Mickey Drexler’s Redemption

(Photo credit: Phillip Toledano)

The end was abrupt. As chief executive officer and the driving creative force behind the Gap, Mickey Drexler had built the humble discount-jeans emporium with the groovy seventies vibe and goofy jingle into an international arbiter of style and a global megabrand. He had tossed out the Gap’s product line and reinvented it from scratch, redesigned the company’s stores from floor to ceiling, and ushered in breakthrough ad campaigns, from “Individuals of Style” (Whoopi Goldberg, Spike Lee, Lorraine Bracco) to “Who Wore Khakis?” (Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, Picasso). By introducing consumers to stylish-but-affordable basics—khakis, pocket tees, prewashed jeans—Drexler exploded the myth that good taste has to be expensive. He allowed the masses to look good without going broke, and in the process, he not only changed the way the world dressed and built the Gap into a $14.5 billion behemoth. It could be argued that he invented casual chic.

In May 2002, however, Drexler found himself in trouble. The veteran retailer had many skills, foremost among them a seemingly magical ability to divine what clothing styles would separate consumers from their money. But recently, Drexler had made a series of bad calls. Faced with increasing competition from a pack of imitators—everyone from Abercrombie & Fitch to Wal-Mart—he decided to steer the Gap away from its signature basics look to a trendy, Britney-esque aesthetic: cropped T-shirts, low-rider pants, brighter colors. The result was a 29-month slump. Drexler had lived through ups and downs before, but nothing like this. “I was damned nervous,” he says. “I kept thinking, We’ve got to fix it. The press and the stock market were killing us.”

Even as Drexler mounted a massive turnaround effort—firing staff, transferring executives, commissioning new merchandise—tensions that had long simmered between him and the Gap’s board began to boil. Having come of age in the sixties, Drexler was a retailing maverick. When choosing product, he made decisions with his gut, not market research and spreadsheets. As a manager, he let it all hang out, doing a victory dance when he was pleased, yelling when frustrated, leaving endless “What if … ” “Why not … ” voice mails. There was a time when that kind of freewheeling spirit suited the Gap; you could argue that it was vital to the company’s success. But the Gap was a Fortune 500 megalith now—more grown-up, more corporate—and there were rumblings on the board that Drexler was no longer the right man to lead the company. “Mickey wasn’t so passionate about compensation committees and budgets and strategic plans,” says a former board member. “We knew the company couldn’t continue to operate with a master merchant driving the brand. My own view was that there should be a transition to a more management-oriented CEO.”

It didn’t help that friction was growing between Drexler and Gap founder Donald Fisher, whose family owned one third of the company’s stock. “Mickey was given 99 percent of the credit, but Don had started the company, and maybe he felt he deserved more credit than he was getting,” says John Bowes, a philanthropist and high-school classmate of Fisher’s, who invested in the launch of the Gap and was on the board for 21 years before retiring in 1997. Two of Fisher’s sons had worked at the Gap during Drexler’s tenure. “It puts extra strain on the relationship,” says Bowes, “when the founder’s kids come in and start running a division.”

When Drexler was fired from the Gap, he insisted on addressing the board. His remarks were mostly a howl of rage. “Where is your decency,your integrity?” he asked.

On the evening of May 21, Drexler met with the Gap board at the company’s San Francisco headquarters to show off the latest merchandise, insisting that he’d “fixed” the clothing. Drexler and the board had a friendly dinner afterward. At home that night, Drexler got a call from his friend and Gap board member Steve Jobs, the Apple CEO. Jobs had not attended the board dinner, but was calling to alert Drexler that an unspecified change was in the works. Drexler won’t talk about the events of that week, but according to several people who spoke with him at the time, he had no hint until that night of what was to come.

