makeup by Bobby Bujisic using La Prairie Skin Caviar for Judy Casey Inc.
Tucked into a dimly lit table at Sant Ambroeus in the West Village, Theory designer Lisa Kulson is enjoying a quiet moment of reflection. Petite with strong shoulders, long blond hair and little to no makeup, she exudes a bohemian energy that gives away her years living in California. But her sleek, minimalist uniform of a black turtleneck and slim black pants screams no-nonsense New Yorker.
Quiet has long been Kulson’s default. “I have not intentionally kept out of the spotlight,” she says. But “on a personal level, I tend to be a private person, and I do not believe in sharing on social media. I am not on Facebook and I have a private Instagram account.”
So she’s been the mostly silent force who launched powerhouse brand Theory in 1997 alongside Andrew Rosen and Elie Tahari, yet remains little known even among her peers. Never trumpeting her own success, Kulson left Theory after five years to embark on a journey of personal discovery.
Fifteen years later, in another moment of reflection, she decided it was time to return to where she began. But, this time, she is ready to shed her shroud of anonymity and silence. Strengthened by a dramatic, if somewhat mysterious, journey, Lisa Kulson is stepping out of the shadows.
“I’m peripatetic by nature,” Kulson muses. “I’m very adaptable.” Her family bounced around the state of Michigan throughout her childhood, making her unusually comfortable with impermanence and change. Between the ages of 14 and 18 she passed through three elite boarding schools. She then started a business degree at Southern Methodist University in Texas, but left before completing it to attend fashion school in Los Angeles, again leaving without a degree to work full-time for her mentor, California Girl designer Petrina Aberle.
“The school told me I couldn’t drape so well so they thought I should switch to merchandising,” Kulson recalls. “But I wanted to be a designer. Petrina said, ‘You don’t need that school. I can teach you more.’ So I have some amazing education but no degrees.”
During that period Kulson met her ex-husband, whom she married at 23. later moving to New York with him. She joined a private label company, where she rose quickly from assistant designer to design director. Meanwhile her marriage faltered and ended.
In 1997, Kulson was separated and frustrated with her career, when she was introduced to Andrew Rosen, a son of the garment center legend who made Calvin Klein jeans. The young Rosen was preparing to launch Theory in partnership with Elie Tahari. At that time Theory was no more than the then revolutionary idea to take materials containing lycra out of sportswear and into the professional wardrobes of women. Rosen and Tahari were on the hunt for a designer to bring the vision to life, and Kulson nabbed the role.
Rosen believed that well-made, comfortable wardrobe essentials would fly off the shelves without a drop of advertising. He was right. “We went from zero to 100 in no time. It was a huge, phenomenal success,” Kulson says.
Despite that, Kulson became restless. The business was wholesale only and she yearned to grow it into a lifestyle business complete with boutiques and extensions into accessories, a path Rosen wasn’t ready to embrace.
In addition to being professionally frustrated, she was burning out personally. Maternal by nature, Kulson had dreams of being married and well on her way to having five children but was instead divorced and working around the clock.
It’s difficult to imagine many people walking away from Kulson’s level of success but, in 2002, that’s exactly what she did.
“I felt so grateful for that opportunity,” Kulson says. “[Andrew, Elie and I] shared a vision and I knew I could make it work. I rolled up my sleeves and I did it. I worked really hard and I loved every second of it. But I also made sacrifices—I didn’t feel it at the time, but I did.”
So she left in search of fulfillment, even though it meant leaving behind the business she’d helped build, too.
Kulson moved to Italy and launched an eponymous fashion label, which she shuttered in 2007 as the world lurched into a recession. But she also found love. She met a Hungarian man with whom she had her daughter, Louise Juliette, aka Loulou, now 9. They moved to California, and she settled into domestic bliss as a stay-at-home mother before the relationship fell apart in dramatic fashion.
“It’s tumultuous to have someone in your life who is your child’s father, and he’s very present, and you have a happy life, and then things change. That’s all I’ll really say,” Kulson allows, alluding to the deeply distressing series of events that left her a single mother. “I went through something difficult, but it could have been so much worse. During that time the Japanese tsunami happened. How could I sit and feel sorry for myself about my life when I’m healthy, have a family, have an amazing little girl and I’m reading about this horrific thing happening in a place where I have close friends. I just put it in perspective.”
In 2012, Kulson came back to New York to shed the darkness and negativity she had found herself entrenched in.
“I like new beginnings. I like change. I like energy. I needed the energy. I needed some distractions. The energy of New York again, it felt like everything was really positive,” says Kulson, who also needed to return to work.
She accepted a part-time job from Andrew Rosen consulting and designing Theory Luxe, a higher-end line exclusive to Japan, as she transitioned from life as a stay-at-home mother back into fast-paced New York fashion.
Finally ready for a full-time role again in 2014, Kulson was on the verge of accepting a job in California when Rosen swooped in and offered her the role of creative director at Theory.
Kulson returned to her role leading Theory a different person in many ways.
“Owning a business and becoming a mother are two of the biggest things that make me who I am today,” Kulson says. Both were experiences that involved success and failure, joy and sorrow. And in those ups and downs she found a strength and clarity of direction that she applies to her work. “Having your own business, you don’t have time to make mistakes. You need to get things done. You need the right people in the right places. Being a mother, I don’t waste my time. I can get done in eight hours what the old me got done in ten. Distractions, they don’t happen.”
Kulson wasn’t alone; Theory had changed as well. Since she’d left, the fashion industry had experienced a seismic shift. Fast fashion emerged, making retail more competitive, online shopping matured, and the lifestyle-focused vertical integration that Kulson championed 15 years prior became the norm for contemporary brands—Theory included. But as the brand sought its place in the new order, its identity became muddled. Theory hired avant-garde, high-fashion designer Olivier Theyskens as artistic director in 2009; many thought him an odd fit for the brand.
Now, Kulson is bringing discipline and focus to Theory as she has to her own life.
“Business was good; it wasn’t great,” she says. “Theory was having an identity crisis. It needed to go back to its roots—essential pieces.”
Kulson’s Theory is an expression of how women, including the working women it is known for dressing, want to look and feel in their clothes. From cut to fabric to color to just the right touch of trendiness, Kulson makes clothes that make sense in a modern wardrobe, clothes in which women like herself can simply live their lives.
Despite two awesome responsibilities—raising a daughter as a single mother and leading Theory into the future—Kulson exudes a striking serenity.
“The resiliency of going through trying times and adverse situations we have in our lives, they just make you forget about the superfluous things that are creating undue stress,” Kulson says reflectively. “I don’t take anything for granted. I don’t take a day for granted.”