“We’ve set some ambitious targets to take it well beyond where it’s been. We are ready,” said Millard “Mickey” Drexler, who started reinventing the old New England factory workwear label in 2007 into something young, hip and laid back.
To grow the business and hone the look, Drexler, the chairman and chief executive officer of J. Crew Group Inc., Madewell’s parent, has overhauled the Madewell team, recruiting new design, marketing and merchandising heads, among others. He’s also formed a denim studio to elevate the category and has the staff focused on capitalizing on those products that most resonate with consumers, particularly denim, chambray shirts, “afternoon” dresses, transport totes and leather boots. This week, denim is being relaunched in premium fabrics and new styles and fits, and is beginning to stream into the stores and online.
“I have always been pretty obsessed with denim,” said Drexler, who almost always wears jeans, and felt challenged when he worked at department stores, long before he joined J. Crew 10 years ago, and before his Gap days, where he had to wear suits. Running Gap in the Eighties and Nineties, Drexler blew jeans out and Gap denim became the American uniform. “When I was in college I used to wash my denim in the washing machine to bleach it out,” Drexler said in an interview. “But forget my personal history. After being in business with Madewell for seven years we were thinking how we could be better at what we do, which is what we always do.”
An initial idea fell flat. Drexler approached some well-known denim brands run by friends. “They didn’t want to sell us because of other accounts and the usual politics. Frankly, I was getting a little angry they wouldn’t sell us. But we do everything else that wholesalers or designers do so we thought ‘Why can’t we take on the denim business?’ We didn’t have the in-house expertise. We found out we didn’t know enough about fabric, the technology of fabric, creating the best fits and the best washes. That became critical. So we decided to figure it out ourselves. We felt there wasn’t anyone out there doing denim of the quality-value relationship we are now doing.”
Drexler recruited fabric, technical, production, pattern and fit experts for the denim studio. It’s based in Los Angeles, which he considers “the world capital for jeans.”
Aside from recruiting the team, “My involvement has been really to be the nag — everyday pushing and helping getting it done,” Drexler said. What’s emerged under the Madewell label, he said, is premium denim priced $75 to $100 less than competitors and created with fabrics bought from the same mills. Twelve washes and five fits in the new premium fabric are offered. All washes and treatments are processed by hand so that no two pairs are exactly alike. The jeans are primarily priced $98 to $135. Madewell also offers hand-washed Chimala jeans from Japan, priced from around $350 to $500. Drexler declined to say how much volume denim generates at Madewell, but said it’s a growing percentage and that he hopes to do double the volume for the second half of the year.
Acknowledging that denim is ubiquitous at retail, Drexler said, “There’s a ton of everything out there. The world is oversupplied on everything.” But he added that Madewell jeans “have a degree of stretch, don’t bag out, have a memory and keep their shape. The yarn is made of a stretch core. It’s really soft. It doesn’t pinch the skin. We have perfected the ideal back pocket placement in our opinion.”
Six months ago, Drexler appointed Somsack Sikhounmuong, a Canadian who graduated from Parsons The New School for Design, as Madewell’s head designer, succeeding Kin Ying Lee. Sikhounmuong worked at J. Crew for 11 years before taking a short stint elsewhere and joining Madewell last January. He plans to sharpen the point of view and streamline the collection, which is casual, laid back and rooted in denim and with a tomboy relaxed feel often juxtaposed with a feminine side as well. Said Drexler: “He’s evolving the collection, focusing in on what’s been working really well, denim, chambray and perfecting our iconic pieces — jeans and chambray shirts. But everything is evolving all the time. Look at the stores now. The visual is changing. There is a much more focused point of view on jeans, chambray shirts, boots, women’s woven shirts, a cool assortment of sweaters, accessories and jewelry. It’s really visual. It’s edited.”
Sikhounmuong’s impact on the collection, already felt somewhat, will be stronger for holiday, Drexler said.
Also recently recruited to Madewell are Lisa Greenwald, head of merchandising; Michael Salmon, head of planning and allocation, and Susan Cernek, who is in charge of marketing.
Asked about how Madewell is performing, Drexler replied, “We are very pleased. Madewell is hitting its plans. Becoming profitable has taken us longer than expected. It is now profitable and starting to make an impact with consumers in America.”
While acknowledging the “challenging” economic environment for retailers and “choppy” traffic in the malls, “We are opening a lot of stores,” 17 this year, to be precise, bringing the total to 65 by the end of 2013. Madewell is seen generating more than $180 million in volume this year, market sources said. “Now we are committing capital. Madewell is officially on its way. It definitely has a place and makes a difference for shoppers.…There will be probably 80 to 85 stores by the end of next year. It could be 200 or 300 hundred stores some day, or even more than that.”
Madewell dates back to 1937. Drexler bought the trademark in 2005 and two years later began the reinvention process and leased the name to the J. Crew Group for $1 a year. In 2007, the company became the full owner of Madewell by paying Drexler $240,000 for acquiring and developing the Madewell mark, and then invested millions into growing the business.