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In Theory

US womenswear brand Theory aims to make its mark in the UK with standalone retail stores. Founder Andrew Rosen explains why he is keen to crack the market

Andrew Rosen, president and founder of US contemporary womens- wear brand Theory, describes his latest trip to the UK as a long stopover. He is only here for four days.

Rosen says it seems like a lifetime - most of his UK visits last less than 24 hours, as quick stopovers to check how his team is getting on. He then zips off to Paris, where last month the brand opened its first European standalone store.

But there is a reason for this prolonged trip. Rosen is desperate to nail a site for a UK store and is checking out possible venues while in London. The brand sees potential for two to three UK stores over the next five years.

Although he is not keen to talk about possible locations, it's clear that the 1,500 sq ft unit on his wish list would be perfectly placed in the area of west London close to the brand's UK showroom in Westbourne Grove.

He says: "We look to place our stores where there is a cool neighbourhood or village vibe. This business does not sit well in malls - that's not what we're about. We opened our Paris store last month on the Rue Bonaparte in St Germain, which is the sort of feel we're looking for in a location. The area has to have its own identity. In New York our flagship and company HQ, which opened late last year, is in the Meatpacking District for the same reason."

Since 1999, Rosen, a third-generation clothing entrepreneur, has built Theory from scratch into a brand with a turnover of US$550 million (£278m) in the US. It is a category-led collection that has built its reputation on great-fitting trousers and shirts, although the brand offers a full range of knits, dresses, shirts, outerwear, trousers and skirts. It aims to make pieces that can be the foundation of a woman's wardrobe season after season.

Rosen says: "Theory is aimed at modern, contemporary customers. The offer is very item-oriented and can be mixed and matched. We are not into a top-to-toe look."

Theory's womenswear business launched in the UK just four-and-a-half years ago. Although the brand also has a menswear arm, which accounts for 15% of total sales, the strategy was to focus on womenswear in Europe and get that right before introducing menswear. The business now has 65 points of sale in the UK and Republic of Ireland, including Harrods, Liberty, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Brown Thomas in Dublin, Matches in London and The Square in Bath. Prices start at £20 for T-shirts, rising to about £95 for jackets.

Rosen is happy with the spread of the brand's UK distribution and says it is a solid foundation for growth. But to reach the next level in terms of sales, he believes standalone retail stores would provide the boost and heightened profile that Theory needs.

European sales now stand at about US$25m (£12m), and Rosen is confident that the continent has the potential to deliver up to US$100m (£50m) in sales within the next three to five years.

But he is aware of the need to get things right and take a country-by-country approach to the business. He explains: "If you look at a lot of US fashion businesses, very few have successfully made the leap to Europe. I can only think of one - Diane von Furstenberg probably has the biggest presence here of any US contemporary brand.

"I think there are a couple of reasons. First, the US market is so big that businesses become totally domestically focused, and they often haven't had the need to look beyond that. The other is that US brands that have tried to crack Europe tend to take a very US approach to the market, which inevitably means they flounder."

Rosen was keen to get the brand's infrastructure and sales support right before moving into retail. As a result, the business invested in country subsidiaries in the main European markets rather than agency-run distribution. It has also invested a substantial amount of money into boosting its service to customers.

"One of the biggest problems we had was making sure we could deliver to our customers on time and service them with re-orders," says Rosen. "In the US, 25% of our business is in re-orders so it's really important that we get that service spot-on in Europe. We have had some growing pains, but we have made a large investment in having the right infrastructure so we can service the business to a high standard on a re-order and delivery basis."

The brand backs certain key items in the collection to the level of 10% over initial sales, which enables it to support such a huge re-order business. Rosen says: "You have to believe in certain items and their ability to sell through. We have just got to the point where we can deliver this service in Europe now and I believe it will be a key differentiator for our brand in the future."

Rosen's attitude to Europe is realistic, almost humble, and he cites the enormous amount of competition in the marketplace. "We are basically the number one brand in our sector in the US, but we recognise that Europe is a huge challenge for the business and that we have some real work to do to get anywhere near that level here," he explains. "But we are encouraged by the growth that we are experiencing. Our Italian business, although still small, grew by 200% for autumn 2007, on the back of the brand performing for our stockists, and it's very exciting to be making that kind of progress in such a difficult marketplace.

"I am under no illusions that this is going to be an easy task or that we can come into a market and own it by a reputation built back in the US. But the brand is committed to making it work and we have a long-term approach to the business here."

THEORY'S EVOLUTION

1997: Theory is founded by Andrew Rosen and Elie Tahari

2003: The pair sell Theory to its Japan licensee Link International and Uniqlo parent company Fast Retailing, who form joint venture Link Theory Holdings

June 2005: Link Theory Holdings is floated on the Japan Stock Exchange to access funds for global expansion

November 2005: Theory opens its 6,500 sq ft flagship in New York's Meatpacking District

February 2007: Former Charles Tyrwhitt managing director Ashley Potter is appointed president of Theory Europe

March 2007: Paris flagship store opens in St Germain

KEY FIGURES

- Global sales: US$550 million

- European sales: $25m

- UK doors: 65, including Harvey Nichols, Liberty, Selfridges, Harrods, Matches in London and The Square in Bath.

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