Of the $55 million in funding that Warby Parker has received over the past two years, arguably the most valuable investment has come from the pockets of J.Crew’s CEO and Chairman, Mickey "Millard" Drexler. Earlier this year, Drexler, an outspoken (and rich) thinker in retail, surprised many by investing in the hip glasses company. As of today, he’ll also join the company’s board. "I like and respect [Warby co-CEOs] Neil [Blumenthal] and Dave [Gilboa] and love what they have created with Warby Parker—they have completely reinvented the eyewear business," said Drexler in a statement.
Warby is gaining access to the creative mind that turned around The Gap in the '90s and then went on to help build J.Crew into the $2.2 billion business it is today. But not so long ago, Steve Jobs tapped Drexler to build a retail presence for Apple. At the time, trying to sell computers in a lust-worthy retail environment was presumed ridiculous ("Here’s Why Apple Stores Don’t Work," BusinessWeek declared in 2001). So Jobs tracked down his most important weapon, Drexler, considered the smartest exec in retail. It was Drexler who directed Jobs to hire then-Target exec Ron Johnson to build Apple stores, along with influencing the Apple team to draw from Gap’s sprawling and airy store aesthetic, and urging Jobs to build a secret retail prototype. Drexler and Jobs—both notorious micromanagers, obsessed with every last detail—would find like minds in each other. Drexler has been on Apple’s board ever since.
Now, Warby is in the rarified position of tapping Drexler at a similar inflection point as it expands from a Web-only business into a physical retailer. For those who know Drexler, Warby’s appeal is logical. Much like J.Crew and Apple, Warby has a proposition that is design-driven, emphasizes simplicity, and retains end-to-end control of its product. And all three companies have been able to take commodity products—the MP3 player (Apple), suits (J.Crew), and glasses (Warby Parker)—and, respectively, transform them into fashion statements. In 2008, Drexler wanted to design a single perfectly fitting suit that every man in America would want in his closet. "Buying a men’s suit is complicated and not easy," Drexler explained to Fast Company for our April 2013 cover story on J.Crew. His team designed The Ludlow, a slim suit with narrow lapels, which has since become one of the brand’s most successful franchises, and a lynchpin in growing its menswear business. "Simplicity is very difficult to achieve," says Drexler, in his thick Bronx accent. "Try to ask someone to make a good roast chicken. To achieve simplicity, you have to have the ability to eliminate all that interferes with the simple."
Warby has done just that with glasses: chic specs are sold for one price and delivered to a consumers’ doorstep to try on. Now that the Warby men are entering retail—an entirely new, more expensive and risky gambit—they’ll get to tap the wisdom of a 68-year-old who’s been through it all (including getting fired from The Gap and taking J.Crew public and then private again). Already, Drexler’s fingerprints and hints of Apple can be seen in Warby’s five stores. Much in the way Apple stores became interactive playgrounds for customers to fall in love with iProducts, Warby is trying to do the same with glasses. "They shouldn't be behind a locked glass case; we should have someone there available to help answer questions but not be pressuring them or forcing them to make decisions," says Warby co-CEO David Gilboa. To help fuel that experience, Warby hired Anthony Sperduti of Partners & Spade to design its flagship SoHo store. It’s no coincidence that Sperduti and his partner, Andy Spade, have a long history with Drexler, having designed J.Crew’s culty Liquor Store, one of its most profitable locations.
But as e-commerce companies like Warby Parker, Bonobos, and Fab start to dabble with becoming offline retailers, being in on Warby’s ground floor isn’t exactly a bad thing for Drexler. While J.Crew has done a brilliant job of cementing its role as tastemaker, it’s hardly been on the cutting edge technologically. "We have a whole team here now which didn't exist two and a half years ago, which is really a direct operations team, an Internet team. There's someone actually paying attention to, like, innovation and technology and things that we should be doing on our website that we never thought of before," J.Crew brand president Libby Wadle told Fast Company this spring. "For a customer to check out a year ago was extremely cumbersome. There's multiple clicks involved; they might forget it in the middle. There was no one on-site even thinking about that kind of thing before." Now Drexler will also have a few more tech brains to tap. So while he will certainly be the mentor in this relationship, he’ll get to play mentee, too.
[Base Image by: Yu Tsai | Photos by Joel Arbaje for Fast Company]