Ian Rosen: Made To Measure
As the new president and COO of famed menswear retailer Harry Rosen, Ian Rosen will be respecting his family’s legacy, while driving the company in bold new directions.
There is a scene in 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night which seemed appropriate for the times and seems to be repeating itself almost 60 years later. In it, George Harrison inadvertently wanders into a marketing research agency in the middle of swinging London and is immediately grilled by its market research analysts looking for the next big trend in fashion, style and clothing. After several minutes of being on the receiving end of the famously unsheathed Beatle wit, the analysts wonder aloud that George may be “an early clue to the new direction.”
Meet Ian Rosen, the new president and chief operating officer of the classic men’s clothier Harry Rosen. As retailing attempts to move forward from the devastation of the pandemic, Ian’s innovative thinking and approaches in the world of men’s clothing and retailing may make him that same “early clue to the new direction.”
“When I started to speak with my father about joining Harry Rosen, I said two things,” says Ian in a recent interview with Dolce. “Are you willing to push things really forward, as in, ‘Can we take what’s great about this brand and modernize it, evolve it and make it resonate with my generation?’ And the answer was ‘Yes.’ The second question was, ‘Are you willing to take digital seriously, because that’s where the world is going to live, and we’re going to have to push really hard to make sure we’re not just a B student, but an A+ student,’ and my dad was enthusiastic.”
Ian’s dad is Larry Rosen, chairman and chief executive officer of Harry Rosen Inc., son of the legendary men’s retailer Harry Rosen. In 1954, Harry, after working in a clothing factory and in a quality menswear store, together with his brother, Lou, opened a small made-to-measure store in the Cabaggetown area of downtown Toronto with a $500 down payment. The success of the store allowed them to move to a larger store in the heart of Toronto’s financial district in 1961, and the store soon became a destination for customers across Toronto, Canada and the United States.
National growth began in 1981 with the first Harry Rosen store in Edmonton and, during that decade, Harry began signing exclusive deals with top designers in Europe and the United States to sell their menswear in Canada. The landmark 32,000-square-foot, three-level Harry Rosen store on the exclusive Bloor Street in Toronto opened in 1987 and, today, is perhaps the most well-known menswear store in the country. Today, Harry Rosen Inc. is a retail chain with 17 luxury clothing stores across Canada, and the Rosen name is emblematic in menswear. It has become synonymous with high-quality fashion, expert tailoring and excellence in customer service.
Ian saw all this growing up, long before the notion of ever joining the company that bears his grandfather’s name crossed his mind. “People ask me if I always wanted to do this, and I say this was the thing I was trying not to get into,” he recalls. “I was always Harry Rosen’s grandson, something I was proud of, and it was exciting to watch the business he and my father were building. But it got me thinking, What does charting your own path look like?”
Ian’s path led him from business school to the world of management consulting, where he dealt in financial services, natural energy and even worked on many mining projects, but something intangible remained missing.
“I thought, These are very interesting projects, but the gamble isn’t there, the customer isn’t there,” says Ian of this key time in his career. “There is something exciting about building something and then seeing what the customers do. The first time I got involved in any type of consumer-based business, my brain kind of lit up, as it was so exciting.”
Success in business requires the abilities to observe, to listen, to communicate and to keep an open mind, as you never know where the next great idea will come from. Ian Rosen possesses all these attributes, plus the understanding that generations can learn from one another.
“There is something exciting about building something and then seeing what the customers do”
“The working relationship I’ve developed with my father, and even the relationship with my grandfather in his advisory role, over the years has become very comfortable because there is so much to learn from them,” says Ian. “But they also recognize we’re in a whole new era, and that I have a lot to offer, so we all come into those conversations with a ton of respect.”
In his continuing studies of learning about customer behaviours and retailing, Ian had the considerable fortune of learning at the feet of the great master, his grandfather. But he also had some tips of his own to share with the older generation. “Pre-pandemic, I would always take Harry out to a store and pick his brain on what he’s seeing,” recalls Ian. “Because he’s kind of the master of the visual: ‘Is this right? Are we telling the right stories? Do we look like we’re in the business of X or Y?’ He’d teach me a little about what he was seeing, then I’d take him to Starbucks and teach him how to mobile order. It’s good to see the world through different eyes.”
Transforming legacy businesses may seem challenging, but it is not without its success stories. An example may be The New York Times, which used to land with a thud outside doors every morning, but today it is one of the most popular and streamed digital media services in the world. Why restrict yourself to delivering your paper simply around the block when the entire world is your newspaper route?
Legacy retailers like Harry Rosen Inc. are facing the same challenges. In an industry which used to rely solely on in-store foot traffic, the new direction being brought by Ian Rosen is driven by new thinking and new visions.
“Having a vision and bringing people along are paramount because, so much as it’s a business, it’s also a journey,” says Ian. “We really want to push the envelope on what retail should and ought to feel like, and that is what our team is rallying around, that vision. When we got into e-commerce in a serious way, we didn’t pretend we were logistics experts, so we brought in a senior person who used to work at Walmart, and we defer to him. A key lesson in shaping the future is getting out of a comfort zone and empowering employees to drive the change.”
Retailing is at an inflection point. The growth of digital and online shopping, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered many stores temporarily, caused Harry Rosen Inc. to pivot to online retailing, with some remarkably impressive results. Currently, online sales generate 25 per cent of Rosen’s total store volume, with company projections showing that total could rise to 40 per cent by 2025. From his previous position as Harry Rosen’s executive vice-president for digital and strategy, clearly Ian has been transforming the world of online into becoming the company’s largest storefront.
While online is a key component of its success, it’s equally important the Harry Rosen face is prominent in supporting causes that are important in the communities where it operates. The company supports cancer research and causes which support marginalized parts of communities, including the Black Business and Professional Association, and assist in ensuring clean drinking water initiatives in Indigenous communities. It’s reflective of the company culture that lives within the organization.
“We’re very customer-centric and precise — we call it ‘measure twice and cut once,’” says Ian. “We dress leaders, so we behave like leaders. And we’re a welcoming and inclusive company, as diversity and equality are very important, and we want our company to be representative of the entire fabric of Canada.”
Ian Rosen likes to say, “It may be my father’s suit store, but it’s not your father’s suit store anymore.” As evidence, the company will be launching a line of golf-styled clothing this year, along with a Harold Brand this spring, which allows for customization and personalized fashion and style to celebrate individual tastes. Harry Rosen will also be introducing lines of casual-wear, activewear, yoga wear, sleepwear and loungewear products.
New product offerings will be enhanced by the famous Harry Rosen customer service. “We want to be incredibly focused on delivering to the new customer expectations,” says Ian about goals moving forward. “We need to integrate digital tools into that experience and launching things like same-day shipping. Nobody has any patience anymore and will not wait in a store for 15 minutes while you look up their past order, so we are redefining what great service looks like, as well as giving customers more choices in online ordering.”
Clothiers need a critical eye, a fine eye — an eye for quality, craftsmanship, tailoring and style. And because they’re in retailing, what will sell, given current and future trends, the secret is to be ahead of the curve. For Ian Rosen, this new direction will be taking one of the world’s great clothiers to even higher levels, which should be a fascinating journey to watch.
Interview by Estelle Zentil