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Millard ‘Mickey’ Drexler Talks Price, Creativity, Career

The J. Crew Group Inc. chairman and ceo was the guest speaker at the inauguration of the auditorium in New School’s University Center.

Millard “Mickey” Drexler was on a roll.

This story first appeared in the January 29, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

During a wide-ranging discussion, the J. Crew Group Inc. chairman and chief executive officer, who was the guest speaker at the inauguration of the striking auditorium in New School’s University Center in Manhattan, touched on the company’s business, his career and the state of the industry.

“For spring, you’ll see our prices much more friendly this year,” said Drexler. “We can’t compete with designers. Our Madison Avenue and 66th Street Collection store does an enormous amount of business.”

A selection of items from Collection, a higher-priced line using more luxurious fabrics, will still be available in select J. Crew stores. It’s the “middle of the road” merchandise that will come down in price in some cases.

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The crowd of 900 included students and a contingent of J. Crew acolytes to whom Drexler gave shout-outs during the event.

“I grew up in the Bronx,” he said. “I resent the masses thing. I find the world isn’t that high-integrity. Maybe I grew up not being able to afford nice things, but it shouldn’t be that way. I wanted nice clothes that aren’t crazily priced.”

Drexler’s disdain for off-pricers and factory outlets is well documented. “Everything is going lower, and then there’s high and nothing in the middle,” he said. “Everyone is encroaching on everyone’s territory. TJX is the most valuable retailer.”

Prior to J. Crew, Drexler was chairman and ceo of Gap Inc. He recalled how the low-priced retail concept Old Navy was born. “Mass is fine, but Target is the reason we started Old Navy,” he said. “They were copying the Gap. The purpose of Old Navy was not to be a sale business, the purpose was to have respect for a low-price business.”

Price is democratic online because it’s easy to compare, he said. “We have one of the biggest apparel businesses online,” Drexler added. “It will be more and more seamless. We’re halfway there. We’re very profitable online.”

J. Crew’s international business will grow incrementally for now, Drexler said. The retailer has three stores in the U.K. and will open two more in late spring/early summer and fall. In addition, two units will bow in Hong Kong in late spring.

“We’re holding off on China and the rest of Europe,” Drexler said, noting that the company had $2.5 billion in sales in 2013. “The reports on China are very mixed, and we’re not ready. We don’t want to overexpand too quickly. We’re going slow. We’re in 101 countries online and have a total of 400 J. Crew stores. Madewell has 65 stores — that’s a big growth opportunity.”

Drexler, who admitted to having “always been an outlier and a contrarian,” dissed big business for stifling individual thought. “Creativity is not a corporation,” he said. “It’s a matter of letting people think out of the box. Most companies don’t listen to what people are thinking.”

RELATED STORY: The University Center at The New School Set to Open >>

The ceo has structured J. Crew’s offices differently to encourage cross-pollination. The space, which is open with no enclosed offices, has a similar raison d’être as the University Center, where the goal is active collaboration and interdisciplinary learning. “When I started, the only enclosed office was mine,” Drexler said of J. Crew. “I spent the first half of my first day feeling removed. There are no secrets. A lot of organizations haven’t moved forward. Their spaces are walled off. It eliminates the creativity.” He also has an unusual way of getting in touch with staffers. “On my second or third day, I installed a paging system. I didn’t want to communicate through voice mail or e-mail. There’s no speed or urgency.”

But Drexler pointed out that the perfect space without great leadership doesn’t mean much.

Monday’s event at the new University Center at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street was moderated by Vanity Fair contributing editor Paul Goldberger, and marked the return of “At the Parsons Table,” a series of discussions with the industry’s leading lights.

Prior to the program, Drexler told WWD that “there’s a dearth of talent and also a dearth of leadership” in the retail industry. He pointed out that J. Crew currently employs 26-plus Parsons The New School for Design graduates, including creative director and president Jenna Lyons, in creative jobs. “Every design head is a Parsons graduate,” he said. “It’s not that this was planned. I wasn’t aware of their [Parsons’] contribution. The fact is that those we’ve hired who’ve risen to the top are Parsons graduates. If people want to find talent, they should look for it or develop it or lead by example.”

When asked by Goldberger about making over a brand from the perspective of style, Drexler recalled, “My first day at Gap was a cultural nightmare for me. They had those really awful jeans with the pockets on the back. J. Crew was hemorrhaging when I came in and [I was] taking away product. Who has the patience to live with ugly goods?”