J Crew boss Millard ‘Mickey’ Drexler tells Drapers why product will ensure the success of the US retailer’s London flagship
When J Crew opened its much-anticipated store on Regent Street last Friday morning, snaking queues of shoppers duly formed in the street outside. Not that chief executive and chairman Millard ‘Mickey’ Drexler was particularly interested. “I don’t care about first-day queues – ever,” he told Drapers two days before the opening. “I care about the longer term.”
Drexler is confident he can satisfy customers with a product offer not seen anywhere else, not even in the UK, where the high streets are often referred to as the most competitive in the world. “The UK, New York, America – there’s nowhere that’s not competitive any more,” he insists. The J Crew Group has 445 stores mainly in the US - 259 J Crew shops (including three in the UK and nine in Canada), 65 Madewell stores (another womenswear fascia) and 121 factory outlets.
“The world is over-stored, it’s over-clothed in assortment, there’s too much available and too many choices. We’re used to that and the customer is used to that.”
The answer, says Drexler, lies in getting the balance right between value, quality and design. “I think the world is homogenous, ubiquity is prevalent and J Crew fights that battle quite well,” he says.
“If you want to buy J Crew in a store in the UK – or all of Europe right now – this is the only place. We’re quirky, we’re emotional. Let’s face it, if you need to just dress yourself you can go anywhere. You can go to Primark or Chanel or every place in between. But if you want to have what we offer, which I think is unique, with a great design and value component, you shop at J Crew.”
Although J Crew delivers on quality and design, critics are concerned about its pricing architecture. Men’s flannel shirts retail for around £120, while a pair of printed women’s silk trousers are £278. “It will not be easy to convince British consumers to indulge in featherweight cardigans verging on £200,” says Ashma Kunde, apparel analyst at Euromonitor International.
“The company faced a huge backlash from Canadian consumers in 2011 when they discovered prices were almost 50% higher in Canada. Large price discrepancies are unlikely to go down well with price-savvy consumers in the UK, especially with the proliferation of online shopping.”
Drapers understands J Crew hasn’t simply switched the dollar sign for the pound on the swing ticket, as has been reported. A statement from the company says: “We price our products at a rate that is fair and commensurate with the level of materials and craftsmanship involved and we also have to take into consideration various taxes, duties and operational charges that vary from country to country. It is an inescapable fact that these costs in the UK are significantly higher than in the US.”
But as Drexler says, “customers are driving to a large degree what something is worth today”, so the proof will be in the tills. Sales at J Crew rose 20% to $2.23bn (£1.4bn) in the year to February 2.
In addition to J Crew’s womenswear, menswear and kidswear line Crewcuts, the Regent Street store offers a range of third-party brands and has emphasised the British labels among its offering, with “woven in the British Isles” or “made in the West of England” appearing on the lining of men’s suit jackets.
Jamie Milestone, founder and head designer of British umbrella brand London Undercover, says being stocked in the Regent Street store will help the brand reach a female customer base. “We’re already in the US with J Crew and the new store launch will help us build our presence in the UK. Teaming up with J Crew has allowed us to grow financially and we’re hoping to drive footfall to our own store in Spitalfields.”
Ann Ryley, marketing director at Scottish knitwear business Begg & Co, says: “J Crew really embraces authentic British brands and it’s great to be associated with them. We’re looking forward to seeing how customers react to our collection.”
So is Drexler. As he leaves to be interviewed by the BBC, he reiterates that first-day queues aren’t important. “I care about a lot of really satisfied, happy customers. Call me in two months and I’ll let you know how it’s going.”