The next morning, Fisher called Drexler in and fired him. Drexler insisted on addressing the board immediately. His remarks were mostly a howl of rage. “Where is your decency, your integrity?” he asked. “It was a very emotional scene,” says a board member. Later that day, Drexler negotiated an agreement to stay on until the company found a successor, and that afternoon, the Gap announced Drexler’s upcoming “retirement.” The next day, the company’s stock fell 15 percent by the closing bell.

On September 26, 2002, the Gap named Disney theme-park executive Paul Pressler its new CEO; the day before, Drexler had been given 24 hours notice to clean out his office. (Don Fisher declined to be interviewed, but through a spokesman sent an e-mail saying of Drexler, “He was a great partner. In 2002, the size and scope of our company required different leadership skills to move forward, and it was time for another change.”) A month after Drexler’s ouster, Gap’s sales rebounded strongly, thanks largely to the new merchandise Drexler had ordered. One board member called to congratulate Drexler and thank him; Fisher later sent him a case of wine. The gestures were of no comfort. Nineteen years, billions of dollars in sales, and one fashion revolution after he joined the Gap, Mickey Drexler had been shown the door.

It’s early September in Manhattan, and at Bryant Park, workmen are putting the final touches on the tents constructed for Fashion Week. Mickey Drexler, meanwhile, is taking in a different fashion show. Inside J.Crew’s headquarters at Broadway and 9th Street, the company’s two top designers are unveiling J.Crew’s 2005 summer line. Drexler strides the cramped hallways, and a conga line of 50 staffers tails him. Dressed in his standard uniform—J.Crew unstructured blazer, white Helmut Lang button-down over a gray J.Crew T-shirt, Diesel jeans, argyle socks, suede Tod’s—Drexler launches into a pure stream-of-consciousness riff of love-hate reactions. “Ooh,” he gasps at the sight of a women’s beige fitted jacket on a mannequin. “I love it, it’s so beautiful.” When womenswear designer Jenna Lyons raises a cost concern—“We wash it and you lose a lot of leather, so it’ll be expensive”—Drexler brushes aside the comment. He’s got a feeling about it. He’s certain it will sell. Entering a room where men’s and women’s T-shirts and blouses and shorts are in various shades of olive and purple, Drexler says, “I don’t get the colors here.” He asks menswear designer Todd Snyder to get rid of the matching stripe on the pocket of a man’s T-shirt that also has a green stripe on the collar. “It’s too much. This is a reason not to buy it—an ‘I love it but … ’ ” Scanning other merchandise, Drexler points out more details that seem wrong to him: the shiny grommets on a weathered overnight bag, the too-large pocket on a men’s jacket, the madras pants with shrill colors—“Am I the only one who hates this?” Then a pair of men’s seersucker shorts catches his attention. The fabric has been washed and faded and rumpled so the shorts look like every guy’s old, can’t-give-’em-up favorite. It’s as if the shorts speak to Drexler viscerally. “This is a monster!” he roars. “No one’s doing these. This makes everything else seem old—this is why I love this business!”

Millard “Mickey” Drexler has spent most of his adult life choosing clothes to put in stores, then waiting for the sound of cash registers to ring. But the irrepressible 60-year-old son of a garment-district button buyer has never faced a challenge like the one he’s facing now. Four months after he left the Gap (he’s also worked at Abraham & Straus, Ann Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, and Macy’s), Drexler embarked on what may be the boldest experiment of his 36-year career. After cashing in $157 million in stock options, and forgoing a multi-million-dollar severance payment from the Gap by refusing to sign a noncompete agreement, Drexler uprooted himself from San Francisco and returned to his hometown of Manhattan to take over the flagging J.Crew chain. Now, with the holiday shopping season a Thanksgiving dinner away—the first holiday season in which Drexler’s redesigned J.Crew clothes will be in the stores—the question is: Can the “merchant prince,” as Wall Street has dubbed him, do it again?

