Millard S. "Mickey" Drexler, the legendary merchant who built Gap Inc. into a global retail icon before retiring four months ago, has resurfaced at one of Gap's much smaller rivals.
Yesterday, Drexler, 58, was named chairman and chief executive of J. Crew, the casual preppy retailer that has been struggling to grow beyond catalogues and bring its chinos and crewneck sweaters to mall-based stores nationwide.
To help it along, Drexler is investing $10 million of his own money into the New York-based company. Texas Pacific Group, J. Crew's majority shareholder, will pump in an additional $10 million, the privately held retailer said in a statement.
Besides the money, Drexler brings his reputation and knack for fashion -- the same knack that created the basic T-shirts and khakis that made Gap famous and ushered in the casual dress era. That was before Gap made a series of fashion missteps that contributed to a 2 1/2 year sales slide and somewhat tarnished Drexler's luster. Recently, Gap has showed signs of a turnaround.
Given Drexler's longtime star merchant status, many wondered where he would land after 19 years at Gap, which also owns the Banana Republic and Old Navy chains.
Drexler has told analysts he was looking for an enterprise that would tap into his creative talents without demanding the logistical and administrative tasks required of running a chain as huge as the Gap, which rung up $14 billion in sales last year from its 4,000 stores.
"When the company became huge, it wasn't fun for him anymore," said Jennifer Black, an analyst at Wells Fargo Securities. "His passion is for the merchandise."
In that way, J. Crew might be a perfect fit. The company has been struggling to find its fashion niche and its target customer for years. Sales at its 150 stores were down 1.3 percent last year, to $733 million.
Sales at stores open more than a year declined 10 percent last year, underscoring the difficulties it has had distinguishing itself among rivals such as Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle and Gap.
"I look forward to the challenge," Drexler said in a statement.
Gap was a troubled chain when he arrived there from Ann Taylor in 1983, Donald Trott, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. By reinventing it, Drexler built his reputation.
"Mickey's skills are in the marketing and merchandising area," Trott said. "With J. Crew, he's dealing with a significantly smaller company that needs those talents."
Drexler's arrival at J. Crew has meant some reshuffling at the company's top ranks.
Ken Pilot, who recently was tapped as J. Crew's chief executive after leaving his post as president of Gap's international division, resigned.
"While we hoped Ken would have stayed, we understand his decision to resign and appreciate his contributions during his four months as CEO," J. Crew's board of directors said in a statement.
Emily Woods, the company's chairman and daughter of J. Crew's founder, relinquished the chairmanship but will remain a member of the board and an investor in the company.
Jeff Pfeifle, a close ally of Drexler's at Gap, joined J. Crew as president. Most recently, he was executive vice president of product and design at Old Navy.