Lunch With J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler
He wears a wrinkly button-down shirt.
“No!” he says. “Wiener schnitzel! I didn’t have that, but the guy I was with did; I had the second most popular: Cobb salad.”
Drexler was in London because J. Crew is in international expansion mode: in August they opened their first store in Canada and launched Canadian ecommerce; then they launched ecommerce in the UK and they are in the process of looking for a bricks and mortar space in England; next will come ecommerce in France and possibly Germany. Drexler wants a London store “because it really articulates what the brand is. It’s an emotional, visual experience in a way a catalogue or website is not.” He saw several areas, liked Covent Garden and the East End, but thinks Regent Street is the right place – though he adds, “But maybe I shouldn’t say this publicly? Maybe it’s not good strategy? Oh whatever, I’ll say it anyway.”
This does not surprise me: Drexler is famous for saying things that others in his position might not. It’s part of his not-typical-CEO schtick. For example, when I ask him what J. Crew was like when he arrived, he says, “A company with tasteless goods going nowhere.” He caused a ruckus in the industry a few years ago for getting into a heated argument with Burt Tansky, the lauded chief executive of Neiman Marcus, about whether consumers were going to stop spending and whether or not non-vertically-integrated retailers such as Neiman’s were toast, while they were on a panel together.
What other people call “arguing” Drexler prefers to describe as “passionate conversation”. He has been on the board of Apple for more than a decade as a non-executive director, and notes that Steve Jobs was a good example of someone who had a lot of “passionate conversations”. He says two of the most important skills a chief executive can have are: (1) understanding “that people who aren’t performing well need to know it”; and (2) avoiding “bullshit; people feel and see everything.”
But I digress, which is something that happens a lot around Drexler. When I ask him what J. Crew’s point of difference is, for example, he embarks upon a long and winding discourse about his career, going back to when he started as a buyer at Bloomingdale’s in the late 1960s. He moves on to his six years as president and chief executive of working women’s contemporary brand Ann Taylor and his 18 years at Gap, first as president and then as chief executive, during which he rode the Casual Friday wave from $400m to $14bn in sales and made the brand the biggest retail phenomenon of the 1990s. Eventually, even he loses track of what he is saying and has to ask, “What was the question?”
I say, “what’s special about J. Crew?” and this time Drexler brings up pizza. “I know what the most popular is going to be here,” he says, and touches me on the shoulder. “Margherita! It always is. Watch ...” The waiter comes to present the ham, and Drexler asks him what the most popular pizza is. “Margherita,” says the waiter. Drexler looks delighted. “Have some,” he says, gesturing at the prosciutto, and continues.
“You know what the most popular ice-cream flavours always are? Chocolate and vanilla, and then maybe, well, I like cookies and cream, but I don’t know if that’s right. Strawberry?
“It’s the same with cookies: chocolate chip, then oatmeal raisin, then, maybe sugar. And you always have to have this in stock. I tell this to my team when we go out together: you need the Margherita! People like consistency. Whether it’s a store or a restaurant, they want to come in and see what you are famous for.”
OK, so what’s J. Crew’s Margherita? I ask Drexler as the waiter arrives with four plates and attempts to fit them around the table. “The Jackie sweater,” he says immediately, referring to a cashmere cardigan. “Then the Café capri. For men, the pre-washed shirt.” He looks at the waiter. “What ice-cream is the most popular?”
“Well, it’s gelato,” says the waiter.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT's fashion editor. Her blog can be found at www.ft.com/materialworld.