Showtime for Madewell on Broadway

Millard "Mickey" Drexler is pumped up and for good reason. He's touring the Madewell flagship in New York's SoHo, seeing it for the first time stocked with...

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Millard “Mickey” Drexler is pumped up and for good reason. He’s touring the Madewell flagship in New York’s SoHo, seeing it for the first time stocked with merchandise and dissecting the presentation. 

This story first appeared in the February 20, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“This is the vision played out,” Drexler said on Friday at the 3,500-square-foot space, which opens today at 486 Broadway on the corner of Broome Street. The store is in an 1883 Romanesque Revival brick building that decades ago housed the Mechanics and Traders’ Bank of Manhattan.

For Drexler, the chairman and chief executive of J. Crew Group, the Madewell flagship oozes the kind of character that only comes with the passage of years and elevates the brand image in a way that no garden-variety retail box can.

“I don’t like to use the term flagship, but we were lucky to find a flagship store in an extraordinary building. You can’t replicate this in a shopping center,” he said.

Mostly, he loves that many of the original elements are intact — the creaky pine wood floor, the cast iron radiators, and the exposed brick walls formerly hidden by Sheetrock. In the basement, the bank vault is still there; elsewhere, the gas pipes that fed the gasoliers (chandeliers that work on gas) are visible.

“Every store is a canvas. We took advantage of this one. This could be a beautiful gallery or a great shoe store. I would live in this space. It’s kind of the same feeling you get when you fall in love with an old house,” said Drexler.

Turned on by the store’s progress, he calls the J. Crew PA system at headquarters with his cell to announce to his workers: “Madewell has literally and figuratively arrived on Broadway.” He wants his whole team in on the action, even if they can’t physically be on the scene, and wants them to sense what he senses — that the store captures the spirit of the Madewell brand, which was inspired by a 70-year-old former New Bedford, Mass., workwear label bearing the name. “Really, the store feels the same way. It’s not fancy, not exclusive, not overarchitectural, or designed.”

Yet the walk-through isn’t without concerns.

“Can we not bury the handbags?” Drexler asks, noticing they’re confined to a couple of shelves and blocked by a fashion form.

Then he examines the 20-foot-long denim bar. It’s too high, but he likes the scope of it. On the staircase landing, there’s a wall of mirrors that has to go.

His biggest concern is upstairs, past the DJ booth, in an open room just beyond the “gallery” of graphic Ts and wall of crumpled scarves. “It’s like you’re walking into the main salon of a home and want to be blown away. But where’s the exclamation point?” The merchandising is just too regimented — a short and a top, a short and a top, etc. He even pulls out a pair of shorts with a lattice pattern and asks, “Does anybody like this?”

By Tuesday, there’s been quite a bit of change. There are more accessories on the first floor, spread out across eye-level shelving. The denim bar has been cut a foot lower and painted white, and the staircase wall is merchandised and sans mirrors. Upstairs in the far room, there is greater variety in the mix — trenches, cardigans, flip-flops as well as shorts, even the pair Drexler didn’t like, though now it’s displayed less prominently.

“The cool thing about getting a store ready to be opened is that you try different things out and can change them around, if you don’t like it at first,” noted Margot Brunelle, senior vice president of marketing and public relations for J. Crew, Madewell and Crewcuts.

Other concerns have dissipated. When the site was first brought to the attention of Drexler and the Madewell team last year, the potential wasn’t obvious. “We needed to see through the layers and layers of paints, the wear and tear and the dreariness,” Drexler said. “To us, the attraction was in its simplicity and timelessness.”

The store also was thought to be too far south in SoHo, away from the main pedestrian traffic, though the view has changed with Britain’s Topshop due to open next door later this year. The block, Drexler believes, will become a destination.

The two-level store is designed as a series of segmented spaces emphasizing different items, rather than one wide-open space. The front is narrow, like a funnel, and has enfilades framing two small, intimate selling areas that serve as portals to a wider room with the denim bar, a denim wall and the staircase to the second floor. There’s a gray-and-yellow Madewell painted sign on the wall that’s been sanded down so it appears faded from time. And by the denim area, which is filled with signature jeans and bright, garment-dyed jeans, there’s a denim expert to help customers select the right size and one of the three signature fits: The Bootlegger, Skinny Low and Real Straight.

Overall, the collection embodies layering, mix and matching and an easy, laid-back downtown look. There are also lots of quirky colors and color combinations, such as neon yellows mixed with green. Aside from the jeans, key items include gauzy cotton and embroidered eyelet scarves, graphic Ts, rumpled cardigans, leather handbags and jackets, Italian leather and suede boots, trenches and shorts.

As far as how much volume the Madewell flagship will generate, Drexler won’t project publicly. However, industry sources said the store needs to do about $4 million in annual volume to make a nice profit. He did acknowledge that construction costs were not exorbitant: “Keeping the original context of the store meant that [construction costs] would be more on the lower side than higher.”

Three additional openings have been set for this year in the Annapolis Mall in Maryland in late May, and this summer in Lenox Square in Atlanta and Tysons Corner in McLean, Va. There are seven stores currently operating, including the SoHo flagship.

Also on tap: Madewell’s Web site, madewell1937.com, will start selling merchandise in May.

Asked how Madewell is performing, Drexler replied: “We’re very pleased, though we have a couple of slow stores in shopping centers. We keep tweaking, fixing and moving Madewell forward. It’s still R&D. We’re not committed to a big rollout. Any time you start a business, there is always a period of fixing, learning and redesigning. It’s a year and a half old. For us, it seems older, because we are working so intensely.”

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