Clothes Made This Man, and Vice Versa

Mickey Drexler turned The Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy into retail gaints. Now he's breathed new life into J. Crew. business fashion retail clothes catalog
Whoever first said "Clothes make the man" might have had Mickey Drexler in mind. Serena Altschul takes us behind the scenes with a retailer who delivers The Goods:

Inaugaration Day! . . . and fashion insiders were asking, what will the new First Lady wear?

She wore an ensemble by designer Isabel Toledo, with Italian leather gloves by, believe it or not, retailer J. Crew - yes, that J. Crew!

Fast forward several months to the G20 Summit in London, when Michelle Obama wore a sparkly cashmere cardigan and pencil skirt - both J. Crew.

"I wish I could say we orchestrated it, 'cause we didn't at all," said J. Crew's CEO Mickey Drexler. "But I think what she probably did is looked at where there are beautiful clothes where I'm comfortable the way I've been and I'm not spending a fortune or having to take out a mortgage on it."

It's validation of sorts for Drexler and his design team who over the last six years have revived a once-faltering preppy brand.

"People remember J. Crew and what it was five, ten, 15 yrs ago," he said. "And it's a whole different place right now."

And so is Mickey Drexler . . . the retail maverick credited with making The Gap a cultural phenomenon.

At J. Crew, with an eye for detail and gut instinct, Drexler has put design at the center of his plans to remake the label.

"We had been sort of pushing towards, you know, making it cheaper, making it, you know, really available," said J. Crew's creative director Jenna Lyons. "Making it sort of ubiquitous for everyone. And what he was saying was, 'No, no, no, no, no. Let's not do that. Let's make the best garment we can and then we'll price it when it comes in and figure out what we really think it should cost. And that was a very different attitude than what we'd been experiencing."

What did Drexler think they weren't doing right?

"Vision, point of view, encouraging creativity, detail, respecting your customer is a common denominator in any business," Drexler said. "And J. Crew was not doing that."

"What are the first things that you do?" asked Altschul.

"You quickly redo the team."

Lyons recalled, "Mickey put everything in a room. We got a group of people and we all sat there and said, 'Do we love it? Do we hate it?' Million-dollar items were thrown on the floor. 'You know what? We don't like it. It's out. We'll make something better.'"

And the marketplace responded. From a $30 million loss, profits jumped to over a $172 million gain. And though profits are down in this current recession, J. Crew continues to outperform its competitors.

(Carl Court, Press Assn./AP Images)
(Left: Michelle Obama talks with Sarah Brown (right), the wife of Prime Minister Gordon brown, and Laura Lee (left), the Chief Executive of Maggie's Cancer Caring Centre at the Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith, April 1, 2009. Obama wore a green pencil skirt and cream sparkly cardigan by J.Crew. Accompanying the president wife was Brown, who wore a navy blue Britt Lintner dress, Astley Clarke jewelery and Russell & Bromley shoes.)

Drexler discussed how to address men's dress:

"The old guy can feel quirky and have fun with his socks. Most men's clothes look the same in America; it's become maybe a uniform to a degree. So a special color, a special this, that creates a detail.

"So, you know, it's a small detail, but everything we do is a detail."

The details are worked out on two floors of a downtown Manhattan office building by J. Crew's team of designers and buyers.

Drexler pointed out the old office of the company's former head. "That was the CEO's office prior to my arrival. And I looked at this and I spent my first day in there, and I felt like a caged animal in a sense."

"You said, 'This is better, conference room,'" said Altschul.

"You know, the [fewer] barriers you create in an environment, the more you can absorb and feel ideas, creativity coming at you. No one who runs a business today, I think, has a sense of - you can't do anything on your own. You're always trying to figure out where the world's going. So that's why the office is open."

"So your ear is open to hearing just what's going on," Altschul said.

"Well, it's that. And remember, I have a loudspeaker, so I can call anyone at any time!"

And that speaks volumes.

Drexler admits to being hands-on . . . rarely sitting down and always on the move, whether he is reviewing the latest collection or pedaling around the offices on his bike, like a kid at play.

Or visiting a store where he can indulge his almost insatiable need to know what the customer is thinking.

"Where do you usually shop?" he asks one customer. "Anything we can do better?"

When we met Drexler he showed us around a space now home to a J. Crew men's store.

"I think what drives me is that I've always wanted to do something well, probably be recognized for it. I've always worked real hard. And my father always forced me to work, even if I didn't want to work!"

Millard "Mickey" drexler was a working-class kid from the Bronx who followed his father, a button and piece goods buyer, into the clothing business.

"I also did coffee runs."

"So you were the coffee guy?" Altschul asked.
"Well, you know, you learned how to work. You learned how to take orders from the boss."

In New York City's garment district, Drexler worked weekends and summers.

"It was a case of my dad sayin', 'You gotta go to work. You gotta go to work.' So it's not like I didn't wanna sleep in on Saturdays."

After college, Drexler worked his way up with stints at major department stores, eventually landing a job at Ann Taylor where he served as President. But it was his next job that cemented his reputation.

In 1983 Drexler was brought on to resuscitate the San Francisco-based jean company The Gap.

"When I worked in the department stores I had a little list in my drawer of about 20 items I thought a store should have, and the list always stayed with me," he said. "It was essentials that people in America, men and women, wear every day."

This emphasis on essentials became the engine that took The Gap from a $400 million retailer to a $14.5 billion global rebirth of cool.

The Gap would launch the discount chain Old Navy, and when Drexler had difficulty finding clothes for his young son, GapKids was born.

"It's not like you're there doing it and saying, 'Wow, it's done.' 'Cause you know something? It's never done."

But by the summer of 2002, Drexler was done . . . The Gap staggered through a two-year slump, and he was out.

"Extraordinary success, you get fired. What do you do?" Altschul asked.

"Well, you cry a little. You cannot believe it. You're stunned. And most importantly, you kind of realize that others are judging you when, in fact, you also have the ability and the power to judge yourself. Frankly when I got fired I didn't think it was the right thing for the company to do. We opened more stores than we should have. At the end of the day, someone has got to take the bullet. Hello! So I was the one."

Only four months later he would arrive at J. Crew, and from the start Drexler continued to follow his instincts.

After listening to one of his operators comment on the number of brides ordering J. Crew sun dresses for their wedding parties, Drexler went in a new direction for the brand: A line of affordable wedding and formal wear.

And just last year he launched the edgier chain, Madewell.

"This is fun," he said. "You can never figure it out. Every day there's a zig and a zag you have to take."

And in an economy that even Drexler admits may be the worst in he's seen, he sees opportunity.

"I think recently with this huge upset in the world economically, it's kind of forced us to reset our thinking. But that's, you know, it's kind of fun."