NEW YORK, United States — Former Ralph Lauren chief executive Stefan Larsson, who exited the American fashion brand in May 2017, is in talks to join J.Crew Group as its new CEO, sources familiar with the negotiations said. A spokesperson for J.Crew declined to comment.
The talks are ongoing and nowhere near being finalised, according to sources within the company. Should the deal go through, Larsson would replace chief executive Jim Brett, who left in November 2018 after disagreements with the board over strategy. Brett spent a tumultuous year-and-a-half trying to remake J.Crew into something less fashion-focused and more accessibly priced.
But tensions between Brett, a veteran of West Elm and URBN, and longstanding employees — including then-chairman and former chief executive Mickey Drexler — challenged the turnaround. While same-store sales began to improve, Brett's efforts earned lackluster reviews from formerly loyal consumers, who took to platforms like Reddit and Facebook to complain about the changes in quality, design and spirit.
Brett was replaced by a committee of four executives — chief operating officer Michael Nicholson, chief experience officer Adam Brotman, chief administrative officer Lynda Markoe and Libby Wadle, president of the Madewell brand — while the board searched for a replacement. In January 2019, Drexler retired as chairman of the board and was replaced by current board member Chad Leat.
However, Drexler still owns 10 percent of the company and is said to have had a hand in wooing Larsson, a former H&M and Gap Inc. executive credited with a fast fashion-inspired turnaround at Old Navy. (Drexler declined to comment.)
Larsson's “Way Forward” plan at Ralph Lauren — which included closing 50 stores, eliminating more than 1,000 jobs and removing three lines of management — was widely praised and well-received by the market. But in the end, disagreements with the founder on creative direction cut Larsson’s time there short. (He was replaced by former P&G executive Patrice Louvet.)
Larsson has explored several options since exiting Ralph Lauren, including interviewing for the CEO role at Lululemon. Location is said to be a driver for the retail veteran. (He and his family would like to stay in New York, according to people familiar with the search.)
Although the J.Crew Group is significantly smaller than Ralph Lauren and Old Navy, with just $2.4 billion in overall sales in fiscal 2017, turning it around could be Larsson's greatest challenge yet.
While sister-brand Madewell has continued to post double-digit growth, J.Crew is suffering from an identity crisis and requires a rebranding that will likely include hiring new creative talent.
He will also need to manage the debt load. The company was able to negotiate with creditors to shrink $565.7 million in debt due in 2019 to $249.6 million, which is now due in 2021. But it is still operating at a narrow loss. As of the third quarter of fiscal 2018, the company had a total $1.7 billion in debt.
Larsson did not respond to a request for comment.