The first day of the rest of Andrew Rosen’s life was April Fools’, but that was a coincidence, not a sign.
It was a few days after he had announced he was stepping down as chief executive of Theory, the company he founded that redefined dressing for work (now owned by Japan’s Fast Retailing); the first day in almost 40 years that he had not been the head of a fashion brand.
And it was the first time in a very long time that he had any actual time to reflect on the dramatic changes in the industry he helped create — where it has been and where it is going. It turned out he had a lot to say.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
There’s a general sense that American fashion is in crisis. Do you agree?
I think we’re in the third stage of a transformation of the fashion industry that began when I first started, in the mid-1970s. I remember my dad clearly saying to me then, when I joined his company, “You’re at the beginning of the whole next generation of American fashion.”
I didn’t understand what he meant then, but years later I realized he was right, because that was when designers, and designer-identified products, became the most important things in the business, not manufacturing companies like my father’s.
With Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis and, later, Donna Karan, American fashion changed. They became the power of the industry. And that lasted until the late 1990s, when the world shifted, and so did fashion.
What happened then?
The Europeans were so much stronger in the luxury end of the business because they not only had the creative resources, they had the financial resources, and they had the manufacturing resources. They jumped way ahead and, I think, ultimately squashed the opportunity in the designer zone for Americans.
At the same time came the advent of the internet and mobile phones, which meant not being confined to your office, and the working mother who was a businesswoman, a mother and a wife. The office wasn’t a destination anymore because the office moved with the person.
That’s when I created Theory. Originally, I wanted to use only fabrics with Lycra, because you could dress them up or dress them down. You could travel in them, you could travel with them. They didn’t wrinkle.
Along with Scoop and Stefani Greenfield, and Intermix, we were starting to define this whole new form of democratic fashion, which was particularly American and came from the sportswear tradition, and which is now called “contemporary.”
This is all about fashion imitating life, and a changing balance of power, right?
Yes, and then came the transformation from department store business to direct to consumer. That meant the brands, although important, had to take a back seat to the consumer, who now has the most power in the relationship, and is dictating the brands she or he wants.
If you look at what’s exciting in America today, it is companies like Everlane, Reformation, Warby Parker, Supreme, Allbirds, which are built in a very different way, but which reflect a new lifestyle in America and pop culture.
So are you getting out while the getting’s good?
One of the reasons I am not the C.E.O. of Theory is that what the company needs going forward and what I can offer the company tend to be two different things. For me, the merchant, the guy that understands how to put everything together and tell the story, is still important, but I think the future leaders of fashion companies are going to be marketers, not merchants.
Today there are multiple methods of distribution to reach the customer, which means the marketing aspects of the job have become incredibly important, incredibly scientific, incredibly necessary.
That sounds kind of depressing, actually.
It’s just different. We used to operate in the fashion world by feel, intuition and experience. Now we operate with data. As a merchant, I had my own set of algorithms that I went through in my own mind. Now no one needs to do it in their own mind because the computer is going to do it for them. That means the development of great merchandising talent is not a skill that is fostered anymore.
But right now a lot of the digital companies aren’t great on the soft part — the design, thinking, emotional stuff. On the other hand, a lot of the emotional companies are not great on the digital front. Eventually there are going to be companies that put the two of those together.
None of the names you mentioned as the future of American fashion are fashion week names. Is the runway over?
I don’t think the runway is over. I don’t think department stores are over, either. But how we use them is changing. The runway is not just in one place. It’s moving around the globe, because connecting with the major metropolitan cities and the consumer there is important.
Department stores used to be places of discovery, so they had a little bit of everything. Now the consumers are doing their discovery at home, so the retail experience has to be curated, to develop a customer following.
And consumers are getting messages globally. So companies have to develop direct-to-consumer capabilities, and they also have to develop international capabilities because without an international capability they can’t survive either.
Today a local player is nothing. The local player goes away. The global players are more powerful and playing all over the world. It’s survival of the fittest.
So we are in a Darwinian fashion fight to the death?
There is definitely going to be a weeding out of retail stores and brands, and it’s going to make room for a whole new generation. It’s going to be more abrupt than normal because everything is going so fast and just getting by isn’t going to work anymore.
You have to be emerging, or you have to be in the Top 10. In the old days you could be in the Top 25. I think you see lots of emerging guys being given opportunities, both from an investment point of view and an interest point of view, because there’s a whole new way of doing business that companies with a lot of baggage and heritage can’t operate in.
So where does that leave us?
Companies need to continually modernize their platform. It is difficult. A guy being the C.E.O. of the company for 22 years, like I was, that’s probably not going to happen.
At the end of my career as a C.E.O. I was working a lot harder than I was 10 years before because there was so much I needed to learn, and my business was so complex. At a point in my life when things should have been easier, they were more complicated, and I had to work harder to stay abreast.
But that’s the playing field. We’re going through another industrial revolution, and we are right in the middle in terms how the world operates and how we live our lives and how companies operate. It’s never going to come to a screeching halt, but it probably will slow down. Hopefully.