NEW YORK — Andrew Rosen, chief executive officer of Theory and Helmut Lang, gave New School students a first-hand glimpse into running a contemporary sportswear business.
In a conversation with Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons School of Design, Rosen explored such topics as the importance of mentorship, how he selects companies to invest in, the future of the wholesale and retail sectors, sustainability, and staying ahead in a fast-moving industry.
Mortimer Singer, ceo of Marvin Traub Associates, introduced the event, which was the second annual Marvin Traub Lecture. MTA supports the annual lecture series and an endowed scholarship at Parsons.
Rosen, who is also an investor in Rag & Bone, Alice & Olivia and Proenza Schouler, talked about how he got his start in the industry, his early friendship with Marvin Traub, and how his father, Carl Rosen, had an influence on his career.
“I went to work for my dad when I was 19. I didn’t go to college in the traditional sense but I went to college in another sense. My dad had worked for his father, who started his clothing company in 1910… I started at a young age, and got an education,” said Rosen.
He began by working at a knitting mill on Long Island, then worked at a dress factory in Boston and worked on the sewing floor and the warehouse. “I got a perspective of the industry that you would rarely get. I was young enough that I was eager to learn and understand how things worked.” A few years later, his dad brought him to New York and he got exposed to what goes on in showrooms and design rooms. “I learned from my dad a lot. My dad had a curiosity and an open door, and I just naturally picked that up. You never know where the next good idea is coming from,” he said.
A lot of young designers with whom he works always think his advice is so valuable, but in reality, he gets more from them, he said. “Their spirit and energy and understanding of the present and future of our industry and where the pop culture is very helpful to me. I think I learn as much from them, as they learn from me,” he said.
Asked where he sees the future of the business, Rosen said, “I think companies have to change the way they’re working and change the way they’re thinking.” He said the fashion industry has to move quicker, and he’s had to reorganize the structure of his company so they’re not working in silos. “It has to move at a much quicker speed,” he said. He also said engagement with the customer is so much more important these days.
“I started my career as a wholesale business selling to retailers. My philosophy was building a great brand, and if I built a great brand, I didn’t have to worry about anything else because all the department stores would buy, and I would let them worry about selling it. Today, we as designers and manufacturers of clothing, have to be attuned to the customers’ needs, and selling the clothes, and not just manufacturing them,” he said.
Rosen was asked about the globalization of fashion and his initiative to bring more manufacturing back to New York. How does he square those two things?
“I believe that with manufacturing domestically, the most important factor is that designers and manufacturers can collaborate together. We have incredible talent and incredible factories in New York City. The ability for young designers to work with those factories and develop clothes and new ideas is paramount to the future. As a young company, you don’t have the resources or the ability to go to some faraway part of the world. You have to do it close to home. It’s so important for the future of American fashion to have an incredible manufacturing base,” he said.
The city, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Rosen are putting together programs to invest and build the garment center and to bring new technology to it. “We have to invest in them, and revitalize them,” he said. Plus, he said, by manufacturing domestically companies can make product quickly and turn quickly. “In this world today, it’s critically important.”
“Look at what’s going on in L.A. with manufacturing jeans, and what goes on in Italy, with shoes and bags. I think the most important thing is the connection that design has with the manufacturing. Maybe in a way I’m a little bit old-fashioned because I believe that the quality and integrity and design of the clothes is as important as the marketing of the clothes,” he added.
Asked how much it would take to launch a company today, Rosen said between $1.5 million and $2 million. “And you don’t need it all at once,” he said. He suggested to the students that they don’t rush in and start their own business right out of school. “You’ve got an incredible education and learned a lot of stuff. Now it’s time to experiment and learn from other people out in the world. There are so many exciting and different companies today. It’s just a question of where you want to start,” he said.
“If I was a young person getting out of school, I would want to get involved with the next generation of companies that were more digitally focused and not traditionally focused. You see what Warby Parker has done and what Everlane has done, there are a lot of interesting opportunities there. You see what Amazon has done,” he said, although he added that Amazon is not as relevant to the companies he’s involved in. He may eat those words.