J.Crew may have finally tipped its hand as to who will become the retailer’s new CEO whenever 68-year-old Mickey Drexler decides to retire. Yesterday Libby Wadle, J.Crew's executive vice president of brand, was promoted to President of the J.Crew brand, a title no one at the company has owned since 2010 when then-President Tracy Gardner left to "spend more time with her children." As I posited in this month’s Fast Company’s cover story, Wadle—a merchant by training—along with her designer counterpart, executive creative director and president Jenna Lyons, are rumored to be heirs of the company.
In many ways Wadle has spent her entire career working towards this moment as Drexler’s understudy. In the 90’s the Boston College English major ventured west "dreaming of working for the Gap—for Mickey—to be perfectly honest," she told me in March. She spent ten years working in Gap Inc, starting in its merchandising training program, working her way up to running Banana Republic’s women’s business. After Drexler was fired in 2003 following a plunge in the company's stock (despite turning the $400 million enterprise into a $14 billion empire) Wadle left—"it had already become a different place [without Mickey]"—and went to Coach to run their women’s merchandising group. That is, for a mere 11 months until Drexler called and asked her to run J.Crew’s Factory outlet business. "I was a little hesitant just because I didn't really want to do off-price [discount], but I wanted to work for Mickey so I didn't really think about it," says Wadle. "I came and it was the best decision."
In her eight and a half years at J.Crew, Wadle, 40, has risen to oversee every part of the retailer’s merchandising business. After Factory she took on Madewell; then in 2010 when J.Crew’s women’s business needed refocusing, she was charged with running the mother brand. During a tour of a J.Crew store with Drexler and gaggle of his top executives, Wadle—who could easily appear in a J.Crew catalog with her mane of chocolate brown hair that’s often tossed into a bun and natural fashion sense that rivals Lyons—is totally unassuming. But then she shows how she can meld with Drexler’s steam-of-consciousness mind just when he needs it. I ask Drexler if becoming a private company has enabled J.Crew to make more risks, and he replies, "I just think it’s much lower blood pressure for me"—then immediately turns to Wadle, for her to finish his sentence. "It doesn’t change the way we make decisions or run the business, whether we are public or private," Wadle continues without missing a beat. "It’s a different kind of cadence of blood pressure." (A few days later back at her office she also tells me Drexler got her hooked on Soul Cycle; on a recent work trip to California they took spinning classes together. "Now I'm addicted," says Wadle. "He calls himself the Father of Soul.")
As a disciple of the Drexler school of merchandising, Wadle has also become an essential partner for the retailer’s chief creative, Lyons. But it’s not a partnership that is guaranteed in the culture of retail. "I think it's by coincidence that Jenna and I have good chemistry," says Wadle, who seems to have a sisterly rapport with Lyons. And like many of J.Crew’s top talent who have been with the company for around a decade, Drexler describes the dynamic among the three of them like a healthy family. "It’s collegial, it’s argumentative, it’s disagreement, it’s agreement," he says. But when asked who will take the helm on the inevitable day that Drexler decides to bid adieu, Lyons and Wadle both demure that they don’t allow themselves to contemplate it. "We don't want Mickey to go anywhere," Wadle insisted back in March. "Okay," I said to her. "But I think that would also be pretty badass to have two women running the company." She took the bait and flashed a grin. "It would be pretty badass, yeah," she says. "It would be pretty cool."
5 philosophies for running a design-driven retail business from J.Crew’s new brand president.
1. Merchandising is an art, not a science. "A lot of heads of CEOs or heads of businesses are merchants and what we do is we try to break things down into a formula and try to make things fit so they work perfectly. Mickey really doesn't do that. It's a unique kind of merchandising. It's not a formulaic merchandising that we do here."
2. A merchandiser is the yin to a designer’s yang. "I am the business side to the creative piece. I'm Jenna's partner. So she and her team design the product, design the brand creative, all of that; my team picks the product, edits it, decides how much to buy and how much to put in which store it goes in, that kind of thing. Sort of creates the picture for the customer in the store, how often it comes in and then how much you should be buying of it...." I’ve worked with a lot of designers in the past and while I would never call Jenna a democratic commercial designer, she gets it and she also really understands our customer and she loves our customer. And she understands how far you can push her, how far you can't. And that's the beauty of it. Her head is not in the clouds but she also will push me and my team to move forward."
3. Healthy tension between designers and merchandisers leads to a great product. "Tension will always help move each party forward, especially a merchant. A merchant can actually create a line but then it becomes very formulaic, it becomes very much what the customer has asked for, has bought in the past. But with a good amount of design inspiration and tension, there is always that healthy debate about how you move something forward. And that's the magic of the merchandising and the design relationship. So whenever you have a designer that's too easy to work with, it's almost not great.... It's not really a fight as much as a healthy conversation. So there is sort of a pass off that happens; design creates the line and then merchandising takes it from there.... The unique thing about J. Crew is while merchandising takes it, the creative influence doesn't end there, where it sort of ends in a lot of companies. The merchant here edit the line and pick the product but then we do the website and the catalogue and there is still a creative vision throughout that can really continue to inform everyone and it's sort of a real magical part of J. Crew."
4. Collaboration is more important than ego. "I think you just have to stay constantly connected and partnered here. I mean it is about collaboration and it's not about blazing a trail that was your idea and you're going finish it out to the end. That won't work here."
5. Acting like a small company breeds creativity. "What happens here is we have these small, special ideas throughout the company or a style that's selling really well that's a small investment. But that's how we make things big. We take these small things and then we distort them. We're constantly looking for these little pieces of gold, as Mickey always says, panning for gold, that's all we're doing. So it's not as much an invention as a distortion of something that was really unique."
[Photos by Yu Tsai; Hair And Makeup: Troi Ollivierre; Hair And Makeup Assistant: Amy Chin | Fashion Show Photos by Leslie dela Vega.]