How Today’s Fashion Brands—From Legacy to Challengers—Are Changing Culture

Executives from Universal Standard, Rent the Runway and the former CMO of Gap discuss at Adweek's CMO Moves Summit

Adweek's Stephanie Paterik, Rent the Runway's Gabby Cohen, Universal Standard's Alexandra Waldman and Alegra O'Hare talk all things retail.
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Changing culture is a mighty task—particularly in the world of fashion.

Alexandra Waldman, co-founder and chief creative officer of Universal Standard, Gabby Cohen, head of brand and marketing at Rent the Runway and Alegra O’Hare, the former CMO at Gap, took the stage at Adweek’s CMO Moves East summit this week to discuss the challenges—and upsides—of changing culture while working in fashion, and charting the industry’s future course.

It’s a topic all three are intimately familiar with: Waldman co-founded the world’s most size-inclusive retailer, while Cohen leads branding behind the company that first pioneered the concept of clothing rental. O’Hare spent several years at Adidas before joining the San Francisco-based retailer.

O’Hare said that her experience at legacy brands had shown her that while these brands are open to change—she points to sportswear retailer Adidas embracing fashion as one them, as seen in its recent partnerships with brands like Universal Standard, as well as high-profile figures like Beyoncé—but that change at these storied brands can be more challenging.

“The most challenging thing in general in companies, but specifically fashion, is changing culture, especially for heritage brands with a long history,” O’Hare said.

And creating change doesn’t come from simply slapping a descriptor on your brand to go along with the latest trend, she added. In today’s world, being size-inclusive or environmentally sustainable are qualities that a brand can tout to win customers.

“When a brand transforms itself and becomes successful is when you put sustainability at the forefront. It’s when you put diversity at the forefront,” O’Hare said. “When it hasn’t been successful it’s like, ‘Hey, we’ll do a range of jeans, let’s extend sizes, so we’re size inclusive.'”

For perhaps the first time, brands are actively listening to the consumers who are demanding change.

“A lot of people have been marginalized are coming out and saying, ‘This is not okay anymore, we’re done. We have to change this. It’s got to be part of culture,'” Waldman said.

Waldman also credits the change of culture with a shift in leadership in the industry, from fresher voices coming in to lead legacy brands, and new brands with new perspectives entering the conversation for the first time.

“Many of the people who have been ruling the kingdom are getting older and are exiting or are becoming maybe a little bit less relevant than they used to be,” she said. “And it opens up the opportunities for younger, brighter and less risk averse people leading the fray.”

That also means that the lines between luxury and mass-market are blurred in a way that perhaps they never have been before. Cohen said that platforms like Rent the Runway are allowing consumers to incorporate pieces into their wardrobe that may have been financially unattainable for them in the past.

“Not everyone’s going to wear head to toe Chanel all day long; it’s just not feasible,” Cohen said. “If you want to wear a luxury brand or if you want to wear something that’s a little bit unique, everyone should have access.”

The question remains: With challengers like Rent the Runway and Universal Standard coming in and laying on the pressure, can legacy brands keep up?

“They have to in order to survive,” Waldman said. “It really is as simple as that.”

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.