It’s difficult enough to capture the fashion Zeitgeist once, let alone twice, and J.Crew has lately been a declining brand competing in an increasingly crowded field. The preppy label was satirized earlier this year as the symbolic embodiment of try-too-hard suburban life in Tom Perrotta’s best-selling novel Little Children. After co-founder Emily Woods left the helm in 1997, when the private investment firm Texas Pacific bought a majority interest in J.Crew for $560 million, the clothes became drab and uninspired. Lyons, who joined J.Crew in 1991, says that in recent years, she had been told to create clothing primarily on the basis of price. “We’d get a list—X amount of styles, six $55 pants, seven $70 pants. We’d be picking fabrics and designing into boxes of criteria. It completely stifled creativity.” After posting an $11 million loss in 2001, J.Crew lost $40 million in 2002.

In the months after he was fired from the Gap, Drexler temporarily set up shop in office space in San Francisco offered by Bowes, who runs an equity buyout firm there. “Mickey’s fun, but he was making so much noise we had to close the doors,” says Bowes. “He yells and screams, whether he’s running a business or his houses or various situations he was looking into.” Drexler met with a series of well-known retailers—Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger were mentioned in press reports—as well as venture capitalists eager to fund him in a new enterprise, but he wasn’t that enthused about anything until Texas Pacific came calling. J.Crew appealed to Drexler because it reminded him of his previous turnaround experiences—an underperforming company with stores in good locations and a strong brand name. “Ann Taylor—great name, great real estate, shitty business,” he says. “Gap—great name, great real estate, declining business. J.Crew—Hellooo?—great name, better fashion image than the Gap.” With $700 million in annual sales, J.Crew is less than one twentieth the size of the Gap, but, says Drexler, “I fell in love with the possibility.”

Last summer, an eye doctor told Drexler he had never seen a patient respond so rapidly to external movement and stimuli. “I spot detail quickly,” Drexler says.

Ever since Texas Pacific bought J.Crew, the executive suite had been a revolving door, with three CEOs in five years. Ironically, the most recent CEO, Ken Pilot, had been lured away from the Gap in August, and spent less than five months at J.Crew before he was bought out in favor of Drexler. Still, Texas Pacific has a reputation for giving its CEOs a relatively free hand, which was appealing to a man who had just come from battling a hostile board. It was also a relief to take over a privately held company and avoid daily Wall Street scrutiny. Insisting upon equity, Drexler invested $10 million of his own money for a 22 percent share of J.Crew. “You have no idea how much it’s costing me to run this company,” he says, only half-joking. If J.Crew eventually goes public, he’ll cash in. For now, he’s earning $700,000 a year in salary, bonus, and expense reimbursements (compared to $7.8 million in compensation plus perks and options at the Gap at the high point). With no company plane, Drexler, who travels frequently to visit stores, bought his own Gulfstream, and until recently paid for his own Mercedes and driver. Jim Coulter, partner and co-founder of Texas Pacific, admits that he initially wondered whether someone who was already so wealthy still had the fire for tackling a turnaround. “I worried for about two and a half minutes before I saw Mickey go to it,” says Coulter, “does he have the energy and passion? He loves it. I call him up, and he’ll be worried about 48 things, and then I’ll ask how he’s doing and he says, ‘I’m having so much fun.’ ”

Drexler says revenge was not a factor in his decision to join J.Crew, but he keeps an eye on his former employer. On one of his many visits to one of J.Crew’s Manhattan branches, the store at Fifth Avenue and 17th Street, Drexler suggests a compare-and-contrast side trip to the Gap, across the street, and Banana Republic, a block away. Drexler is accompanied by Jeff Pfeifle, the new president of J.Crew, who was Drexler’s right-hand man at Banana Republic and helped him found Old Navy (both Gap brands). Sarah Jessica Parker’s photo is plastered on the Gap’s windows; Drexler has been gleefully telling his staff that the Gap pitchwoman recently stocked up on J.Crew cashmere sweaters, a psychic victory for the home team (Parker’s spokeswoman says she bought them as gifts, then returned them). Today, Drexler seems both vindicated and sad as he scans the racks of merchandise, marked down early in the season. It’s as if a child has gone astray and he can’t do anything. The reconnaissance mission is interrupted when an alert salesman gives Drexler a nod. Drexler remains a familiar figure in the far-flung Gap empire. Pfeifle grins: “We’re busted.”

