The Switch is Sweet.
It’s no secret: I’m a fan of Mickey Drexler. He’s a branding and marketing genius, and Mickey and I have something in common: he’s a University at Buffalo alum, so what’s not to like?
Like Ann Taylor previously (the store, not the NPR announcer), after the Gap ousted Mickey from his CEO chair, he joined J. Crew. His golden touch is already apparent. Like other visionaries, Drexler is not always the first to do something, but always does whatever it is better than the competition. Which is why the Gap is in BIG trouble.
I worked for the Gap during Mickey’s golden years, the mid- to late-1980s. Mickey had rescued Don and Doris’ Fisher’s floundering jean and record shop, and in so doing, was anointed by the Fishers as official golden boy. During most of his reign at the Gap, Mickey enjoyed carte blance. He also enjoyed complete and total control. One example: in 1988, the majority of merchandise sold at the Gap was either Denim, jersey, or fleece. Some time before my arrival, Mickey had declared polyester dead, and all jersey — from that day on — was to be made from 100% cotton (these were the days before Lycra was even a thought in the minds of DuPont chemists…). Mickey helped to make the once desirable polyester and acrylic of the 1960s and 1970s, the fashion swear words of the 1980s. Synthetics were to be used only when absolutely necessary. Shortly after the 100% jersey cotton decree, Mickey declared that 60/40 fleece — the fabric that all sweats were made of — to be dead. Like good Gappers, we literally gathered our now passe running pants, hoodies, and zip-ups, took them to Lynn’s (our store manager) house, and burned — or more accurately, melted — the shameful evidence of fashion ignorance.
With virtually equal efficiency and circumstance, all Gap stores were rid of the now dreaded textile, now doomed for undesirable retailers like K-Mart and Goodwill, and destined for fashion laggards like grandparents and the poor. The dreaded 60/40 — perfectly acceptable the week before Mickey’s decree — was replaced with fleece made from a more desirable 80/20 blend. In this instance, the 20% synthetic content was excusable, as it helped to “wick” sweat from the body during exercise. We all, good Gappers all, were relieved. What’s interesting: not only did the Gappers blindly follow orders, but so too, did the fashionistas. With nearly equal efficiency, 60/40 was out across the board, and 80/20 was in. Never mind the fact that 5 years later, Mickey founded Old Navy, a Gap division that sold 60/40 fleece — and even worse 100% polyester — as its bread and butter, is entirely another story, but underscores the hypnotic power and genius of Mickey.
So why does any of this matter. Well, truth told, it doesn’t. But, it’s interesting to watch as Mickey reinvigorates a well known but lagging brand. If Mickey can pull in a few bucks from every J. Crew catalog he sends out, Mr. Crew will be a happy guy. First on the hit list, naturally, is the baby he coddled for over 20 years. The Gap is in the cross hairs — not from Leslie Wexner or any of his Limited spin-offs, and not from imports like H&M, but from the creator himself, and he’s going full-force.
Exhibit A. J. Crew stores. Cleaned up, cleaned out, and ready for a flush of new and exciting merchandise, Mickey and his new team are ready to pounce. J. Crew is ready for a renaissance, and it’s about ready to happen. Armed with fresh bucks from the J. Crew IPO, Mickey is prepping the preppy retailer to get ready for a stellar Q4. I popped in to a J. Crew yesterday, and sure enough, the khakis were backlisted, while fresh, fashion-forward merchandise was featured front and center. The significant cue that change is on the horizon will be when J. Crew stores re-set the floor plan to be half mens/half womens at the entry, rather than the current womens front, mens back that we’ve been seeing for a few years. My guess is that it’s right around the corner.
Mickey is getting ready to grow the company too. Madewell, will take on Gap and Old Navy, and will feature well made, durable women’s clothing. Likely not too far behind will be a similar Men’s division, and a reinvigorated Kids shop, while J. Crew is left to take on Banana Republic. All neat and tidy, it will be interesting to see how long it takes. As it stands now, the Gap as a whole has plummeted in to the trap that the Limited found itself in in the late 1980s. Too many divisions, with too much similar merchandise, at polar opposite price points — the divisions begin to cannibalize each other. Far better to limit the opening of new outlets, and keep the mystique alive — it’s brand fertilizer, or a carrot on a stick — close enough to smell, but not close enough to get to. And, somewhat sadly, the Gap has no instinct that it’s happening — what the Gap folks don’t realize is that Mickey built the company, and likewise, Mickey can take it down. The collective cluelessness at the Gap is evidenced by the recent foray into upscale womens apparel (Forth & Towne) which is hopelessly modeled on the failed 1987 Gap-fuelled Hemisphere experiment, and will likely fail. Similarly, the redesign of traditional Gap stores in Connecticut and Colorado to better distinguish the store environment from the merchandise is shortsighted, and will more probably dilute the Gap brand rather than rescue it.
Now, for full disclosure. Mickey and I have something else in common. We were both booted from the Gap. One evening in 1993, after working for the Gap for 4 years, I was fired from the Gap — my first job, to which I gave my heart and soul. After one particularly tough summer day, my then district manager, Nadine, yelled at me for something stupid, and I called her an impolite name. The next day, I was history. Just like Mickey, after a fabulous run as a retail giant, I was out, just like that. It was a long time ago and I’ve let it go, but I still remember the sting. So somewhere deep inside of me, I have this gnawing feeling: comeuppance is sweet, and in some sense, it would be fun to watch the big blue bully fall down and skin its knee. So Mickey, if you’re out there, reading this — good luck brother, I know you can — and will — do it, and when the stock breaks $30 (which by my estimate will be soon), lunch is on me.
It’s an exciting time to be a retail watcher. The man who changed the way Americans shop, and the way the world buys is about to do it again. Stay tuned, it’s likely to be an interesting few months…