“Marilyn Monroe wore khakis.” So boasted a 1993 Gap campaign, which also name-dropped Amelia Earhart and Jack Kerouac as connoisseurs of the cool cloth. It’s impressive when you have photographic evidence that a legend legitimized your style. But it’s another thing entirely when you cast your clothing on the person truly of the moment.
For J. Crew’s chairman/CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler, that chance came on Oct. 27, 2008, when Michelle Obama showed up on Jay Leno wearing J. Crew—and talking the brand up, no less.
Could the story get better? Actually, yes. You see, Drexler was Gap’s CEO/creative force during its boom period in the 1980s and ’90s, only to be dumped after a two-year slump circa 2002. While he declined to be interviewed for this story, one doesn’t need to be Carnac the Magnificent to posit that Drexler’s J. Crew redo—and Gap’s subsequent floundering—feels like karmic justice.
If so, it’s all in a career’s work for this merchant, marketer and fashion guru whose hands-on involvement is the stuff of legend. “He’s known to visit his stores, review the products and talk randomly to customers,” says Tom Julian, author of the Nordstrom Guide to Men’s Style. Drexler, say observers, is driven by an insatiable need to be in the know. “He could have been a detective,” says Bright IP Concepts CEO Jane Angelich, who worked with Drexler in his Gap days. “His eyes saw everything, everywhere. That’s where his great ideas came from. He was always one step ahead of everyone.”
Obviously, Drexler’s leadership kept J. Crew one step ahead this past November, when it mattered most. Within hours of the future first lady telling Leno that her skirt, tank top and cardigan were all from J. Crew, the company had built a Web page to promote the three-piece ensemble, going so far as to buy the keywords “Michelle Obama” on Google and Yahoo. Even though the brand was careful not to alienate its Republican shoppers (“All politics aside,” said the Web page, “this outfit gets our vote”), the link between president and brand had been made. “Michelle is a representative of the J. Crew brand—an affluent mother from the suburbs saddling the cosmopolitan life,” Julian says. “[She wants to] look great in quality clothes but not overspend for couture.”
In fact, under Drexler’s auspices, J. Crew already was broadening its offerings to cater to the kind of modern, cultural crossovers that the Obamas have come to represent. In addition to the Crewcuts line for kids (sported by Sasha and Malia Obama during their father’s inauguration), there’s a designer line called the J. Crew Collection and an urban extension called MadeWell. The company has also grown its store count from 204 to 234 in the past year.
If expanding both offerings and locations doesn’t quite sound like a recessionary tactic, that’s because it isn’t. But Drexler, on an August conference call to analysts, made no apologies: “You must maintain the integrity or there’ll be no business left in 10 years because everyone could buy something cheaper.” If Wall Street’s soothsayers had doubts about this, J. Crew’s numbers shut them up. Its second-quarter net income (up 3 percent to $18.6 million) beat Street estimates, and boosted shares by nearly 4 percent. Drexler explained that customers will pay full price when they like the clothes.
For Drexler, it all comes back to the clothes. Former J. Crew editorial producer Kate Bogli recalls how excited employees of the struggling brand were in 2003, when it was announced that Drexler was taking over.
“We had all followed closely what he had done with the Gap [and] seeing him in person sealed the deal,” Bogli says. “With his perfectly washed jeans, classic white button-down and navy blazer, we knew this guy would ‘get’ J. Crew. He really had a vision for the brand and finally we felt we were headed in the right direction.”
Six years down the road, it looks like Bogli (and Drexler) were right.