Drexler’s office is on the twelfth floor of the J.Crew headquarters—it’s really more like a conference table in a large corner cubicle, albeit with sweeping views of Greenwich Village. But he spends most of his time on his feet, sticking his head into cubicles (“What’s happening?”) and running off to visit stores. Just as he did in his early days at the Gap, Drexler has immersed himself in every part of J.Crew’s business. He’s a visionary and a control freak: He insists on vetting every new employee, choosing the models for the catalogues, reviewing customer complaints, and signing off on window displays. He even compulsively tweaks press releases, insisting that a formal announced be changed to a more conversational said.

In the J.Crew warehouses, Drexler discovered the fashion ghosts of seasons past, extensive inventory that was as much as five years old. He outlined for the board what he’d have to do: slash prices to get rid of the old merchandise, cancel already-placed orders for goods that he found unappealing, and fire and then hire staff, which meant paying off contracts and underwriting moving costs for newcomers. Selecting and manufacturing new merchandise would take time. Drexler told the board that he’d expect things to improve in eighteen months—by fall 2004.

The J.Crew store at Fifth Avenue and 17th Street.Photo: Phillip Toledano

At his first staff meeting, Drexler openly declared his intentions: “Everything and anything is under attack.” As Lyons recalls, Drexler asked her to show him the sample clothes that had been created for the fall 2003 line. “He was testing me,” Lyons says. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about how much money is made on each item. Tell me what you think.’ We had this sweater that looked like a poodle. I hated it but it did huge volume. I was honest. Clothes kept dropping on the floor. He had no fear.” Still, fall 2003 was mainly a bust. “We didn’t have time to redesign, so we brought back too many J.Crew icons,” Drexler says. “They were old and a little tired.” About the only bright spot was a relatively small order of colorful Loro Piana cashmere sweaters, priced at an affordable $128, most of which sold out in a month.

Drexler decided to take J.Crew upscale—without abandoning the company’s preppy-basics heritage. The idea was to appeal to the customer who has graduated from the Gap but wants something hipper, and less expensive, than Ralph Lauren. Drexler also decided to improve the quality of the clothes to impart a greater sense of value, and to imbue the brand with a more fun sensibility. “I look at companies as price-players or quality-players,” Drexler says. “The only way to go with J.Crew was quality.” He immediately banned the company name from its garments, in the belief that upscale shoppers are tired of being walking brand advertisements. He nixed the signature “oar” logo. Instead, he pushed the designers to come up with a new conceit, and they brought back an old J.Crew favorite, “critters”—whimsical preppy symbols such as lobsters, mermaids, and martini glasses. Drexler emphasized catchy details, such as linings and trims, to freshen familiar styles. “A detail can make you buy something,” Lyons says. “When you have a cardigan, it’s a cardigan, but if it has a big pink grosgrain ribbon on the inside placket, and diamante buttons, it makes people think, I need another one of those.” He switched manufacturers, too, using some of the same high-end factories used by Prada, Coach, and Oscar de la Renta.

Drexler has looked at tens of thousands of garments in his career, searching for the winning look, editing out the items that don’t work, and suggesting changes that can turn an otherwise blah shirt into a best-seller. Ask him how he senses, six months to a year ahead, what people will want, and he throws up his hands. “I don’t know,” he says. “I have a thing. I don’t remember if I figured it out or it was always there—an instinct.” There are clues. He’s an insatiable window-shopper who has no qualms about walking into stores and quizzing strangers, both clerks and customers, about their likes and dislikes. He credits his wife of 35 years, Peggy, for insights into how people behave, frequently prefacing comments by saying, “When you’re married to a psychologist … ” Drexler pays close attention to the fashion instincts of his children, a son, 26, who works in advertising, and a daughter, 12. He also seems to have a physiological gift, not unlike, say, a Derek Jeter. Last summer, an eye doctor told Drexler that he had never seen a patient respond so rapidly to external movement and stimuli. “I spot detail quickly,” Drexler says.

