Any shopper who was conscious during the early aughts—designer denim’s golden era—undoubtedly remembers True Religion. From the signature exaggerated stitching, the horseshoe insignias on the back pockets, and the impossibly low rise waistbands, the brand’s jeans were all the rage with celebrities and the millennial shoppers who worshiped their sartorial sensibilities.
In its short 17-year life span, True Religion managed to claw its way to the top of designer denim’s highest peak. Then, it barely weathered a Great Recession that left the brand bankrupt, its future uncertain.
In picking up the pieces over the ensuing decade, True Religion has had to take a hard look in the mirror at the designs that inspired a generation, and contemplate whether the same styles and strategies can stand the test of time.
In June, the company brought on retail consultant Farla Efros to act as interim CEO. Efros had consulted with the True Religion team for some time before being tapped for the role.
After seasons of uncertainty and a dip into the ever-enticing athleisure pool, True Religion is now placing its focus on rebuilding its heritage denim offering and elevating the brand to its former glory.
In service of that mission, the brand also hired Allen Onyia, founder of lifestyle magazine UpscaleHype, to serve as the brand’s creative director.
Efros believes that the fresh infusion of talent and direction will revive the once-embattled brand. “He’s pushed us to truly look at our current customer base, and to find an understanding of where we want to go from here,” Efros said of Onyia. With his sartorial direction, she hopes True Religion can expand beyond the horseshoe logo and Buddha mascot that once were the brand’s calling cards.
True Religion is also actively working to diversify its offerings to include styles that appeal to a wider range of consumers, from Gen Z shoppers to the now-older millennials who grew up with the brand.
Rather than relying on ostentatious branding, Onyia’s forthcoming 1888 Collection, to be released in 2020, will contain denim staples that transition seamlessly from work to weekend, in silhouettes ranging from classic skinny to wide-leg and boot-cut styles. And, Efros said, modernized high-waist and mid-rise styles will replace the ultra-low hip-hugger.
Efros modeled a pair of dark wash, boot-cut jeans that featured just a shadow of the brand’s signature stitching. “We really run the gamut in terms of choice and level of sophistication,” she said.
Beyond styling, size inclusivity is one of the most important initiatives for the brand as it moves forward into the modern era. Women’s jeans now range from size 24 to 38 in store, and up to size 42 online. Men’s jeans are available up to size 44 in store, and up to size 46 online.
“If you start with the premise that everyone should own a pair of jeans, size shouldn’t factor into that,” Efros said. “And if you look at the models we’re using, they’re actually real people; they come in all shapes and sizes.”
Sustainability is yet another consideration for True Religion, which, like any other modern brand, is confronting denim’s alarming environmental impact.
Efros said that the company has drafted criteria for factory partners in Vietnam, India, Mexico, Guatemala and China, and that ensuring that their practices throughout the supply chain are above board will be a priority throughout 2020.
Measures to promote inclusivity and sustainability are quickly becoming table stakes for brands that want to survive in the modern retail era, and Efros knows that a heritage brand like True Religion is no exception. Appealing to Gen Z, a generation whose purchasing power may rival or eclipse millennials’ over the course of the coming decade, requires a laser focus on social and environmental issues.
“A lot of it is inherent behavior, like brushing your teeth,” Efros said of Gen Z’s unique level of care and consciousness. These are values they’ve been raised with, she asserted, and that makes them different consumers than the fast-fashion-loving millennials who came before them.
For that reason, Efros believes there’s a strong case to be made for a luxury denim brand like True Religion making a comeback—even in the face of what could be another economic downturn. The next generation of consumers takes umbrage at cheap clothing and all of its existential baggage, and they actively avoid brands that place profit margins over people and planet.
While 2008’s recession had an undeniably catastrophic impact on True Religion, driving it to the brink of obscurity, the learnings that came out of that turbulent time have proven invaluable to its rebuilding.
In the midst of the recession, True Religion released lower-priced offerings and attempted to appeal to a wider breadth of consumers who, at the time, didn’t have the disposable income to shell out $200 on a pair of designer jeans.
“Denim was on this rise, and all of the sudden, it just dropped,” she explained. “I remember reading the articles that said, ‘Denim is dead.’”
In response to the mass hysteria, the brand pulled back on its luxury line, pouring its efforts into off-price and mid-range department store collections to keep the brand afloat.
“I think that we, like any company, got scared because it looked like denim was taking a turn. So when that happens, you flood the market—and it ends up hurting your brand,” Efros said. “We diluted the equity of the brand, and consumers got a bit confused.”
As True Religion heads into 2020, Efros said the brand plans on rolling out different monograms: a luxury collection that harkens back to its roots, and an off-price line, which will be sold at discount retailers. The offerings will be different, she said, ensuring that the brand’s designer jeans maintain their integrity in the luxury market.
“You’re going to need to play in the off-price channels, because they offer some visibility, or an entry point, for the younger consumer,” she explained. But the brand’s most groundbreaking innovations and creative designs will take place at the luxury level.
“At the end of the day, with any luxury brand, it’s about a ‘want’ versus a ‘need.’ It’s about creating that desire. We’re not going to be mass-producing these luxury pieces,” she said, speaking to the brand’s strategy to recapture some of the exclusivity that propelled it during its prime.
True Religion is a brand at a crossroads between past and future, seeking to hold on to the elements that captured consumers’ hearts and wallet share while taking the necessary steps to modernize its overall ethos.
“I ask employees not to call this a revolution,” Efros said, explaining that the term conjures up images of unrest, or the overthrowing of old values.
Instead, she asks that they refer to this period in the brand’s history as an “evolution”—fully focused on growth, without discarding past successes.
“You go back to where you started and the core of what you are,” she said. “That’s where you find the right foundation to continue to move forward.”