Last we checked in on Theory in 2015, the once-bustling contemporary label had just announced its plans for a head-to-toe relaunch, complete with an updated logo and a fresh website. It's been more than two years since then, and yet, the 20-year-old retailer hasn't regained the level of relevance it enjoyed in the four years leading up to 2014 when Olivier Theyskens held the role of artistic director. All this is to say that, yes, Theory is doing all the right things, but it's still due for some buzz. It's a good thing that may already be on its way.
On Tuesday, the New York-based brand unveiled its Theory 2.0 project, a new initiative that was created to empower the next generation of creative leadership. With a collaborative startup mentality, 2.0 seeks to embrace the innovative spirit that first put Theory on the map upon its founding two decades ago. The company was, after all, the first in the marketplace to work exclusively with fabrics made from Lycra, launching with just one pair of pants in 1997. This is the mentality upon which 2.0 is based.
"The 2.0 concept originated as a way for individuals within the company to execute projects that are meaningful to them, surrounding their vision of Theory, and concepts and innovations that will really drive the company forward," Senior Merchandiser Jacqueline Holden tells me in a phone call.
Holden explains that the 2.0 initiative began when eight young Theory staffers throughout the company — in departments ranging from wholesale and retail to IT and e-commerce — realized they shared a concrete understanding of what a working woman's wardrobe could look like, and together, they could make it a reality.
"It's something we all felt very strongly about," she says. "We had such a clear vision of who this Theory customer is that we wanted to created a capsule for. It was so interesting to be able to work on it together as a collaboration and be mentored by other people within our company."
Theory 2.0 launches with a capsule collection that's meticulously curated for the professional woman, with bonus points if she wants to rebuild her closet. The pieces are, above all, meant to be versatile so to carry consumers "effortlessly and elegantly" through their different activities throughout the day. Holden argues that with 2.0, you don't have to think too heavily about putting your outfit together.
"We wanted to sit down as a collective and decide, if you were to start fresh with a wardrobe, what are the pieces that are going to go into it? What are the characteristics of those clothes? How is this woman wearing them? How is she styling them? We really took our time deciding what those pieces are," says Holden.
Once the capsule's product line was finalized, the 2.0 team acted as entrepreneurs within the larger company to spearhead everything from developing a marketing strategy to building a microsite, now live at Theory.com/2.0. But what Holden says most differentiates the 2.0 project from your as-seen-on-"Silicon Valley" grassroots startup is the mentorship that was provided from within the company.
"Our management team definitely championed us and empowered us the entire time and gave us extremely critical feedback," recalls Holden. "It was just such an incredible learning experience and it still continues to be."
Even so, it's far from a hospitable time for retail; as department stores flounder, brands of all sizes and reaches — as mainstream as Victoria's Secret and high-end as Burberry — are working overtime to cut their losses. In many cases, this includes catering (or at times, pandering) to millennials and Generation Z. Is this the customer base for whom 2.0 was developed?
"Honestly, this capsule is really designed for a modern working woman," says Holden. "I don't think it's meant to be exclusively for one generation or one person."
Though not created for the express purpose of alluring millennials, 2.0 certainly has layers that appease those younger shoppers now so in-demand across retail. Sustainability, for one, is an element that is baked into every facet of the project; conveniently, it's a top shopping priority for millennials, who are willing to pay more for eco-conscious goods.
"2.0 as a concept is more of an overarching initiative meant to empower groups of people within the company to realize these initiatives that are so important and that they're so passionate about," says Holden. "Sustainability is one of those pillars."
The 2.0 capsule incorporates both vegan suede and leather, while its hang tags are made from recycled materials. "We used some new fabrics that we're really interested in," says Holden. "We're really interested in vegan leather and vegan suede, which we've incorporated in our modern moto. We also have leggings in our vegan leather that are very cool." Other fabrics include crepe, as used for the boyfriend blazer and a trouser, both of which can be worn as a suit or as separates. And as workplaces continue to get more and more casual, denim, too, was an emphasis.
Like any true startup project today, Theory 2.0 launches first with a direct-to-consumer model. Initially, the capsule will only be available in six of Theory's 480-odd retail stores.
"We really wanted to have a very digital approach to this capsule collection and reach our customer from a digital standpoint, which is why the microsite is our biggest platform in which we hope to reach our Theory woman," says Holden. "We're going to be very hands-on. We'll even be in the stores selling the product."
As we wrap up our chat, Holden emphasizes that 2.0 is much more than this initial capsule. The initiative has long-term aspirations, which, looking ahead, include new drops of product every three months; the pieces launching on Tuesday are just the beginning.
"It's such a modern way of working here at Theory," says Holden. "In the future, we want to look at what those essential pieces are at different times of the year and how else we can service her."