This week, an in-depth look at Theory’s innovative, capsule-focused sub-brand. Scroll down to use Glossy+ Comments, giving the Glossy+ community the opportunity to join discussions around industry topics.
Fashion trends are over.
As Theory is betting with its 1-year-old Theory Project line, consumers are shopping with other priorities in mind. Namely, they want pieces they can wear day and night, season after season, and, ideally, in multiple ways, granting them maximum bang for their investment.
“It’s not fashion; it’s wardrobe pieces,” said designer Lucas Ossendrijver, describing Theory Project. In 2021, Ossendrijver joined Theory to helm the sub-brand, which releases collections twice a year. The third, for fall 2023, dropped on Tuesday. “Every season, there’s an evolution, not a revolution; the pieces [work] with pieces from prior collections and with other pieces people have in their wardrobes. You can get a lot of value and a lot of mileage out of them.”
To explain the versatility, Ossendrijver described the new Recycled Poly Reversible Bomber Jacket. Available for men ($595) and women ($495), with sizing and select details customized accordingly, the wool layer can be turned inside-out to move from a monochromatic look to a “more expressive” style with contrasting, quilted satin sleeves.
Treating collections as a continuum of wardrobe builders is an approach that’s catching on among designers. The economy has minimized discretionary spending. And, as new British Vogue editorial director Chioma Nnadi said on this week’s The Run-Through Podcast, “Dressing for real life feels more important and urgent right now,” compared to one-off shopping for specific occasions. Co-host Nicole Phelps, global director of Vogue Runway, praised Peter Hawkings’s debut Tom Ford collection for its timeless styles offering “mileage,” specifically a piece of outerwear that “would last years, as opposed to [looking like] a spring 2024 coat.” In Milan last month, brands including Armarium, Yali and Eleventy supplemented prior collections with fresh, complementing options. The same mindset was shared in New York by Tibi’s Amy Smilovic and Another Tomorrow’s Liz Giardina, and in Paris by Margaret Howell.
Of course, easily repeatable looks don’t often prompt the same emotion-driven spending as, say, statement pieces seemingly made for Instagram. That’s especially true in the e-commerce environment, and particularly when price differences are in the details. Compared to its sister brand, which sells a men’s bomber jacket for $425, Theory Project “uses the same language,” but is “slightly more elevated in quality and fabrics” and “slightly more creative,” Ossendrijver said. Theory Project is sold in Theory’s mainline stores — there are 13 in the U.S. — and through a small number of retailers, including Bloomingdale’s and Selfridges.
“It’s difficult to make wearable clothes that are relatively simple and easy to understand, but still interesting [and not] mediocre,” Ossendrijver said.
The line’s marketing also doesn’t differ much from that of Theory, with the exception of the models and photography being “a bit more outspoken,” he said. The fall 2023 campaign, shot by buzzy photographer Tyler Mitchell, features minimal backdrops and young-looking models, sometimes smiling.
“I don’t want to make it into fashion, because it’s not supposed to be and it’s never going to be high fashion,” he said.
It takes a type of restraint that, for Ossendrijver, could have easily been heightened by the transition from a high-fashion house to a contemporary label. Before starting at Theory in 2021, he spent 14 years as Lanvin’s menswear director and worked at Kenzo and Dior Homme before that.
Founded by Andrew Rosen in 1997, Theory was acquired by Uniqlo and Helmut Lang owner Fast Retailing in 2009. Ever since, it’s made a habit of recruiting luxury fashion natives for its leadership and creative teams. At Nina Ricci and Rochas prior, Olivier Theyskens designed for the brand from 2010-2014. And former creative director Francesco Fucci moved over from The Row in 2017. Since 2022, Jeffrey Kalinsky, who founded the legendary high-fashion retailer Jeffrey, has served as the chief merchant and chief creative officer. Meanwhile, global CEO Dinesh Tandon has held leadership roles at Bally and Versace, and Marco Gentile, named CEO of Theory UK and Europe in August, has roots at Chloé, Burberry and Kering.
According to Ossendrijver, joining Theory was smooth, aided by the fact that he’s been able to stay in his home of Paris, where he has a studio and a small team and works directly with pattern cutters. He travels to New York every 6-8 weeks to work with other departments. Rather than draw, he’s maintained his preferred method of designing, on a mannequin. And he’s continued to take inspiration in what people are wearing on the street.
Adjustments he has made include adapting to larger-scale, slower production; due to manufacturing processes and fabric availability, Theory works a year out, compared to Lanvin’s six-month timeline. In addition, he’s expanded his focus to womenswear. Several of the pieces have versions for him and her, but as “bodies are not the same,” he said he has no plans to make Theory Project a genderless collection.
Theory has long been experimental, particularly by supplementing its core, workwear-focused collection with offshoot collections meant to appeal to a broader shopper base. In 2017, that came in the form of Theory 2.0, created by cross-department Theory workers and intended for younger shoppers. And “Theyskens’ Theory” was temporarily a separate collection before “Theory by Olivier Theyskens” debuted and reportedly proved too forward for Theory customers.
Considering Ossendrijver’s reputation for selling high-end sneakers, accessories spell opportunity for Theory Project. To date, Theory has rounded out its ready-to-wear with extras by third-party brands, including NYC-based Common Projects. For fall, Ossendrijver built on the Theory Project sneaker he debuted for spring with a high-top version, as well as single styles of boots, pumps and loafers.
Otherwise, there’s growth potential in new shopper demos — Ossendrijver said Theory Project’s customers are slightly younger than Theory’s, in their early 30s. And markets including Europe and the UK are Theory targets. North America and Europe currently make up just 12% of Fast Retailing’s business, while Japan alone drives 36% of sales.
In July, Japan-based Fast Retailing reported earnings for the quarter ending on May 31, which showed “considerable increases” in Theory’s revenue and profit, including “particularly good performance” in Asia. Fast Retailing’s global brands segment, which makes up just 5% of the business and also includes Helmut Lang, saw an 18% year-over-year revenue boost. The company does not break out its global brands’ revenue. Fast Retailing showed record profits overall and upped its 2023 forecasts.
“Things have quickly changed over the last few years,” Ossendrijver said. “Nobody wants to look the same as everybody else — men hardly wear suits anymore. So we’re offering solutions instead of trying to dictate something. There’s not one dictate anymore.”