Lessons from The King of Retail

It can be said that successful strategies can be applied across industries regardless of diversity. Mickey Drexler is certainly a believer and a proponent of this line of thinking, and has used this mentality to receive the unofficial title of “The King of Retail”. Not only has Mickey breathed life into once mediocre businesses, J. Crew and the Gap, but has lent his expertise into several other businesses and industries including being on the board of directors at Apple for the last 14 years, and the driving force behind Apple’s wildly successful retail stores.

In the early 1990’s, Gap was a relatively small chain without much notoriety, cue Mickey Drexler. He took the brand to lengths never even thought attainable by a retailer. With incredibly successful ad campaigns featuring models and celebrities alike paired with trendy tunes, Gap’s numbers soared and the retailer was considered an iconic part of the 90‘s pop culture. These types of iconic ads that Drexler implemented had seldom been seen before, and it was his thinking that elevated the success of Gap, and this success was noticed and copied by many.  After wild success, their quick growth was unsustainable and following a poor turn in profits, Drexler was abruptly fired from Gap in May of 2002. After his rocky departure from Gap, Drexler took the position of CEO at a (then) small and struggling, and little known, business called J. Crew. In his role, Drexler gave the brand a massive makeover, and brought it from minuscule earnings to a thriving $2 Billion business in quite the renaissance fashion. Drexler often compares J. Crew, not to other retail stores, but to fine restaurants and hotels. He believes that business should be quality and service focused, rather than number focused. It was this focus that turned J. Crew from khaki’s to cutting edge fashion sought after by even the First Lady, Michelle Obama. In fact, the whole Obama family can be regularly seen decked out in J. Crew apparel. Drexler takes a special interest in every detail that goes into the company. Besides leading the staff and buying meetings, he makes a regular habit of visiting every single J. Crew location and meeting every J. Crew employee. He also regularly responds personally to customer complaints and raves, and takes it upon himself to right any conceivable wrong.

Although sometimes seemingly random, Mickey is constantly thinking out loud, and with an audience. When Drexler took the helm at J. Crew, one of his first orders of business was installing an intercom system in their corporate offices. He can be regularly heard by over 1000 J. Crew employees with fashion forecasts, encouraging words and advice, and occasionally critiques and suggestions for improvement. Drexler has always believed in surrounding himself with individuals that are passionate in their field. “No leader can do it alone. I asked my friend Rob Forbes—who created Design Within Reach and Public Bikes—about this one. He said to surround yourself with people you trust, who complement your skill set, keep your ego in check.” It’s no wonder that Drexler has the rare talent of being able to take a business to such lengths, from nothing. His resume has made his business advice and mentality invaluable to other companies. In a profile on Drexler in the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten says it best: “Success” is often just a fancy word for “luck,” but a recurrence of it suggests the subsistence of design.”

While briefing myself on Drexler’s quirky business practices, and overwhelming need to have a hand in every aspect of his business, another great leader comes to mind - Steve Jobs. Much to my (not) surprise, Drexler and Jobs were great friends, and were closely intertwined in each other’s companies. Steve Jobs was on the board of directors for Gap when Drexler was given the boot, and actually warned his friend the night before with a sincere apology. When Apple was strategizing how to better sell their products, Jobs turned to none other than Drexler to mock up and implement an Apple store. With Drexler’s guidance, and Job’s painstakingly close attention to detail, there are over 400 Apple Stores around the world and not only are these stores wildly successful, but have helped to make Apple what it is today.

You may see the connection to technology with Drexler’s strong ties to Apple, but might be wondering, although interesting, why lessons from a retail mogul are applicable to Subsplash? I think there’s a lot to be said about leaders that foster creativity and original thinking - leaders that approach a problem from a different angle in order to come to an innovative solution. A quote that I have become fond of from Drexler is on just that, “Most people underestimate the importance of creativity. Too many people overlook the importance of a beautiful product. Creativity drives growth in any business.” So where can you find the beauty in your work, and how can you take it to the next level? Here at Subsplash we are always striving for excellence, and trying to deliver delight in all that we do.