The Evolution of Theory | James Mills

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James Mills has recently taken up the new position of Senior Vice President of Store Experience at Theory and Helmut Lang.  

Along James’ road to success, his impressive talents landed him at the door of some of the most well-known retailers – from Urban Outfitters and GAP to JCrew and Club Monaco, just to name a few.

For the past five months, James has been immersed in Theory’s VM team, with the sole objective to move the natural evolution of the brand forward. Changing, molding, and layering, he has stripped back the VM and Store Design department to its roots and is now taking the necessary steps forward to kick start a new design era.

Walking into James’ office, you are hit with a minimalist and elegant décor, not to be overdone by the wall of inspiration directly across from his desk. The wall is chock full of inspirational photos, positioned above a table with fashion, art, architecture and design books. All of these elements point to a man who is motivated and excited to delve into a new creative project. And for James, Theory is just that.

“To me, this is the perfect creative challenge, [Theory] is a great brand – it has a solid reputation, the clothes are good and they are only getting better – the Spring collection is absolutely amazing.”

James Mills

But one does not come all this way without a history packed with experience and opportunity. James comes from a fashion and art background, originally going to school for childrenswear design.

“I really wanted to do childrenswear design and after two internships in New York, I decided it was not the path for me. It’s hard for me to think of things in 2D, I think of everything in volume so that’s why I went into sculpture. It was kind of a natural progression. But my thesis in sculpture was really based on display. I was casting these bronze pieces but I was spending more time on the actual display and how they would be displayed throughout the space.”

This in turn sparked the idea for James to submit his portfolio to Sue Otto at Urban Outfitters, and they were impressed. James would then become the display manager at the 59th street location, rising through the ranks to eventually become display director for the company.

From there, James went on to Club Monaco (before RL bought them), moving to different brands over the next few years and immersing himself in creative design and display, while perfecting the process and detail oriented elements of visual projects.

After Club Monaco, James went to JCrew for four years before he got the call to head to Club Monaco as SVP of Global Store Experience. “When I came on in the first couple of years, it was a real struggle because the company was changing so much. Caroline Belhumeur and I were starting at the same time so it was this big transition. But it’s the type of thing that only happens every so often- where everyone has the same ideas and then it takes off. Everything just started happening and melding to the point where I felt I needed to see this out and finish it.”

“After eight years, I felt I had finished what I came to do, I had built a great team at Club Monaco– there is now a global team set up, there’s a process set up, and there is definitely a strong creative vision- you know when you’re in a Club Monaco store. And I just wanted to do something different. I needed a change at that point and even though it was difficult to leave because my team, Caroline and John Mehas (CEO) are like family, I wanted and needed a new creative challenge.”

Theory is known for its modern aesthetic – I don’t want to change that.

When asked about his creative intentions towards Theory, James stated that he isn’t trying to rebrand Theory or completely change the aesthetics, considering it an evolution, not a revolution.

James states, “I feel at Theory there are really good bones that I want to layer more onto. Theory is known for its modern aesthetic – I don’t want to change that. I actually find it very interesting. I think what I want to do here is soften that aesthetic. You will see at the Gansevoort Flagship store- it is a bit of an experiment. This is where we are starting to layer elements onto the core aesthetic. I believe that there are different levels of modernism and I definitely want to push the store design and the visual merchandising, as well as the experience. I have been with Theory for five months and my initial goals for both brands [Theory and Helmut Lang] were to organize the structure – setting up a team and delegating clear responsibilities. When you are in an international company, you need to establish point people so that when Japan calls and says we have a special window that we want to do, who is that go-to person, what’s the approval process, what are the dates, you know it’s being done. I have really spent the first couple months running two different, parallel roads – one, trying to figure out the direction of the brand and two, re-structuring the team.”

See below for a Q&A with James, delving into the future of Theory and creative process behind Theory’s store design.

James’ Office | Theory

THE STORE EXPERIENCE: what can make or break a store environment and customer experience?

JAMES MILLS: The first thing for me is the people working in the stores. If someone looks sloppy or they clearly do not want to be there, it is the first thing I take note of. The staff can truly make or break a store. Retail is all about service now. 

THE AESTHETIC: How much of the same aesthetic is seen throughout the Theory stores?

JAMES MILLS: Coming to Theory, I wanted to do something more modern. I don’t want there to be a strict décor for Theory, instead I want to regionalize the décor of each location. We just did a store in Miami in the Design District where the furniture is all vintage, mid-century, and the store is white and bright. It looks like it belongs in Miami. There is also artwork that is being layered on. The artist in the Miami store is LA based, Christopher Cannulo.

I think it’s more interesting to have a mix of items because it’s how people live now. People don’t go and buy all vintage pieces, they go to Room & Board and buy a coffee table and vintage accents and you mix it.

I always start with design.

So is this the same creative direction the fashion side of Theory is taking as well?

JAMES MILLS: Lisa Kulson is designing Theory’s womenswear line – she was the original designer so I think the upcoming collection for Spring is a moment where Theory returns to its DNA. It is very modern and very wearable, I was impressed– it’s so beautiful, it has some great basic pieces, some show stoppers, and high quality fabrications.


How much does the fashion and clothes affect the VM?

JAMES MILLS: I always start with design. My first stop is always the designers and if they tell me it’s all about ‘California modern’ then that’s it. That’s my job – it’s to take that vision of the designer and in some way make it become the store.

James’ Office | Theory

THE ECOMMERCE: As the Senior VP of Global Store Experience, do you feel that there has been a pressure on you to combat the rising growth of e-commerce? Have you felt the effects of this in the in-store environment?

JAMES MILLS: In regards to e-commerce, everyone kept saying, ‘aren’t you worried about your job? And my response is ‘oh no, my job just became MORE relevant because of e-commerce.’ Now, every time you go into a store, it’s theatre. The days of throwing clothes on a rack are over. You have to have an environment. It has to smell good, it has to look good, you have to like the music, you have to like the staff, you have to like how they are dressed, you have to like the mannequins, and you have to like the fixtures. It is like being on stage every day. So you have to figure out who you are. And the great thing about Theory is we know who we are. So now we have to expand, add on, layer some texture and refine ourselves.


THE LEGACY: Being an expert in creating spatial experiences how does this transition into your personal design aesthetic?

JAMES MILLS: It’s a mix. It’s funny because I am getting ready to buy a place in Connecticut and I was telling my partner, that Connecticut will  be a little more modern and the NYC apartment will be more cozy. My furniture is a mix between contemporary and traditional, but the artwork is contemporary. We are both involved in art. We have been collecting art for the past 14 years. I find myself changing a lot – right now, I am getting ready to paint my kitchen black. My cabinets are going to be lacquer hi-gloss black with Carrera marble countertops.


What’s one of the best parts about coming to Theory?

JAMES MILLS: It’s very exciting for me because I get to do this all over again. I get to mentor an entire group of people. If there’s anything that I left behind as a legacy at Club Monaco, that I would like to do here, is build a remarkable team.