"When I Stop Looking Forward, I Think I'll Retire"

For a man with as much fashion history as he has, third-generation garmento Andrew Rosen has his eyes on the future.

Published May 24, 2012
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As the CEO of Theory and Helmut Lang and an investor in on-the-rise New York labels like Rag & Bone, Alice + Olivia, Gryphon, and now Proenza Schouler, Andrew Rosen occupies a unique and uniquely powerful perch in American fashion. If he didn't invent the concept of the contemporary market, he's probably made more at it than anybody else. With sales set to exceed $700 million, Theory is on track to its biggest year ever. On June 4, he'll be recognized for his accomplishments with the CFDA's Founders Award, which is given in honor of Eleanor Lambert, who established the trade organization half a century ago, when Rosen's father, Carl, was himself a captain of the American fashion industry. Two weeks shy of the Awards, sat down with the third-generation garmento in his Meatpacking District headquarters to discuss family, the future, and the changing face of luxury.

What does winning the Founders Award mean to you?

AR: Someone in my line of work, I never think about winning a CFDA Award—I'm not a designer. It means so much because of my family's history in the clothing business. My father was an amazing man and an incredible visionary in our industry. He said to me when I starting out that I was at the forefront of a whole new generation of fashion. He said that the industry was changing from a branded product to a designer product, that designers were going to become the future of our industry, not the brands. He was changing his company at that time from a branded dress company to a license with Calvin Klein and Diane von Furstenberg. That's when I started working for him; it was the whole beginning of designers owning and controlling and being a voice in the industry. He told me I was going to know more than anybody else because I was at the forefront; I was going to have seen it grow. It's funny because in a way that's exactly what happened.

But you're also behind Theory, which until Olivier Theyskens came on board was about the brand. So you've got your feet in both worlds.

I felt that when I started Theory, I'd spent my life at Calvin Klein, Anne Klein. I wanted something that was not designer, that was just about an idea, something that was very simple. Over time, I evolved my ideas and wanted to get back involved with designers—the creativity of designers, the energy. It's important to continue to evolve, to understand that you can't get too set in your ways. You have to be able to grow, as fashion and the world does.

Is evolution, then, the secret of your success?

I'm lucky because I get to have an exciting job every day. Every day that I'm working there are so many possibilities; things are always evolving. I'm not one that looks back and says, 'Oh, look what I did here.' I'm always looking towards the future. When I stop looking forward, I think I should retire.

Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Rosen

Speaking of the future, what kind of advice do you give to the young designers in your stable?

The beauty of young designers is that they have the opportunity to start their businesses without the baggage or the heritage of the past. They need to be thinking about creating clothes and setting up business models for the future. Those who do have been very successful. I look at what Alexander Wang has done—he's certainly carved a new path. I think there are opportunities with the Proenza boys, what Rag & Bone is doing. Another one that I think is amazing is Joseph Altuzarra. Our industry provides the opportunity to be very individual. You look at the companies today that are successful and each one has their own formula. That's one of the things that I think is good about myself—that I don't believe that there's just one way to do business. The business we have with Theory is different than what's going on with Helmut Lang. They're all individual businesses with individual cultures and aesthetics. That's what's important for success. At the end of the day, the customer reacts to good clothes and good ideas. The customer is smart and they can pick out the winners from the losers.

Recently, you've been called New York's answer to LVMH, the global luxury goods behemoth behind Dior and Louis Vuitton. How do you want to see your business grow?

That was very flattering, but I don't want to be presumptuous enough to assume that, because I don't assume that at all. My professional goals are to come to work and be happy and inspired every day, to be able to generate new ideas to move not only our businesses but also our industry forward. My aspirations are not to have this big conglomerate. I like the fact that I have the relationship as the CEO of Theory and running the company for Mr. [Tadashi] Yanai and Fast Retailing. I like the association with Mr. Yanai and the opportunity to learn from him. I also have the great opportunity to be involved as partner/investor in some companies that started out very small and are making their mark in the industry. For me, my relationship with Theory and what I do for Theory is my job. I always say, my day job is at Theory, and my night job is being involved with some of these other young designers.

So when do you sleep?

I'm in the horse business. I have a love, as my dad did, for thoroughbred racing. That is something that I have to learn, and I spend a lot of time studying and working at it. The clothing business is something that I feel, so it's not really like work to me. Growing up with my father, and being exposed to what I was exposed to, my thought process is geared towards the clothing industry. It's what I've done my whole life, since I was 18, 19 years old, when I went to work, which is 35, 36 years ago.

Racehorses or fashion designers, who's easier to manage?

They're both unpredictable, but the good ones in both fields are always inspiring.

Photos: Monica Feudi /; Filippo Fior, Yannis Vlamos /

I've heard that the high and low ends of the fashion market are doing well, but not so much in between. How's the middle?

The segment we're in is really, really good. But I think that if you're making good clothes and you have a good concept, there's always business to do. The industry is hard when you're just following. If you have a point of view, if the quality and integrity and innovation are there, in good times and bad, the clothing business is successful. People are always buying clothing. Clothing is something that's emotional; it makes people feel good. Yeah, in late 2008, early 2009, the world had problems. That was difficult for all of us. But since then, we've seen all of our different businesses be very successful. Theory is going to have a record year globally. All of our businesses this year will be the best year we've ever had.

Girls I know are fantasizing about lower-priced Proenza Schouler clothes. What do you hope to achieve working with them?

Obviously, Jack [McCollough] and Lazaro [Hernandez] are immensely talented. From a creative perspective, they've reached the top of American design. I see trying to be able to really own that, to be America's top luxury designer. I think the definition of luxury over time is going to change. I don't think it'll just be what it is today, and I think there will be lots of opportunities for a company like Proenza to broaden out the price points of what they're offering, but it has to stay with a luxury mind-set, and I think that they have an incredible opportunity, and I'm excited about being able to be a small part in helping them reach their goals. For me, I think that one of the reasons I work with so many different designers [is] I'm able to understand what their vision and their culture is, and be able to help them be successful in that. If you look at the different companies in which I'm involved, they all have a completely different point of view, and I don't link them together at all. A lot of big companies like to put everything together, produce synergies, best practices—I hate that expression. I tend to like to have them be able to develop their own culture, their own aesthetic. I've been able to bring them what I think will help from other places.

Is that broadening of price points the best way for a brand to succeed today?

I think the future of fashion is going to be very different than it is today, as it was if you look back five, ten, 15, or 20 years. The evolution of fashion, the evolution of how companies do business, now more than ever before, is changing. I clearly have a few points of view on that subject, maybe not that I'm fully ready to discuss openly. I think that companies have to keep an open mind as to how business is going to be done in the future. Just because something is expensive doesn't make it luxury. I think that clothes at all prices can have integrity and be luxurious, and I think that over time, the boundaries are going to be broken in terms of price zones.

Photos: Yannis Vlamos /; Will Raggozino, Matteo Prandoni /
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