I used to refer to my daughter Natasha as Ivanka Trump. Both have jewelry lines. Most EtsyNY members know Natasha is Wink and Flip. But she recently confided in me that she did not like being called Ivanka Trump.
"Who then?" I asked.
She thought for a moment and then answered purposefully, "Mickey Drexler."
It raises certain issues. When an EtsyNY friend wanted to attend a movie together and suggested a date, I wrote back: "
Booked. Day of beauty planned with Mickey Drexler," and there were some questions.
No one ever accused Natasha of aiming low. Mickey (his mother named him Millard) Drexler grew up in the Bronx, slept on a cot in the hallway of his apartment (according to 60 Minutes), and you might never have heard of him except he is the current chairman and CEO of the J. Crew Group (a place where I swear they know my daughter by first name.)
Some people say Drexler invented Casual Friday. As the former CEO of Gap Inc. he pulled the khaki pant away from the military and out of the Preppy Handbook to make it an American wardrobe staple. He's been a director at Apple since its heyday in 1999. His 69th birthday was 10 days ago, and he is still going VERY strong; the guy is called the Merchant Prince.
But he started out like many of us did. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, City College and SUNY Buffalo. He received an M.B.A from BU and went on to rise to merchandising vice-president at the now-defunct A&S department store in the mid-70s. He held positions at Ann Taylor, Bloomingdales and Macy*s.
GAP and J. Crew
Drexler was GAP in the 1990s. He introduced private label merchandise for the store. it expanded rapidly to become an iconic part of 90s pop culture, featuring commercials with Beatles background music (remember Mellow Yellow?). The relaxed American casual look that he defined made the Gap a top brand the world over. Retailers began to believe that stores needed people with "impeccable taste" and "strong gut instincts" rather than just numbers, to thrive.
In 2002, Drexler and GAP parted ways, and when the head of The J.Crew Group heard this he went over to Mickey Drexler's house, knocked on the front door, and offered him the company's top job.
Drexler turned the American clothing and accessories retailer (founded via catalog in 1983) into an upscale boutique, opening its first store in 1989. Gone were the dressy business-style clothes, in came the vintage "look alike" styles with a feminine edge.
According to writer Nick Paumgarten, in a profile about Drexler he wrote forThe New Yorker, the CEO frequently gets on the company loudspeaker at the downtown NYC offices and makes random announcements. Here is the pre-announcement scenario Paumgarten witnessed firsthand:
"On a rainy day in May, Drexler and his team of designers and merchants crowded into a shack on a pier in Maine, where a small group of local seamstresses, in the employ of a company called Sea Bags, was stitching totes, duffels, and dopp kits out of old sails; the New Yorkers were swarming the goods, like discriminating pirates. They arranged bags on the floor in order to choose a few to feature in the J. Crew catalogue. “This is why you come and you see and you feel,” Drexler said. He stood over it all, rocking a little on his heels, his lips moving silently, his body a kind of divining rod. He turned to the bags’ designers and said, “Here’s what I’m thinking—should we talk?” His barrage of questions barely left time for answers. “Where in the world do you sell your bags? Is there an iconic or a famous Sea Bag? In five years, do you repeat? Is this your logo? Do we have time to do this today? Can we just work? Should we just grab the things we like?” The arrangement on the floor grew. “Let’s see less depth, more assortment,” he said. “Bring out some more stripes and numbers.” More bags appeared, emblazoned with stripes and numbers. “This is like discovering gold. This is it. Loudspeaker, please.”
What kind of 24-year old chooses this kind of madman on which to model herself A hard worker.
Drexler is known for hiring people -- not for their G.P.A -- but because they come from humble beginnings and are willing to work hard. He learned his work ethic early. His mom died when he was 16 years old and his dad worked as a button buyer for a coat company in the garment district. But he also has described his desire to get away from his humble beginnings as a motivating factor.
