Former chief executive Millard "Mickey" Drexler has retired as the chairman of the ailing retailer's board, according to a statement released by the company. He will be succeeded by current board member Chad Leat, a retired vice chairman of Global Banking at Citigroup. Drexler will remain an advisor to the company.
According to the release, Drexler is leaving to focus on Drexler Ventures, which invests in and advises emerging brands, including Outdoor Voices, where he was named chairman of the board in August 2017. His son, Alexander Drexler, runs a men's clothing line called Alex Mill, which the elder Drexler backs.
While Drexler's seminal tenure at J.Crew saw the brand rise from preppy catalog staple to international fashion phenomenon spurred by the agenda-setting designs of then-creative director Jenna Lyons, its fall was almost as dramatic. After years of sales declines and building debt, Lyons exited in 2017 and Drexler stepped down as chief executive soon after.
His successor, West Elm and URBN, Inc. veteran Jim Brett, spent a tumultuous year-and-a-half trying to remake the brand into something less fashion-focused and more accessibly priced. But tensions between Brett and longstanding employees in particular 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.
In November 2018, Brett and the board came to agreement that he would exit immediately, with no replacement in sight. Currently, the company is run 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.
In recent months, the company has been searching for new design talent, according to sources, although chief design officer Johanna Uurasjarvi, who worked with Brett at West Elm and Anthropologie, remains with the company.
But J.Crew does not have unlimited time to revamp its strategy once again. While the company was able to negotiate with creditors to push back the maturity of $566.5 million in debt from 2019 to 2021, it is still operating at a narrow loss.
As for the 74-year-old Drexler, whose work at Ann Taylor, Gap Inc. and J.Crew cemented him as a merchant prince helping to define the way people dressed for more than 30 years, it's unlikely that his penchant for building, and rebuilding, brands has been satiated.