J. Crew chairman and chief executive Millard “Mickey” Drexler has some important advice for the fashion industry: “Go with your gut.”

The merchandising wizard who transformed the way America dresses at Gap Inc. and then turned around J. Crew to the point where last year it had one of the most successful initial public offerings in retail history also dismissed the idea the fashion industry is talent-starved. In Drexler’s view, “The merchants are around — if we unearth them.”

Drexler made a rare speech Tuesday at a luncheon at the National Retail Federation’s annual expo and convention in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. He received the NRF’s Gold Medal Award, its highest honor, and called upon the industry to cultivate talent, think more about design, product and quality, and pursue creativity and integrity in a world that he believes can sometimes be too preoccupied with fast food and fast fashion.

The appetite for quality design and fine dining hasn’t disappeared, he insisted. “Every customer is looking for what’s new and exciting,” said Drexler, who spoke for about 10 minutes without notes.

The luncheon drew an audience of other ceo’s there to congratulate Drexler, and other awardees: Reed Hastings, founder, chairman and ceo of Netflix, and Kishore Biyani, founder and managing director of Pantaloon Retail, a major chain in India. Hastings received the NRF’s Innovator of the Year Award, and Biyani received the International Retailer of the Year Award.

Discussing the early part of his career, Drexler said, “I was a bit of a maverick.” As a young Bloomingdale’s buyer being nurtured by the late, great Katie Murphy, the store’s fashion director, “I spent most of my time dealing with customers, discovering what they like and don’t like, and making a profit,” he recalled. “I became an instant buyer. I would buy anything that looks good. I don’t think the industry inspires us to allow that to happen anymore.”

Apparently, the maverick in him is still there. He is mentoring Doo-Ri Chung, a young designer and CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award winner who will be designing for J. Crew a few wedding dresses and other items, Drexler said. “We have an obligation to try to do something new with a recognized talent. I’m not sure [the industry] is doing what we have to do,” he said.

This story first appeared in the January 17, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Drexler said that every day at work, he’s there to learn something new. And while many retailers and vendors are increasingly relying on consumer research to drive their marketing and merchandising decisions, Drexler takes a different tack. “If anyone doubts that this industry is based on innovation, they are wrong,” he said. “There is no reason not to start thinking more creatively. The gut is important. Making mistakes is important. What doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger.”

Clearly Drexler knows of what he speaks. J. Crew has been one of retailing’s biggest success stories in recent years with its increasing focus on “affordable luxury.” The retailer last week said that, in regard to holiday sales, its retail and factory outlet sales rose 17.3 percent to $201.5 million during the November-December period. Same-store sales gained 8.5 percent, which is over a 5.4 percent gain in the prior year. Drexler continues to own a 12 percent stake in the retailer, which also has launched two new formats during his tenure: Crewcuts, aimed at the children’s market, and Madewell, which focuses on casualwear that is less expensive and edgier than J. Crew.

M. Farooq Kathwari, chairman, president and ceo of Ethan Allen Interiors, presented the awards during the NRF luncheon. Afterward, he admitted, “the merchant is unfortunately gone from the picture. At the end of the day it’s merchandising sensibilities that differentiate us.”

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