being perfect in what we do and considering the customer in the equation is critically important.
“You know, we always used to think about the brand first,” Rosen mused in a minimalist showroom here appointed with potted plants and vintage furniture. “But today I think that the customer is. The brand is important, but the customer is more important.”
Fucci’s first effort, slated to begin shipping in late October, reflects a sophisticated, European sensibility with color and shape — even if he cited arts hub Marfa, Tex., as his primary inspiration.
Somewhat reminiscent of Jil Sander at the height of the German designer’s minimalist influence, the collection hinges on white shirts and sleek men’s wear-inspired tailoring expressed in trim coats, neat jackets and an array of pant silhouettes.
“I think that Francesco totally understands the essence of Theory and the clothes represent all of the aesthetic and thought processes which we started. But he’s taken it to another level emotionally,” Rosen asserted.
He noted the spring collection would not represent any big departure in positioning while describing an upgrade in fabrications and make that would raise the prices of some items. The pricing structure is in layers and certain categories are up 20 percent.
The much tighter offering — with roughly half the usual number of stockkeeping units — comes at a buoyant moment for Theory, with Rosen describing the business as robust, including in American department stores, where sales this year are running ahead more than 20 percent versus a year ago in a contemporary segment that has been flagging in the past few years, including Theory.
He declined to discuss figures, while acknowledging the Theory brand is past the $1 billion threshold. Roughly 60 percent of the business is international, led by explosive growth in Asia, the executive said.
In a wide-ranging interview, Rosen elaborated on the new methodologies he’s introducing to meet the rapidly changing marketplace.
“The world is going through the fourth industrial revolution. The way we do everything is different. And I constantly think about how does Theory in its marketplace be on the forefront of everything,” he said. “We have a global business and I want to be innovative in terms of our approach to the business.”
Rosen believes there needs to be an emotional connection with the consumer in order to move the needle.
“Because the business is not only physical, but virtual too, there has to be emotion in the equation,” he said. “It was one of the things that Francesco has brought to our company. He raised the emotion quotient that goes into the clothing.”
WWD broke the news on Dec. 11 that Theory was poised to poach Fucci from The Row, where he had been head designer since November 2012. A native of Naples, Italy, he has also been a senior design director at Diane von Furstenberg and a consultant for Calvin Klein, having previously worked in Europe for American designer Lawrence Steele and Louis Féraud under the artistic direction of Yvan Mispelaere.
To be sure, Theory has experienced its share of creative upheaval throughout its history.
Lisa Kulson, who first joined the brand in 1997 as head designer and left in 2002 to create her own namesake line, returned in the role and eventually become creative director following the departure of Olivier Theyskens, who had been at the helm from 2010 to 2014.
But Rosen doesn’t really consider Fucci’s effort a repositioning of the brand; rather, he sees it as a refresh.
“I want to be always modernizing what we’re doing. Staying and leading the customer and staying ahead of the customer and bringing in things she needs and wants. We don’t need to have a revolution, just a constant evolution. And you know, I feel that we needed fresh energy in the company design-wise, creatively,” said Rosen.
“You know, our business this year is actually having an incredible performance in terms of its growth, and I think that we’re doing a lot of things not only creatively but in terms of our business that are resonating. And this is the secret: A billion-dollar company sometimes can get too stuck in one way of doing business,” said Rosen.
Although he’s cutting the collection almost in half, Rosen expects to do more business. “Everything that we’re doing, we’re putting much more emphasis and energy into. And the message is much more concise and focused. And the inventory within the store is going to be there. I think one of the biggest problems is there’s too many clothes in the store, and when you go to buy them you can never find your size.
“The idea is to make the perfect pieces and really execute them and hero-fy them. And because we can message directly to our customers, we can pick the things that we want to message to our customer and make sure that’s in the store, front and center,” he said.
In discussing his first collection for Theory, Fucci said he’s changing some fits, but not radically. “I’m not a revolution person,” he said. “I come from a craftsmanship culture. My uncles were men’s wear tailors.”
This goes back to the company’s roots of creating a men’s wear wardrobe for a woman. In addition to the fashion offering, Fucci designed foundation staples: 20 sku’s for women including stretch trousers and blazers, a cashmere coat, a wool travel suit, classic button-downs in silk and poplin, cotton T-shirts and merino wool sweaters.
Fucci said he was excited to work at The Fast Retailing Innovation Center at 2 Gansevoort Street in New York, which he described as having “super modern machinery,” including cutting machines and an army of sewers. “On the one side you work with fine hands, and the other side is machinery where you can be so precise and right to the point. I like the combination of this aspect,” he said.
As Rosen explained, “Our setup allows us to really concentrate on the fit and construction of the clothes. And I think at the end of the day, even with everything, the clothes still have to be made well and fit well for the customer to appreciate them. The customer really appreciates that, and that’s what we’re able to do with the setup we have.”
