Hali Borenstein on How She Made It As a Retail CEO

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Hallie Borenstein starts work at Los Angeles-based sustainable-clothing brand improvement in 2014 as director of merchandising. Since then, she climbed the ranks, eventually taking the company’s top job in 2020. Now, the Miami native is focused on expanding Reformation’s bricks-and-mortar retail footprint internationally, including a new Canadian flagship in Toronto’s tony Yorkville neighborhood.

I’ve always been fascinated by how people use apparel to define themselves. I grew up in Miami, and when I was a young teen, I used to take the bus to the mall, where I’d walk up and down the aisles to look at the storefronts. Abercrombie & Fitch And Tommy Hilfiger was really big at the time. I found it very interesting that wearing a shirt from one of these brands was more than just wearing a shirt: It said something about who you are and who you want to be. I had friends who saved their entire allowance to buy a product from one of these brands.

I received a traditional liberal arts education at Duke, graduating in 2007, and then spent four years as a consultant at Bain & Company. It was a great experience, as I learned many of the hard skills of business, such as accounting and navigating profit and loss statements. But I didn’t want to be a consultant for long. I wanted to be a doer in the business world—not someone who handed out recommendations to others.

In 2011, I went to Stanford Business School, where I spent a lot of time thinking deeply about leadership. There was a class called Interpersonal Dynamics, often referred to around campus as “Touchy Feely,” where you sat in a room and experimented with what kind of communication style you could develop to inspire and persuade people. need to. I knew then that I wanted to be a people-centered leader – someone who viewed team members as individuals rather than a collective, and tailored their management style to specific individuals.

Coming out of business school, it took me a while to find my niche. I knew I wanted to work in retail, but when the apparel companies saw my background, they said, “Great, we’ll put you on our strategy group”—exactly what I was not want to do But I had connections at Gymboree, a children’s clothing store, and they offered me the opportunity as a senior merchandiser. I was only there for a year—not only because business was declining, but because the intense focus on cutting costs was not in line with my values. I had that moment where I thought, “Should this t-shirt only cost $2 to make? How do we value the labor behind this product?”

Yael Afalo, the founder of Reformation, found me on LinkedIn. We started talking, and in 2014, I decided to take the leap and become director of merchandising. I liked their focus on sustainability. From there, I transitioned to VP of Merchandising and then to President—and in 2020, after leaving Yale, I became CEO [in response to accusations of racism],

It was a difficult time stepping into that role, but it forced me to quickly redefine my approach as a leader. Unlike my earlier roles, I had no one senior to me to take my decisions. One of the first things I did was conduct a company-wide inquiry about our values. Over the course of a few months, we asked everyone from the corporate team to those working at our stores: What values ​​need to be updated in the reformation? Diversity & Inclusion With our current focus on sustainability, that clearly needs to be at the forefront. Environmental and climate justice cannot be separated from racial justice. We ran expert-led inclusivity workshops for all employees, attended black in fashion council Developed our marketing and imagery to help promote and advance the careers of Black individuals in the fashion industry, and to ensure that we better represent everyone in the reformed community. We’ve been working hard to build our people team, and it’s the strongest it’s ever been—in the last nine months alone, we’ve doubled its size. We still have a lot of work to do, but I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made in the two years since I became CEO.

International expansion has been a big focus for me as well. At one point this year, more than a quarter of our business came from outside the US, a result of our intentional focus on Europe and Canada. We’re not taking our foot off the gas there – and that’s why we opened a Toronto flagship in Yorkville in December.

Reformation opened a flagship store in Toronto’s Yorkville shopping area in December (Photo: Michael Muraz)

We want to give people a reason to shop in-store instead of just online, so we’re building our store infrastructure to support a high-tech retail experience. For example, customers can choose which pieces they would like to try on using iPads found around the store and in dressing rooms.

I’m incredibly inspired by our mission to bring sustainable fashion to everyone. I became a mother during the Reformation, which gave me a sense of responsibility towards the environment and our impact on it. It is a wrong choice to say that you can either do the right thing or make money. Businesses fundamentally need to thrive and generate capital, but this does not conflict with our mission. Showing you can do both is what really inspires me.

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