Mickey Drexler leads J. Crew by doing the things managers aren’t supposed to

One IPO was not enough for J. Crew’s Mickey Drexler, pictured here with his hand on his mouth at the time of the first one.
One IPO was not enough for J. Crew’s Mickey Drexler, pictured here with his hand on his mouth at the time of the first one.
Image: Reuters//Keith Bedford
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When Mickey Drexler took over clothing retailer J. Crew in 2003, he had recently been fired as the CEO of Gap, and his new company was unprofitable and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. A decade later, J. Crew is thriving, and possibly headed for a second IPO after being taken private in 2011.

Its turnaround is a testament to Drexler’s ability as a merchant and manager. Before starting at J. Crew he had turned around Ann Taylor and made Gap nearly ubiquitous. He accomplished all of that by doing a lot of things managers aren’t supposed to.

Drexler is a self-described micromanager and control freak. Management is often said to be about delegation, about trusting other people and freeing up time so that only the most important decisions are made by the CEO.

Drexler embraces control. He makes at least (paywall) five store visits a week. He’ll fiddle with the way sports coats are displayed and realize that he doesn’t like the way a care label looks on a sweater, sparking a future change.

Excuses are referred to as “loser talk” and aren’t welcome. A New Yorker profile (paywall) recounts dialogue from a store visit, which gives an idea of the experience of a Drexler appearance:

“Is that selling? What is that? Why is it in the best piece of real estate?” “Can you turn up the music, give us a little vibe here? Who tells you to put this here? Who’s in charge of the mannequins? You gotta redo every single mannequin in the store.”

When picking merchandise, he’ll involve himself in details from the size of pockets to the look of buttons on a bag. 

“He’s a visionary and a control freak,” Meryl Gordon wrote at New York Magazine. “He insists on vetting every new employee, choosing the models for the catalogues, reviewing customer complaints, and signing off on window displays. He even compulsively tweaks press releases, insisting that a formal announced be changed to a more conversational said.”

He constantly interrupts employees, they say. Drexler has an intercom system from which he broadcasts thoughts, store numbers, and customer stories throughout headquarters. When he’s not in the Manhattan office, assistants patch him into the intercom via cell phone.

He’s incredibly dependent on his own taste. A lot of his decisions are rapidly made based on “gut feel.”

“I don’t know. I have a thing. I don’t remember if I figured it out or it was always there—an instinct,” he told New York Magazine about how he predicts trends. 

Particularly for women’s fashion, Drexler relies on Jenna Lyons, the company’s executive creative director, but a lot of what people see is from him. It’s based on insight that’s not drawn from surveys, consultants, or outside agencies, but his own brand of market research (paywall) conducted by talking to everyone and everybody. 

There’s failure on his resume. Over-expansion and combat with Gap’s founder helped lose him that job. But there’s no denying that his unusual management style works. Whether it’s something most CEOs would feel comfortable replicating is another matter.

(J. Crew hasn’t responded to our request for comment for this article.)