The J. Crew You've Always Known Is About to Change
Mickey Drexler is stepping down as CEO, the role he held since 2003.
BY Scott Christian | Jun 6, 2017 | News
News broke today that Mickey Drexler, the iconic and long-serving CEO of J. Crew, is stepping down from the role (he'll be staying on as chairman). He'll be replaced by former West Elm president Jim Brett.
And, well, where to begin? For one thing, it's safe to say that it's the end of an era. Drexler has steered the J. Crew ship for 14 years, and during that time he brought it up from a chinos-and-field-jacket catalogue backwater to a major fashion player. One that dressed, among many, many others, the First Lady of the United States. But recent times for the Crew have been rough, and the company has decided to cut ties with the bold-faced names—Drexler, Jenna Lyons, and Frank Muytjens—who once made it a mid-aughts powerhouse.
The first to fall was Lyons, the former executive creative director who, with her bold-framed glasses and eye for preppy bohemian-ism, spent the better part of the 2000s dressing the American woman. Thanks to her penchant for mixing high and low, sequins and denim, Lyons tapped into a sartorial zeitgeist that allowed regular, everyday women to feel elevated, while making those primarily familiar with couture feel comfortable buying clothes off the rack. But after 26 years at the company, in April it was announced that she would be leaving.
Then, only a couple of weeks later, Muytjens too was out. As the head of menswear since 2008, Muytjens helped usher in the new menswear era—a fashion renaissance where guys traded in their schlubby tees and baggy jeans for sharp tailoring and an off-duty look that relied heavily on classic prep and heritage Americana. It's no coincidence that the now ubiquitous Ludlow suit launched the same year that Muytjens took the reigns. His legacy in menswear will no doubt be felt for years to come.
And of course the architect behind all of this was Drexler, a man who, for a while anyway, seemed to have a golden touch. In the 1990s, he transformed Ann Taylor into a major brand, and took the Gap from $480 million in sales to $13.6 billion. Along the way, he also made Gap cool (remember those bullet time chino commercials?). And even though he was eventually fired from Gap in 2002 after the company began its downslide, he appeared to redeem himself with J. Crew.
For several years, J. Crew's ascent was unmatched. Sales skyrocketed and the brand's wares became the uniform for professionals everywhere. As Joshua Rothman wrote in the New Yorker recently, "In the mid-aughts, J. Crew cracked the code of all-day dressing for the 'creative class' by combining the formal with the informal." For women, it was mixing tuxedo jackets with jeans, military jackets with sequined blouses. For men, it was denim and oxfords along with crisply cut suits. And gingham. Loads and loads of gingham.
But then it all went south. By 2014, sales were dropping dramatically and, as of this year, the company was $2.1 billion in debt. So what happened? A lot of things. For one thing, styles changed and J. Crew had trouble pivoting. Prep was replaced by athleisure, and suddenly chinos and slim cut suits looked less appealing. A bigger problem, and one that Drexler recently admitted to, was that the company waded too far into higher-priced fashion, a journey that customers didn't want to be a part of. "We gave a perception of being a higher-priced company than we were," Drexler told the Wall Street Journal. "In our catalogue, online and in our general presentation. Very big mistake."
But regardless of what created J. Crew's current woes, the fact will never change that it was a major player in mid-to-late aughts style. Especially for men. From about 2007 to 2012, J. Crew was everywhere. In offices all over the country, men could be found, sometimes head-to-toe, in J. Crew's offerings. It became the go-to for anyone who wanted to look good, but who had neither the money nor inclination to pursue high-end designer fashion. J. Crew offered one of the best entry-level suits on the market with the Ludlow, plus selvedge denim, oxfords, polos, knitwear and a whole host of styles that any guy could look sharp in. And with its successful collaborations—including New Balance, Thomas Mason, and Alden—J. Crew opened up a world of style for a whole new market of men.
And for off-the-rack dressing, it was truly a golden era—one whose influence is still felt to this day. And Mickey Drexler, Jenna Lyons, and Frankie Muytjens were the team behind it. That all three are now gone (although Drexler, who owns 10 percent of the company, will stay on as chairman) speaks to how dramatically the world of retail has changed in the last few years. It's as if the 1998 Yankees were dropped into the NHL and expected to perform. The Drexler-Lyons-Muytjens lineup is a baseball roster of executives in a hockey retail world. Which is a shame, since those three people dressed Americans for the better part of a decade. But, as anyone over the age of 20 knows, eras end. And while J. Crew will hopefully rebound, this era is officially over. Maybe we should all bust out our gingham one last time to honour it.