The numbers are staggering: Since Mickey Drexler took over as CEO of J.Crew in 2003, the company’s revenues have risen 170 percent to near $1.9 billion in 2011. Each year 40 million copies of the J.Crew catalog (now euphemistically called a “style guide”) are printed. The company, which once kept its eye squarely on preppy culture and was more closely related to Eddie Bauer than Tory Burch, is now showing seasonally at New York Fashion Week.
It’s the reason why Drexler was once dubbed “The Merchant Prince” during a mercurial run at the helm of the Gap.
Given this celebrated makeover, it’s not surprising that one of the voices in Thursday night’s hourlong CNBC documentary about Drexler, “J.Crew and the Man Who Dressed America,” is Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue and one of the most savvy and puissant forces in fashion.
“You can walk the floor with Mickey Drexler and he knows every piece of clothing,” an immaculately bobbed Wintour tells CNBC anchor David Faber. “You see lots of CEOs who are brilliant at what they do, but they’re removed, and there’s nothing removed about Mickey.”
J.CREW AND THE MAN WHO DRESSED AMERICA
Which is perhaps Wintour’s delicate way of saying that Drexler is a micro-manager. The question that this documentary poses in several smart ways is if a company is successful, is micro-managing such a bad thing? In Drexler’s case, the answer seems to be no.
The 67-year-old, who evaluates nearly everything that hits the sales floor, makes his presence well known at the company, from dropping in on stores and drilling managers to regularly addressing employees through an intercom system in J.Crew’s corporate offices like a chatty school principal, with a stream of announcements and witticisms.
As the CNBC crew documents, when Drexler sees a polka-dot dress or shawl-collar sweater that catches his eye, he excitedly says “Hello! Hello!” as if greeting a sexy new friend. And when he doesn’t like something, it disappears in a flash.
His acumen and trained eye are part of the reason why first lady Michelle Obama is regularly spotted in the brand and J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons has risen to the rank of fashion royalty.
The documentary is a fascinating look at Drexler’s world and that of a company straddling the line between aspirational and obtainable clothing. But “The Man Who Dressed America” doesn’t provide a lot of new information.
For those who follow fashion, or at least read blogs devoted to J.Crew (yes, they exist), Drexler’s story has already been told, most impressively in a lengthy New Yorker profile written in 2010. Both New Yorker reporter Nick Paumgarten and CNBC’s Faber even had lunch with the same trio of Drexler’s childhood friends. Perhaps the dynamic Drexler is also good at micro-managing interviews.
Despite the sense of familiarity, Drexler’s tale is still an intriguing one. He grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. His makeshift bedroom was a cot in the hallway. His combination of ambition and brains helped him get into the Bronx High School of Science, and then he worked his way through college before enrolling in business school at Boston University.
The CNBC documentary charts his rise from Ann Taylor to Bloomingdale’s to Macy’s, and eventually to the Gap in the 1990s, where he made khakis cool (at least for a spell) and built the company into a retail giant. After he was fired from the Gap, he quickly jumped to J.Crew and began a similar makeover.
The fashion risks that eventually led to his dismissal at the Gap are celebrated at J.Crew. The company has become a favorite for men looking for affordable shirts crafted of Italian fabric (and assembled in China) and women seeking both wedding dresses and T-shirts. All of this is fastidiously noted in the documentary.
It feels, however, that chunks of Drexler’s story are missing. We see that he’s driven, but the question of what fuels that passion is never answered. His management style is well-known, but with such a fascinating, bigger-than-life figure, we’re left wanting to see more than a behind-the-scenes look at the factories that produce J.Crew fabric.