Retail's old guard has officially come to an end: Mickey Drexler, the "merchant prince" of retail, is stepping down as J.Crew's CEO. As reported by The Business of Fashion late Monday afternoon, after 14 years leading the company, Drexler will be replaced by Jim Brett, who is leaving his post as West Elm's president.
This is the latest dramatic fall in Drexler's storied career as turnaround agent. Most famous for his revival of The Gap in the 1990s--bringing it from a $400 million company to a $14 billion retail powerhouse--in 2002 he was abruptly fired. His redemption was at J.Crew, which he joined in 2003. Upon arrival, he spotted a lanky designer named Jenna Lyons; and over the next decade, the two transformed J.Crew from an outdated, preppy player into a profitable, cult fashion brand.
But over the last few years, J.Crew has become the latest victim of an unforgiving retail environment. After several years of falling sales, plateauing popularity, steep pricing, and product misfires, the retailer's private equity owners, TPG Capital and Leonard Green & Partners, have lost patience. In April, after 26 years with the company, Lyons--the face of J.Crew who turned her nerd-chic look into a national fashion movement--abruptly stepped down as creative director. Later that month, the New York-based retailer announced a restructuring, layoffs, and the departure of its head of menswear, a department that not too long ago was a reliable profit engine in the company.
It was somewhat inevitable that Drexler would be next. A couple of weeks ago, the charismatic, 72-year-old Bronx-native admitted to the Wall Street Journal that during his J.Crew tenure he underestimated the impact technology would have on retail. "I've never seen the speed of change as it is today," he said. "If I could go back 10 years, I might have done some things earlier."
While Drexler will stay on as the company's chairman, he's chosen another turnaround agent--West Elm's Brett--to take his place. Brett is credited with turning Anthropologie into a profitable, swoon-worthy home goods utopia for women shoppers in the early 2000s. After becoming the president of William Sonoma Inc.-owned West Elm in 2010, the merchandising veteran transformed it from a bland modern furniture chain that was shuttering stores, to a dynamic $1 billion home furnishings destination, at one point resulting in double-digit revenue growth for 24 consecutive quarters. (Brett is also a former Inc. magazine columnist.)
Brett has a proven track record for cleverly tapping into every zeitgeist, from sourcing artisanal products to turning West Elm stores into cafes and community centers to even launching a new boutique hotel line. While most of Brett's career has not been in apparel--arguably his biggest learning curve--according to a statement Drexler made to The Business of Fashion, Brett has another qualification that's been lacking. "Jim has a proven track record of pushing for innovation and growing omnichannel brands," says Drexler.