Alegra O’Hare and Alexandra Waldman on Culture, Controversy and Viability in Fashion

Brandweek's One to One: a candid conversation between the Gap and Adidas veteran, and the co-founder of Universal Standard

Alexandra Waldman and Alegra O'Hare
Alexandra Waldman, the visionary co-founder of Universal Standard, and Alegra O'Hare, who helped build Adidas for 12 years and just left the Gap, interviewed each other in New York's SoHo neighborhood.
Photo by Cheril Sanchez for Adweek; Mural by Jochen Schliessler

We hear it all the time now: The tectonic plates of culture are shifting, changing the way all brands do business. And it’s hard to single out an industry more affected than fashion.

Whether it’s demanding size inclusivity and gender-neutral clothing or calling for slow fashion and sustainable packaging, shoppers are letting retailers, designers and magazines know they want the future of fashion to be more responsible and inclusive. Will legacy brands navigate the change and stay relevant? Can startup brands with big ideas break through? Which would you rather be?

We recruited two pros to ask each other the hard questions about this moment in fashion. Alegra O’Hare, who helped build Adidas for 12 years and just left the Gap after a year with the 50-year-old retailer, and Alexandra Waldman, the visionary co-founder of Universal Standard, the world’s most size-inclusive brand (with sizes 00-40), interviewed each other in New York’s SoHo neighborhood the day before Valentine’s Day. The result? A captivating conversation—with moments of tough love—about the heart of fashion.

Alegra O’Hare: I’m going to ask you a question relative to the past, one relative to the present and then one for the future.

Alexandra Waldman: Oh, very interesting.

O’Hare: What is your biggest regret of the past?

Waldman: It’s surprising to me how quickly the answer came to my mind. I wish there had been that confluence of necessary ingredients—human, financial and otherwise—that would have allowed us to start [Universal Standard] three years earlier. It would have allowed for enough time to really learn at less than the break-neck speed that we had to do. What about you?

Cheril Sanchez

O’Hare: I wish earlier in my career I’d have accepted positions abroad—like across the globe and not a country next door. Earlier in my career I had that opportunity, and I think a mix of fear and insecurity [stopped me]. It would have really broadened my cultural knowledge, not just my professional knowledge.

Waldman: Legacy is a bit of an albatross around the neck of big, established brands. And because of the amount of people who are contributing to any decision, and where they are in their lives compared to the cultural movements that are affecting the brand, it can be difficult to expect meaningful change. You’ve been at the helm of some of the most iconic global brands. What do you think needs to happen within big legacy brands in order to turn things around and make their contribution relevant?

O’Hare: The longer the legacy of a company, in my experience, the harder it is to turn the ship because it’s a mix of doing things the traditional way and staying in the comfort zone. It’s also about employees, because in large companies people have been there a long time, and it’s human nature to get used to ways of working. I think [the answer] is shifting the attention on the consumer. And the other one is data, to really help you form your decisions and bring the rest of the organization on board. Also, watch the competition, but don’t benchmark them. A recipe for disaster is when you’ve got emails saying, “Look what they’re doing.”

So I’m going from past to present: What is a saying that you’re known for repeating?

Waldman: “Bite off more than you can chew—and chew it.” I also personally believe that it’s much easier to be right than it is to be kind. There is this tendency for people to throw facts out without taking into consideration the effects. I think there are ways to collaborate with people that are more emotionally productive.

This story first appeared in the March 2, 2020, issue of Brandweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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