Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Field trip to the Theory design studio

Last Tuesday morning, I got an opportunity to go to the men’s design studio for Theory down in the Meatpacking District with my Marketing of Menswear class.

We got the chance to meet with the men’s design director, Ben Stubbington, who worked at Calvin Klein and Rogan, before being snatched up by Theory’s President, Andrew Rosen.  A native Englishman, Ben greeted us all pretty warmly and told us about the company and how it was started, their core values, who their customer was, etc.  The company started out making pants and really just focusing on getting those and everything about them air-tight.  Having visited their retail store across the street afterwards, I can vouch for them.  From that point, they expanded into other aspects.

It kind of reminded me of listening to Kenneth Cole speak last year...  He started making shoes, and, once he felt good about them, he could either make different kinds of shoes for a different consumer to expand or develop other cool stuff for the same core customer that responded well to his shoes.  He chose the latter path.

So it seems that’s how Theory has evolved.  Their aesthetic is, for the men’s at least, stripped down of frills, or as Ben said to me, “realistic design with a level of sophistication and intelligence, not design just for design, a true understanding of menswear.” 

They have a strong perspective on what their company is and has to offer.  Ben mentioned Theory is a company where the owner will (and does) say things like, “Well, they can get that somewhere else” in response to something the market is asking for but doesn’t fit with who and what Theory stands for.

In answering one of my classmates questions about fashion forecasting services, he said something to the effect of that they don’t pay them any attention really for two reasons…  One, as a designer, you should already kind of be in touch naturally with the pulse and flow of the world and be able to anticipate and pick up on cultural currents.  And number two, he believes Theory can get enough traction so that they can actually be the ones originating trends and concepts.  But it’s not a “we want to set trends so people follow us” kind of thing, it’s just “yeah, we’re over here doing our own thing and if you like what you see and are inspired by it, cool.”

Theory also had their patternmakers on-staff next door.  They were all shared (I think, at least) by the cornacopia of other brands under the same ownership like Rag & Bone and Helmut Lang, who were in the same building.  Having that close relationship is a huge competitive advantage.  Of course it costs more, but what greater of a luxury could you have than time?  Yeah, it’s cheaper to have a sample commissioned from China but the lag time can easily be 30 days as opposed to a day or two, not to mention they’re next door!  I believe one of the most critical aspects of running a good business is quick and clear communication and execution of ideas and having this luxury is fantastic. 

Ben also shared about his experiences working with other companies.  At the company he was previously at, Calvin Klein, they had a very corporate environment.  One of the positives he drew from his time there was keeping his studio clean and presentations clear and concise.  He was able to take this with him to Theory, and it showed in the neatness of the studio and clearness of the concept of the inspiration board for an upcoming season.

When the President Andrew Rosen spoke with us, he talked about several things, but the ones that stuck out were his stressing of getting retail experience and the continued growth of e-commerce.

Like John Bartlett advised me in the spring, getting retail experience will allow you to understand the man you’re selling to better and make you a much stronger designer. 

Trusting John's advice and having worked with Lacoste since August, it’s no surprise to me Andrew recommended this also.  

I worked at the pop-up boutique at the US Open and was then invited to help open the new Lacoste L!VE concept store in SoHo.  This has helped me in a few ways…   First off, being in SoHo, and just seeing so many hip people from all around the globe, from Denmark to Paris to China, I get a nice sampling of the world. 

Not surprisingly, selling to people and seeing what products they respond to, what they don’t and what they “love” but don’t BUY has been invaluable.  

Finally, when we’re slow, I’ll take time to analyze the top sellers and the margins we make on them.  The highest margin (i.e. marked-up) items we have are our sneakers… I wonder why our goal for the Lacoste L!VE brand is to grow our revenue for shoes from our current 12% to 40%???

P.S. We do have wicked looking shoes… on December 12th, we’re gonna have 12 new sneakers designed by 12 different artists available exclusively at our SoHo and Paris boutiques.  My favorite two are the grey ones by Tim Hamilton (below) and the ones by i-D, which are high top green fake croc leather.  Both are wicked...

But back to the task at hand…  The other thing Andrew talked about was e-commerce and how critical that can be to a company.  In my spare time, I study marketing like some people study their fantasy football team and my favorite part of for the past few years has been INTERNET marketing.  Doing business online in anything is magnitudes more efficient and profitable than selling to a brick-and-mortar store, who then sells to a consumer.

As Theory prefers to stand out in aspects like fit and hand of the fabric used, I inquired how as to how such in-person selling points could be conveyed online.

The two things he said that could help with conversions were perhaps to have a personal message from him on there and have a simple, simple pain-free return policy.  In addition, he stressed that, as a company, online, they're able to control their image and communication with their customers to a degree that is simply not possible when going through a retailer.  

I think nearly EVERY company in the world (minus those that teach this stuff like Jeffery Gitomer, Eben Pagan and Ryan Deiss) could benefit from taking more steps to personally connect with their customers online (ever heard of www.livefaceonweb.com?), building a prospect email list and building a relationship with them through regular, personalized email from a human being, not a company, if you get what I mean, and taking as much risk out of the buying process as possible.

All in all, I had a great time seeing the inside of a company like theirs, was inspired and a learned a ton!

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