NEW YORK, United States — Former J.Crew chief design officer Somsack Sikhounmuong is back and reunited with his ex-boss, Millard “Mickey” Drexler, J.Crew’s departed chairman and chief executive.
Sikhounmuong, who exited J.Crew in September 2017 after 16 years with the company, is partnering with Drexler’s son, Alex Drexler, to relaunch Alex Mill, the men’s shirting line the latter founded in 2012.
In its latest iteration, Alex Mill’s men’s offering will be expanded, and the label will include a women’s collection for the first time, launching February 19 on Alexmill.com, with retail partners including Net-a-Porter, Nordstrom, Barneys New York and Goop.
The duo were introduced, unsurprisingly, by Mickey Drexler, who launched investment vehicle Drexler Ventures in 2017 after stepping down from his day-to-day role at J.Crew. (In early January, he resigned from his station as chairman, but still owns 10 percent of the struggling retailer, currently run by a committee of four board members. As of two weeks ago, the company was in talks with former Ralph Lauren chief executive Stefan Larsson to join as its new CEO.)
Drexler Ventures is funding the relaunch of Alex Mill alongside individual friends and family investors, although the firm declined to disclose the size of the deal. “The apparel industry has lost sight of simplicity, good design...good quality that’s unique and special,” said Mickey Drexler, who also serves as a strategic advisor to the brand. “It doesn’t sound that complicated, but it’s a vision they bring and I support it.”
To be sure, Alex Mill isn’t a luxury play. Most products are between $35 and $175 — not so different from J.Crew, which has lost its footing after a tumultuous few years that have included the exit of one-time star designer Jenna Lyons and the departure of its most recent chief executive Jim Brett, who was drafted in to lift lagging sales but left the company in November 2018 after disagreements with the board.
But the similarities don’t end there: Sikhounmuong and Alex Drexler’s vision for the brand is rooted in American classics. “Alex Mill was sort of a niche business,” said the younger Drexler, who found early traction with shirting, especially at independent multi-brand retailers, but saw an opportunity to create something more democratic after meeting with Sikhounmuong. “There were always women that went to the brand and loved the brand. With Somsack, there was an opportunity, not only with women, but to take men’s to a different place,” Drexler said.
Alex Mill’s spring collection, set to be revealed for the first time on Tuesday, includes Sikhounmuong’s take on the chore jacket, oversized garment-dyed shirts for women — inspired by the original men’s version — and pleated khakis for guys. There’s no denim yet, but foundational pieces like soft tees and women’s flight suits will be sold alongside one-off blazers lined with vintage scarves, sourced through a collaboration with Brooklyn vintage emporium Front Street General Store, and small trinkets, like fabric boutonnieres and beaded necklaces. (No imagery of the collection will be released before launch, although a teaser video offers a sneak peek.)
Fabrics are sourced from Japan, Portugal and Italy, among other places. Most of the production takes place in Asia, although some special pieces will be made in New York and Italy. And while J.Crew for the past 15 years has been about clashing sequins with tweeds and look-at-me colours, Alex Mill isn’t necessarily “classics with a twist,” but classics with ease, something Sikhounmuong believes is lacking in the current market. For instance, a women’s trench features unfussy ties at the wrist instead of cuff straps.
“Having taken time off, I remember thinking, I just want more time. Even if it’s more time to be on Instagram at night, I just want more time, and how am going to get that?” Sikhounmuong said. “It’s about making things really easy to wear, easy to understand. You don’t have to wrap things five times or mix a bunch of different elements. It’s a wardrobe that’s going to make you look good and you don’t have to overthink it."
Does it look like J.Crew? Perhaps if J.Crew was started from scratch, without the pressure of thirsty merchandisers.
Alex Drexler brushed off the comparison. Right now, the startup, which has roughly 10 employees, is focused on selling through digital and gaining broader name recognition by selling in major stores. It’s an old-fashioned strategy in the direct-to-consumer age, but one that could allow the label to scale more quickly, even if it cuts into margins and increases its exposure to promotions and discounts.
“We wanted to get get the product in front of people,” he said, adding that the greatest focus is on the label’s own e-commerce, which will be driven by content made in-house. While the old Alex Mill had one physical outpost, it closed in 2017. Retail stores will have to wait — at least a little while.
As for Mickey Drexler, who holds interests in both parties, “Everyone with a sewing machine is a competitor,” he said. “It has nothing to do with what J.Crew is doing.”