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Drexler at Work: Refining the Madewell Vision

Madewell, the brand born out of the vision of Millard "Mickey" Drexler and an old workwear label he purchased about five years ago, is becoming more of a reality.

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Madewell, the brand born out of the vision of Millard “Mickey” Drexler and an old workwear label he purchased about five years ago, is becoming more of a reality.

After being introduced by the J. Crew Group six months ago, the Madewell personality has been sharpened, the winning product has been identified and losers culled from the collection. A transactional Web site is expected to go live in early 2008, and the hunt for retail real estate is intensifying. Seven stores should be operating by the end of this year, and finding a downtown Manhattan location for an opening this fall or next year is a priority.

In an unusual move, a temporary boutique opens today on the 11th floor of J. Crew’s New York headquarters at 770 Broadway and Ninth Street. The 1,500-square-foot space carries the full range of merchandise, but spotlights spring bestsellers ” garment dyed five-pocket jeans, drop-waisted jumpers, Italian leather boots and totes, raw-edged pima cotton V-necks and vintage stripe Ts. Heretofore, these products were available only at the chain’s two existing doors at Westfield Century City shopping center in Los Angeles and at NorthPark Center in Dallas. It’s New Yorkers’ first taste of the women’s casual brand, which is edgier than most.

“We wanted to have some fun with this, so we’re opening a little shop and inviting friends, customers, fashionistas and associates,” said Drexler, chairman and chief executive of J. Crew Group, in an exclusive interview, during which he provided a progress report on Madewell.

The temporary shop is also a ploy to generate some East Coast hype, and get the J. Crew Group team ” and possibly some Wall Street analysts ” more tuned into how the brand is gathering steam, in advance of a permanent New York store. “Realistically, we’ll have a location selected by the end of this year,” Drexler said. “We want to be downtown, in SoHo or TriBeCa or the West Village. We want to get the right location. We are definitely in no hurry to get this moving.’

Elsewhere around the country, Madewell store openings are set for The Domain in Austin, Tex., on Friday; in May at The Mall at Short Hills, in New Jersey, and in Las Vegas in the Fashion Show Mall just off the Strip.

This story first appeared in the March 6, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Stores average between 2,500 to 3,000 square feet in size.

The Century City unit is tracking at over $500 in sales per square foot, according to industry sources, while the Dallas unit has been disappointing due to construction in the mall wing, which has been deterring traffic.

Drexler characterized Madewell as still being in the “R&D” phase and by no means “a gun-to-the-head start-up.” There’s no pressure for the group to expand, with plenty of growth opportunities remaining for its core J. Crew brand, he emphasized.

Drexler joined J. Crew Group in December 2003, turned the company around and took it public last June in a highly successful IPO. He has a 12 percent stake in the business.

Madewell has formulated an expansion plan for 2008, though no deals have closed yet, and Drexler is taking it slow, gauging sales results and consumer reaction for a few more seasons before giving any kind of full-fledged rollout the green light. It’s a method he’s learned from past experience, as the former ceo of Gap Inc., where he launched Old Navy, which skyrocketed fast, and Hemisphere, a chain that never saw much daylight and shut down after a brief period. Outside Drexler’s world, some other recent start-ups have hit rough times, like Gap’s Forth & Towne, which will be shuttered entirely in June, and Martin + Osa, the American Eagle division that ousted its president Ken Pilot not long ago.

For Madewell, “It’s so early to have any kind of concrete expectations,” Drexler said. “It takes a year and a half to two years to get a feel. We are in the constant adjustment phase right now.” He added, “We’re keeping Madewell under the radar.”

Well, kind of. There’s obviously enough confidence and enthusiasm to move the concept forward a bit in the most competitive city in the country. “We were impatient to bring [Madewell] to the New York audience,” Drexler admitted. Yet for the moment, there’s a limited window of shopping opportunity. The store at 770 Broadway will only be open through March 16. It’s by invitation only today, and, thereafter, customers will have to call ahead to get in.

There’s been no advertising yet, only word of mouth, and some celebrities have shopped the L.A. store, including Reese Witherspoon a few times. Uma Thurman got into the 770 Broadway unit on Monday and went for the garment-dyed denim and girly tops. “We’re very pleased with the buzz and the reaction to the goods, and we are very pleased with the niche in the marketplace that Madewell fills. It’s inspired by a vision and a sense of the goods,” Drexler said.

While Madewell, like the J. Crew brand, emphasizes detailing and colors, “It’s not the same sensibility of J. Crew. We are not creating a less expensive J. Crew,” Drexler explained. “Madewell has a different personality.”

Madewell products are priced 20 to 30 percent less than J. Crew.

The 770 Broadway site is heavily merchandised, and that’s also a J. Crew trait. “We like to use every square foot,” Drexler noted. “We like intense merchandising.”

But the styling, as well as the colors, like the porcelain or sterling gray denims, and gauzy, breathable fabrics, seem different. So does the target market. It’s less preppy, less tailored, and more geared for customers shopping Scoop, Barneys Co-op, Fred Segal, Anthropologie, the fifth floor of Bergdorf Goodman, 5F, and such hip vendors as James Perse and C&C California, albeit at significantly lower price points. There also seems to be less of an evening component, though there are casual elements appropriate for going out.

“It’s for girls who graduated from the teenage chains and can’t afford to take out a mortgage on clothes,” Drexler said. “We’re in the trend business; we’re not about basics. We’re not a teenage chain and we’re not assigning an age to this business.”

Since its launch, Madewell has evolved in several ways, responding to customer demand. “It’s all about product driving us, as we go through seeing what are the demands of our customers,” said Kin Lee, Madewell’s head of design. Novelty is more prevalent, and the assortment is less deep in classics; blazers have been dropped, and labels have been added, such as Wallace rumpled sweaters; Eliot camisoles with lace appliqués and safari dresses; New Haven chino-inspired trouser shorts; Hawke for understated, easy fit sweatshirts and sweat bottoms, and Lockharte accessories, including $98 to $248 bags and shoes. There are a few outside brands in the store, such as Havianas flip-flops and Philip Crangi jewelry.

“Madewell started as a fun idea that has grown into an assortment of great clothes that look good now, and will continue to look good five years from now,” Drexler said in a statement. “At the end of the day, it’s about great style, design and attitude ” its ageless.”

Madewell is a former workwear company in New Bedford, Mass., dating back to 1937. Before he joined J. Crew in December 2003, Drexler purchased the name which is now owned by J. Crew Group. The Madewell label appears only on denim and cords. “I didn’t want Madewell to be on anything else,” Drexler said. “When you put a denim brand on other categories, it doesn’t have the same integrity or authenticity.”

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