Nov 7, 2019
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True Religion and the anatomy of a brand comeback

Nov 7, 2019

Rocked by the growth of athleisure, few jeans brands have been able to stem the tide of shoppers swapping their classic denim for yoga pants.

True Religion interim CEO Farla Efros and True Religion Creative Director Allen Onyia. - True Religion

Californian brand True Religion is no exception: while its famously embellished offering with signature heavy stitching, horseshoe symbols and buddha logos may have been the ‘it’-jeans of the early 2000s, increasing casualization and a challenging brick-and-mortar retail environment eventually took their toll. The brand filed for – and emerged from – bankruptcy in 2017, while the pace of executive turnover accelerated, leaving it without a permanent CEO in 2019.

However, True Religion, owned by private equity firm TowerBrook Capital Partners since 2013, has shown a remarkable resilience. Currently led by interim CEO and HRC Retail Advisory president Farla Efros, it is now gunning to reclaim its place as an industry frontrunner. Its turnaround is already well underway, having tapped online magazine UpscaleHype founder Allen Onyia as creative director; supermodel Bella Hadid as the face of the brand from 2018, and has debuted a collaboration with UK football team Manchester United as it seeks to modernize its offering and reposition the brand image.

Meeting in the heart of New York City, FashionNetwork.com sat down with the key newcomers leading the transformation, Efros and Onyia, to discuss True Religion’s identity, its future, and the anatomy of a brand encore.

FNW: What are your thoughts on True Religion's strengths based on your experience working with the brand as president of HRC Retail Advisory, and now as interim CEO?

Farla Efros:
When I came into the company in January as a consulting firm, we were hired by the board to identify what we thought some of the opportunities were, and they were endless. But I think that the best part was not only the endless opportunities, but was truly understanding that there is such an affinity for this brand that still exists. Back when this brand was created, there was a lot of white space, and the brand kind of launched and created itself. Then you have all the other brands that came out around the same time. If you look back in history, a lot of those other brands no longer exist, and this one still does. That says a lot for the brand and the legs that it has, and the importance and relevance that it carries with the consumer base.

This brand has a lot of incredibly unique qualities that, frankly, we just weren’t taking credit for--We’ve been doing extended sizes forever, we’ve been doing inclusivity and sustainability forever. [Our strategy] is, let’s continue to focus and be really good at what we’ve always been good at, but let’s tell people, because we should be. And then let’s start to step it up and add those creative elements to infuse the brand, and build credibility with consumers. That’s the fundamental journey we’ve all been on since I took over the role as CEO in June timing. From June to now, we’ve put together a mission, a vision, values, a strategic plan, a marketing plan, a design plan, a merchandising plan, a wholesale plan. It sounds so basic, but a lot of the fundamentals weren’t there.

FNW: How are you bringing attention to the fact that True Religion has been involved with things like sustainability and inclusive sizing?

We’re actually speaking about it, which again, we didn’t before. Very straightforward. You’re going to see, if you look at our Instagram account today versus, say, eight months ago, it4s significantly different.

FNW: Farla, you’re continuing to work as president of HRC while serving as interim CEO. How is that influencing your strategy?

I’ve been consulting for retail for over twenty years. I’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly; I’ve seen it all. I think I’m leveraging those experiences into the job that I’m doing at True Religion, to make sure we’re very nimble, very agile. I think it allows me to work with and lead the team, and make sure we’re delivering the commitments that we’ve made.

To be clear, everyone gets stuck on the word 'interim’; I’m not treating this like an ‘interim.’ I’m there all the time, I’m heavily involved. I don’t have one foot in the door and one foot out. If it was truly ‘interim’ in that sense, I don’t think we would have spent all this time building on our foundation.

Balancing streetwear and luxury

FNW: What are you keeping from True Religion’s heritage, and what’s new?

Allen Onyia:
Obviously, True Religion is rooted in denim, and we have a core customer that loves the brand and we love them. It’s very important for us to let them know that we’re preserving our core. To expand that, we’re taking a more lifestyle approach. With me on board, we’re figuring out how to bring in the streetwear element and balance it with a little bit of luxury. We’re just elevating our core.

I’ve been working on a capsule collection, True Religion 1888; the 1888 is a nod to the address of our headquarters. 1888 allows us to stretch and reach a different consumer. It’s a men’s and women’s capsule collection, and it’s really an extension of where the brand is now and where we’re headed in the future.

FNW: When you say, ‘where the brand is trying to go,’ can you expand on that?

We recognize that denim is always going to reign supreme. It’s a staple in everyone’s closet. We also recognize as a brand that people are also looking for some sportswear pieces, some lifestyle pieces, to mix in and pair with their denim. Even though we’ve done that as a brand, we just haven’t been voicing it. With me, we’re going to be pushing that way more. 1888 is taking on a more lifestyle and streetwear approach.

FNW: What about True Religion did you enjoy celebrating the most [in the upcoming Spring/Summer 2020 collection, Onyia’s debut collection for the brand]?

Our first collection, Spring 2020, is themed around a festival, which I feel is a perfect microcosm: it’s a celebration of life, inclusivity, of great music, of love. Tying it back into the heritage, that’s what the origin of True Religion was about.

Spring ‘20 is a celebration of [the past] and where we want to go. Imagine going to a festival: you’re there to remember the good times, hang out with old friends, but you’re also there to experience newness, whether that’s the music or meeting new people. I think that for Spring ‘20 that’s the idea, to touch on our heritage but also bring newness to the product.

FNW: The brand has recently worked with Bella Hadid. Does True Religion have any future plans to build on its celebrity or influencer partnerships that you can share?  

FE: We’re currently looking into that to see who we want to represent our brand.

As a brand, it’s very important who you align yourself with. We’re going to be very selective on who we decide to partner with. All of that speaks volumes as to where we are now and where we’re trying to go. We want our voice and our messaging to be consistent.

FNW: Are there any future collaborations or partnerships you can speak about?

FE: The answer is, yes. On top of our core product, we have plans to do surprise drops; collaborations or different capsules; just to continue our momentum and stimulate buzz, interest and curiosity for the brand. That’s a very intentional strategy on our end.

FNW: So maybe in categories that are a little unexpected?

FE: Yes.

FNW: What is True Religion’s current customer base?

Our core is between 25 and 45. I would say that it’s more male-influenced than female, so that’s a real opportunity for us too. What we’re putting in place, even as we get into holiday, is very much taking that core consumer and stretching it. There was a time when True Religion had a very strong association with women’s. We see today that there’s such an opportunity…the question is, how do we better attract that consumer, and how do we make a more sophisticated palette for her?

FNW: What price point or points does True Religion plan to target moving forward?

From our core standpoint, we’re still going to be in the price point we are today, which is more of a mid-range. But with the capsules that we’re going to be launching with 1888, that’s going to take us up to a different notch. We don’t want to take it too far in the stratosphere, because we don’t want to alienate our current consumer. It will be priced at a premium, but it will be attainable.

FNW: How does True Religion stand out from competitors in the U.S. denim market, like a Levi's, an American Eagle, a Madewell?

I think it comes down to our fabrication and quality. How we make the product, the reliability of our product, the sustainability of our product and the wear of our product is very telling. It’s not a denim that you wear and then toss, it’s really denim that you can have in your closet for years to come. It’s those iconic pieces that are just timeless, that’s the way I would describe the brand.

AO: I would say what makes us different is that we’re revolutionary. We started a lot of things that other brands are following. We want to continue to be revolutionary on the denim side.

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