All in the Family
In Natasha's family, the pater familias was her grandfather, Theodore, and he was a retailer. He worked at Macy*s in the prime of his career and then at a domestics textile company, Lysander Tufted Products. They hired him to turn around the company, and he did just that.
"Don't go into retail," he told his daughters, "you work when everyone else has off." Then he proceeded to imbue the two of them with all they needed to know to excel in it.
"If you don't reach out and touch the goods when you walk by, you shouldn't be in this business," he once said. He was a font of explicit and implicit nuggets of retailing gold. If you wanted to be in retail -- which neither of his daughters did. Yet both of us excelled in it, one before choosing a career in nursing, the other choosing it after a career in journalism.
Ted Spedalle and Mickey Drexler may have been cut from the same cloth. Drexler was such a merchandising nut that he once tore apart a Gap Body store on the eve of its opening day, getting up on a ladder to do what needed to be done. When I read this for the first time, it reminded me of the day I was representing Wink and Flip at York College in Jamaica, Queens. York is not a college whose students have a lot of discretionary income, so when assigned a bad selling spot, down in a well of concentric circles, where it would have been difficult for customers to get to me, I moved the table when a better spot opened up. Then I moved the table a second time, into a position closer to the stream of incoming students, when it became available around 2 o'clock. At 5 o'clock, when a vendor packed up and left, I shifted our table into the spot I thought was best.
"Are you done moving now?" another vendor asked me. I smiled. "I would move this table 10 times if I could put it in a better position," I answered.
Isn't that why we are here?
I realized years later I didn't move that table for any reason than one: It's what my dad would have told me to do. Ted Spedalle contracted Multiple Sclerosis in his early 30s but he worked so hard to make Lysander Tufted Products a success that they paid his salary for ten years after he could no longer make it from the suburbs into the Manhattan office. His eldest daughter taught his granddaughter everything he taught her, and today that young woman, makes her living growing her jewelry company, Wink and Flip, into a business she hopes she can one day pass on to her own children. She never met Ted Spedalle, and so far she has never met Mickey Drexler. If you happen to know him... tell him he has a big fan in Queens.
Why We Love Him
Here are 10 tips from the Merchant Prince, originally published by Fast Company:
I talk to so many people about the lack of creativity in companies in America. Part of creativity is contrarianism. Creativity battles common wisdom. Because if there's common wisdom, there's an opportunity. In my own experience, whatever was a good idea was a bad idea to most people.
You can tell by the offices. "I'm going to see the king!" The king is on the top floor and there are 17 people in front of the king's office. There are layers of bureaucracy. It shouldn't be like that. Not necessarily assigning a billion-dollar value or a 10 billion-dollar value, but companies that become too ubiquitous go one way.
If you become the head of a big company today, you're not the youngest person in the world. You have a contract. You get a jet. You have a huge overpaid salary. You get bonuses. Do you think that CEO is going to screw around with fast, creative change? No. And the board of directors--the last thing they want is someone who's going to change things. Steve Jobs--he would bet the company, he wouldn't care. But there are very few people who run companies that way.
Everything has a trend to it; I don't care if it's appliances or engines. I always ask: What has a company done in the past five years that somebody's noticed?
If you don't care about the lapel or the buttons or the fit, then you are doing a disservice to the consumer. We're all inside the tunnel, speaking the language of business, but we need to speak the language of customers. How many companies actually talk about the product?
It takes a long time to get a reputation for quality. There are people in our industry, they're basically copiers. Look at the cars on the streets. They all look alike. But if you put quality into a product, then have it validated, you have huge credibility. It takes time to earn that.
Data is very important, but you have to be good at reading the data in an emotional way. If you look at a selling report, there's an emotional trend to what's selling. What's a focus group? We ask, "What's going on in the stores?" You learn and then edit, edit, edit, because there's a lot of junk mail in your head.
People who own stocks could not care less about the long run. Everyone in the world has a quarterly report. Your owners and investors are looking for a result. [But] it takes five or 10 years to build a company.
Try to ask someone to make a really good roast chicken.