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What Will J.Crew Look Like Without Mickey Drexler?

Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage via Getty Images.

When news broke yesterday that Mickey Drexler would be stepping down as J.Crew’s CEO, our office erupted in conversation. For any other company, such an announcement might feel obvious after news of plummeting sales, hefty debt and hundreds of layoffs, but Drexler’s name has been tied up with J.Crew for so long that it’s hard to imagine the brand without him. It feels like the end of an era. After 14 years, Drexler, with his inimitably erratic leadership style and lovable New York accent, has become almost as synonymous with the cult of J.Crew as Jenna Lyons herself. (Almost.)

“Drexler, who owns 10 percent of the company, will stay on as chairman, and will be succeeded as CEO by Jim Brett, who was most recently president of home furnishings company West Elm,” reports Business of Fashion.

Per Drexler’s statement: “This is an exciting time for J.Crew as we continue to make significant changes to position our company for long-term success.”

I guess that’s the crux of it: J.Crew needs to make significant changes if it wants to survive. Major leadership turnover makes sense. But it seems so recent, doesn’t it, that Drexler and Lyons’ magical partnership was splashed across headlines and heralded as the ultimate rebranding dream team? They pulled J.Crew out of a slump, took it public and made it iconic. “Not since Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive at Apple has a creative pairing been as intriguing and fruitful as that of Drexler and Lyons,” wrote Fast Company in 2013. “Their partnership would mark the end of the days when J.Crew’s product design was dictated by corporate strategy. Together, they would make and sell only what they loved.”

But things took a turn in 2014 and it feels like J.Crew’s been running in sand ever since. At least if you look at the numbers. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong. Despite J.Crew Collection maintaining its foothold as the approachable darling of recent New York fashion weeks, the mass market pivots just haven’t stuck: “Turnaround efforts — including a return to the preppy ‘basics’ that performed so well in the past and a move into athleisure with a multi-season collaboration with New Balance — have yet to move the needle,” reports BoF.

Many blame diminished quality, others its marketing strategy. Some say J.Crew went “too fashion,” or the flip: stayed too loyal to an outdated brand ethos. Others wonder if this could be a pattern. After all, Drexler had a similar trajectory with Ann Taylor and Gap. There are plenty of theories — maybe it was just a perfect storm. Or maybe J.Crew had nowhere to go but down. Pedestals are tricky like that. Especially today, when trend winds blow at hyper-speed.

In a Washington Post piece titled “Sorry J.Crew, Women Shoppers Just Aren’t That Into You” in 2015, Drexler conceded: “We’ve made some mistakes,” citing “missteps in our iconic classics.” But still, he described the J.Crew customer as “loyal as hell until we go wrong.” He’s right about that. Maybe the spotlight has cooled, but J.Crew is still a two billion-dollar business and a household name. I know plenty of people who rely on it for a certain level of quality and a very specific POV. And current head women’s designer Somsack Sikhounmuong isn’t going anywhere, at least not yet.

The Drexler-to-Brett changing of the guard means one thing, though: A mandatory brand shake-up is in order. I suppose the question is, what might a newly successful J.Crew look like, if not the layer-laden lovechild of Lyons and Drexler? What do you want it to look like? How can J.Crew survive?

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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