For this fall, Drexler invested heavily in high-end merchandise, including $500 men’s cashmere blazers (more than double the highest price for a jacket in the 2002 catalogue), a $395 lacy gold dress, a vastly expanded line of shoes, and accessories like belts made of rep-tie fabric. To generate buzz, he commissioned the equivalent of a couture line: small quantities of a few specialty items, such as a $1,500 white cashmere toggle coat. Just as he did at the Gap, Drexler is giving the J.Crew stores a makeover. The dark-brown walls have been painted a soothing latte color and a vibrant green, even the music soundtrack has been changed from bland instrumentals to an eight-hour mix including the Rolling Stones and Elton John. When customers say, “I love that song,” the idea is, they stay in the store longer.

Drexler has also been retooling the staff. Of the 400-plus people at J.Crew headquarters when Drexler came onboard, more than 100 are now gone—some were fired, others read the handwriting on the wall. So far, more than two dozen of their replacements have come from the Gap. The brain drain includes Gap senior V.P. Tracy Gardner, now in charge of merchandise buying, Old Navy menswear designer Todd Snyder, Old Navy visual stylist John Valdivia, and the Gap’s head of personnel and head of store operations. “This is not about revenge,” Drexler insists. “It’s about hiring the team.” Drexler’s most important hire has been Jeff Pfeifle, whom he wooed from Old Navy to become J.Crew’s president. Where Drexler is a big personality with an over-the-top style, Pfeifle is a calm delegator with a dry wit. If it seems that Drexler is attempting to avoid the management mistakes of his past, he is. “In this job,” he says, “I’m applying everything I’ve learned—and everything I’ve fucked up—in my career.”

Sitting on the deck of his Martha’s Vineyard retreat, Drexler looks out at the late-morning mist rising off his own private stretch of the Atlantic. The home is a handsome shingled beach house with a retro fifties look: The living room is designed to resemble a ship’s prow with a wooden ceiling, and vintage-looking fabrics cover the furniture. A pair of green Wellington boots accidentally left outdoors has faded from the saltwater breeze. Most people would be annoyed by the mishap; Drexler is thrilled by the new sea-green color, planning to bring the boots to the office to duplicate the shade. “I love to work,” he says. “I have a passion for what I do.”

It’s no surprise. Drexler was born into the fashion business, and his father, Charles, a button and piece-goods buyer, had him work weekends ticketing garments and taking inventory. Work must have been a relief from a difficult childhood; his mother, Mary, was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was 2, and died fourteen years later. “She was always sick,” Drexler says. “In those days, cancer was a hush-hush thing. She had a hard time.” Like many kids of immigrant Jewish heritage, Drexler was highly driven. He grew up in a one-bedroom apartment on Barnes Avenue in the Bronx, attended Bronx Science, spent two years at City College, transferred to the University of Buffalo, and went for an M.B.A. at Boston University, where he met Peggy.

In 1967, Drexler landed a summer job at an Abraham & Straus store in Brooklyn, on the sales floor, not in the back room. “I loved the fact that if you put goods on the floor,” he says, “you could watch them sell.” But after stints at Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and A&S, Drexler became frustrated with the department-store business: If one store cut prices on swimsuits, “we all marked our merchandise down.” Instead, he became intrigued with the Brooks Brothers model—the store sold only its own exclusive merchandise and was less vulnerable to price wars. “Brooks Brothers was my awakening,” he says. He also had a personal revelation: “The nice clothes were all designer names,” he says, but on a middle manager’s salary, “Peggy and I couldn’t afford it.”

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.

Mickey Drexler’s Redemption