Mickey Drexler

NEW YORK — Once an iconoclast, always an iconoclast.

Millard “Mickey” Drexler, who’s been laying low since leaving J. Crew as chief executive officer over a year ago, resurfaced at the “Retail Radicals” forum Wednesday at Columbia University here and was his same self.

Speaking provocatively and offering more than a few opinions, Drexler defended the legitimacy of physical retail for “bringing products to life.” He suggested legacy brands such as Ralph Lauren and Victoria’s Secret, mired in rough patches, can be relevant again with “imagination and vision,” and predicted that drugstores and retailers focused on commodities are headed for “major disruption.”

In the context of brick-and-mortar, “Commodities don’t matter,” Drexler stated during his conversation with retail analyst Richard Jaffe, who cohosted the forum with The Robin Report and the W. Edwards Deming Center.

“You can go online and order all day long. In my home, we order commodities. There is no reason to go to a drugstore. I can’t imagine why there are so many drugstores around — 24 hours, CVS, Duane Reade, Walgreens. It’s being disrupted this very minute.

“Why schlep paper towels back from the supermarket? Why schlep dog food? Why schlep a lot of things?,” said Drexler, who has two dogs but said he doesn’t order the dog food.

“De-schlepping is really important.”

On restoring relevancy to legacy brands, “I am looking at a couple of them. If you have the imagination and the vision,” it could be done, Drexler suggested. “Then it comes down to people — people who get it. Do they have the street smarts? Do they have the vision? Can they walk in and assort and style the goods? There are a lot of ‘historians’ buying goods. I don’t blame the merchants, I blame management.”

The former Gap ceo who founded Old Navy and re-envisioned Madewell, once a workwear manufacturer, into a hip fashion chain,  is now chairman and an investor in Outdoor Voices, a director and investor in Warby Parker, and an investor in and chairman of J. Crew Group. He’s also involved in a startup business, but he gave no details about it.

Though no longer a ceo, he’s still on top of the retail scene, and firmly believes physical stores have their place in the world. “I’m always looking for the unique and the surprise, and things out there that are exciting. You can’t do that without a store. It’s a canvas to paint on. A store does bring to life the product. It brings to life a story. I think they have a place to stay. That being said, a lot of people are closing a lot of unnecessary stores. The rents are killers. I think Manhattan has a lot of empty stores, more than other places. If you can’t make money, don’t open a store.”

About five decades ago, Drexler went through the training program of Abraham & Straus, which in the Nineties merged into Macy’s. “I kind of have this playbook that’s been with me since I left A&S. It’s about color. It’s about visual. It’s about what you see, and I think you bring it to life by having someone who knows how to bring it to life. I see more bad-looking stores today than there are good-looking stores today. Instinct and the judgment, and the gut aren’t given enough importance….If I hear about data science one more time….”

Drexler, one of the last of the true merchant princes, acknowledged that he “micro-managed the hell out of the business when I had to” and that, “I am old-fashioned.”

Half jokingly, he said, “I was a data scientist for 50 years. I looked at my selling reports, forecast out the business, looked at the weeks on hand and I figured it out…At J. Crew we had fights all the time. I don’t want planners buying the goods, I want merchants buying the goods. Let the planners distribute the goods, figure out how much goes to each store but don’t have them select goods. I want merchants to do that.

“We all complain there are not enough merchants around to do the jobs that have to get done. I always say the merchant’s role is the key role. If it doesn’t get more important, we are not going to have growth in the industry the way we have to have it, along with design if it’s appropriate.”

He did speak to the “art and science” of managing successful retail. “If you don’t know how to operate the business, you are not going to know how many units to buy, expense management, IT, and all that. I don’t think anyone in the world can do both.”

For those in the fashion business, there’s no escaping a downturn at some point. “It’s always guaranteed that in the fashion business you are going to hit a wall,” said Drexler.

At J. Crew, that’s what happened. “The last few years at J. Crew for me were extremely difficult,” Drexler said. “We had some self-inflicted wounds. J. Crew is going through a huge issue. They’re changing the business dramatically. We’ll see what happens. J. Crew will stand for something different, in a sense, and it’s up to management to make it work.”

Fashion retailing, generally, has become “a business of struggle. There’s just not as much business to be had as there is inventory available. There is all this stuff and we don’t need it all.…Most of the merchants I speak to are not having fun.”

During his hour-long appearance at Columbia, which was in the form of a Q&A with Jaffe, Drexler did express some views on retailers to watch.

“Anybody ever hear of Warm? It’s on Mott Street,” he said. “I called the owner and went to see her. She hand selects every item in the store and she has her own wholesale brand. You might like it. You might love it. There is kind of a cult following in the store.”

On Old Navy and Walmart, Drexler said, “Old Navy has become very much a discount business but is still very successful. The sale thing is killing us all in terms of how you deal with it, but if someone took a Walmart and had nice clothes in it, why not? Walmart has a shot. Sears had a shot. Kmart had a shot, I think if you could provide good-looking, respectful clothes to the mass audience, there is an opportunity.”

On Lane Bryant, “If they upgraded the business, maybe they have an opportunity. It’s a famous name; it’s a legacy opportunity.”

On Apple: “Every time I go by an Apple store, they are incredibly crowded. Why? Extraordinary product, great service and they give something to the world that people need… I’ve been on the board of Apple for 16 years. [He no longer is.] I worked with Steve Jobs for 12. He had it all. He would call on people when he needed help.  He was a very seductive, charming man, may he rest in peace. He could get anything out of anyone, including me and everyone. Today, his vision of the store lives on.”