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Mickey Drexler’s Redemption

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After resurrecting Ann Taylor, Drexler was hired by Fisher to fix the Gap. Founded in 1969 and named for the generation gap, the company had gone public and expanded to 550 stores with sales of $480 million, but there were problems. Lots of other stores sold Levi’s, and the Gap’s other merchandise was perceived as subpar. The company also had image problems—the tacky signature orange décor, for example, and the corny, if catchy, “Fall Into the Gap” jingle (the cabdriver sang it to Drexler when he arrived for his first day of work).

Just as he would later do at J.Crew, Drexler set out to change everything. The first week on the job, he sent signs to the staff with one word printed on them: simplify. His idea was to transform every aspect of the Gap—from the clothing designs to the look of the stores to the logo—to a clean, minimalist aesthetic. Other than Levi’s (which would eventually vanish, too), he scrapped all the other labels sold at Gap stores, to concentrate instead on manufacturing Gap’s own clothes. He brought in his top marketing and advertising executive and his product-development specialist from Ann Taylor, and hired a team of designers to come up with well-made, streamlined, basic sportswear. To give the brand American authenticity, Drexler replaced polyester and synthetics with good old-fashioned high-quality cotton. At a time when most manufacturers produced the same garment in a handful of colors, Drexler relaunched the Gap with T-shirts in twenty shades. “The first thing you see when you walk into a store is color,” Drexler says. To clean up the stores, Drexler replaced the signature orange Gap graphics with white walls and the oversize globes with more-flattering lighting, and switched the metal rounders with tables where clothes could be neatly folded and more visibly displayed.

Despite a terrible first year (“You have to pay the big price, just like we’re doing now at J. Crew,” Drexler says), Gap sales eventually exploded, the stock soared, and the board was delighted. “Mickey got into everything,” says Bowes. “He pulled the merchandise together, the stores, he got into the advertising. He had that knack—he seemed to know what the public would want way before the public would know it.”

The Gap’s success made Drexler enormously wealthy (when I ask if he’s a billionaire, he gives a wry smile and says, “I was, but the stock dropped”). Besides the Martha’s Vineyard home (he has two properties there), he owns a house in San Francisco, a retreat in Napa Valley, a ski home in Sun Valley, a winter place in the Bahamas, a Bridgehampton beach house, and a Madison Avenue co-op, all designed by Thierry Despont. “All I ever wanted was my own bedroom,” Drexler says. He owns six renovated vintage Toyota Land Cruisers, and he and Peggy have a social circle that includes Jobs, Ian Schrager, Larry David, Jann Wenner, and Bill Joseph, a Citigroup executive and pal of 30 years. Since moving back to Manhattan, Drexler goes out five days a week to a coffee-shop breakfast with his daughter, takes her to school on the Upper West Side, then has his driver drop him off at Joseph’s apartment. The two men walk to the Citigroup building on the East Side, people-watching and guy-bonding before the workday starts. Still, for all his success and the lifestyle it’s afforded him, Drexler says he’s never really been able to relax. “I’m always looking over my shoulder,” he says, “needing to stay ahead of the game.” He calls it “the Jewish thing.”

Once a week at J.Crew headquarters, Drexler and 30 corporate staffers hold a conference call with the store managers around the country. On a Monday in mid-September, disembodied voices call out their “comps” from last year, and Drexler quizzes the managers about wild variations. In Long Island, one store’s sales have climbed 162 percent, while the Yale campus store is up only 17 percent (“Is word out on campus about the student discounts?” Drexler asks). He debates shifting inventory from a disappointing New Jersey store (“I’m not trying to pick on you, Menlo Park, but why don’t they like us there?”) to the thriving Short Hills branch. Drexler asks the Detroit store manager how customers reacted after a window display was changed to feature suits; the manager replies that customers loved it so much that the average daily sale leapt from $75 to $139. That window will be widely replicated.

By early November, J.Crew had run out of the $500 cashmere blazers in many sizes, the Gramercy women’s leather boots were almost out of stock, and staffers were scrambling to find a third factory to meet the demand for the inexpensive tie belts. Fashion magazines were trumpeting the return of the preppy look; J.Crew’s catalogue was featured on the Today show as the hot book of the season. Drexler’s main problem seems to be that he was too conservative in ordering. “Scarcity is good,” he spins—he’d rather sell out than worry about huge piles of inventory.

Although J.Crew is not publicly traded, Wall Street still keeps a close watch on the merchant prince. It’s not yet possible to measure J.Crew’s fall ’04 success—it releases sales figures quarterly—but so far the reviews of his second act have been mostly positive. “The merchandise is definitely better-quality,” says Bear Stearns retail analyst Dana Telsey. “It’s early on in a turnaround, but we’ve seen lines at the stores.” “Mickey’s taking J.Crew back to what it used to be,” says analyst Janet Kloppenburg. “High-quality, hip American sportswear—classics with a twist.” Still, there are some who doubt that J.Crew will ever become much more than a niche player. “J.Crew’s clothes are interesting, but they’re not captivating,” says Kurt Barnard, a trend forecaster and the president of Barnard’s Retail Consulting Group. “Mickey’s saddled with the preppy label, which is a fairly universal look. He’ll muddle along, but I doubt he’ll ever sweep the world the way he did with the Gap.”

Last Tuesday, Drexler found himself at another board meeting. J.Crew’s directors were gathered at the company’s headquarters, and Drexler was once again presenting his latest line. This time, the show was a hit. “The clothes looked great, the numbers looked great,” said director Steve Grand-Jean. “The results are far ahead of anything we had planned for.”

One season, of course, is just a start. Drexler and his design team have to keep coming up with winners, and new ideas, if the company is going to grow. Recently, Drexler made a deal with Scoop’s Stefani Greenfield to sell a line of J.Crew men’s shirts exclusively in her trendy boutiques, starting in January. Just as he created GapKids, Drexler plans to revive a line called “Crew Cuts” for the baby brigade. He’s hinting, though he won’t give details, about launching another start-up. Given that things are going well, you’d think that Drexler would be delighted. But “I’m complaining even more than usual,” he says.

The morning after last week’s board meeting, Drexler stopped at a J.Crew store on Fifth Avenue and 17th Street on his way to work. He moved a rack of men’s sport coats to a more visible position. He took hanging cashmere sweaters and displayed them flat so the fabric wouldn’t stretch. He decided he didn’t like the care labels inside the knits—“they were tacky,” he said. He’ll replace them as soon as possible.


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