Theory has been in business 20 years, but Rosen has no interest in celebrating that milestone externally and prefers to look ahead. “I think internally, the people appreciate and respect the heritage of the company. But externally, I want to keep being relevant for the next 20 years, and to do that I think we have to stay focused and sharp about what we’re doing. I don’t think we can look back, we have to look forward.”
According to Rosen, when he cofounded the business in 1997, women’s lifestyles were changing, and he wanted to make clothes that represented a modern working woman, who was on her cell phone and computer, and her office was wherever she was. He wanted versatile clothing and preferred individual pieces over outfits.
Today, he believes that philosophy is still relevant. “The clothing and the execution of that is just more modernized. The modern woman has to go from day to evening now. She’s working, she’s a mother, she’s a wife, women have a very complex and versatile lifestyle. The clothing has to carry them from one situation to the next,” said Rosen.
While the company’s main department store accounts are retailers such as Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue, the direct-to-consumer part of the business is growing at a much faster rate. “Our department store business this spring has been better than it’s been in the last five years,” he said. “I thing two things are happening. One, we’ve started instituting a lot of strategies in our business, which, as I say, is more focused and more curated. which has helped a lot. I think that the other thing is that the business is better, the retail business, at least for us. And I think the department stores business is better than it was a year ago, for sure.”
Frank Doroff, vice chairman of Bloomingdale’s, confirmed that Theory’s business is on the upswing. “Theory is selling extremely well. We’re selling suits and all the coats and the more elevated pieces.”
Right now 70 percent of Theory’s business is women’s and 30 percent is men’s. Martin Andersson designs the men’s wear line. Rosen described Theory as having the “go-to pieces” for a woman’s or man’s wardrobe. “That’s what I always thought Theory represented. It was to have that perfect shirt or the perfect pair of pants, the jacket you throw over it…I think that’s what Francesco has given us…those incredible pieces,” he said.
Rosen contends that less is more. “My philosophy is never to make clothes that fill up racks in stores. And I think one of the ruminations of department stores was that they thought they needed more styles, more brands and more things. And frankly, I think they confused the customer today. Because the customer wants a very succinct message, and they want to buy into brands that deliver what they need. And everyone has their brand that they go to for X or Y or Z. I don’t believe that brands are a one-stop shop for everything, but I believe that the segment of clothing that we make, we have to make perfect and we have to make perfect for our customer,” said Rosen.
While Theory plans to further develop its own retail stores — there are currently 225 globally — Rosen remains bullish on department stores.
“I believe there’s still a big future in department stores. I guess a lot of people are suspect of that,” he said. “I have been working on evolving the methodology of the buying and selling relationship. We have to be partners together. Their success is our success and vice versa. So we have to be taking more responsibility in certain areas, and they have to take more responsibility in certain areas.”
What’s critically important these days is the flow of merchandise into the stores, Rosen said. “How the cadence of deliveries works, and we’ve been doing a lot of work around that kind of thing. I mean, you see some of the streetwear brands and what they’re doing. I think they changed the game in terms of how merchandise was delivered. That methodology also exists for us, but it’s interpreted in a way that works for this kind of clothes, not streetwear clothes,” he said.
Starting in October and going through January, Theory will have six flows.
Forging a closer connection with the consumer is another priority for Theory.
Rosen noted that the company’s relationship with the consumer is changing “because as a brand, our relationship with the consumer was not as direct as it is becoming today.”
“Business can turn around so quickly because the customer is so tuned into what’s right and what’s not right. And the customers have on their phone exactly what they want to see and whom they want to follow. It’s totally a curated message, and this is why I talk about how our collections and our clothes have to be more curated because the customer is wanting a more curated experience,” he said.
Accessories comprise a small part of the business, and they’re done for the company’s freestanding stores and web site. “We believe there’s potential there. But we’re a clothing business. The more curated and focused we can be, the more success we have,” said Rosen.
Discussing whether the contemporary category as a whole is improving, he said, “I think you’d have to talk to the department stores about that. I know as I look around at some businesses they’re doing extremely well. But that’s been the way of the world, right? The good businesses are getting a bigger and bigger share of the market. And there are other business that aren’t performing well at all, and I think that’s what’s happening.
“I think that today there’s going to be winners and losers. I don’t think the old adage of a rising tide will lift all boats [applies anymore]. It’s much more complex and requires a completely different methodology and strategy,” said Rosen. As far as e-commerce, he said the most important thing is to hire the right people. “It’s our biggest store, but that’s not saying enough,” he added.
Asked if there’s more he can be doing with his e-commerce site, he said, “The day that I’m happy with the way things are going, I’ll have to retire. I really feel that in order to lead a company of this nature, one has to really be pushing himself and his organization beyond what their capabilities are just normally.”