Technology and logistics, not fashion, makes today's apparel CEOs – San Francisco Chronicle

Mickey Drexler wasn’t just any retail executive. He was a “merchant prince,” a man whose fashion instincts helped rescue Gap Inc. in the 1990s when the San Francisco apparel chain was struggling to find relevance.

But Drexler’s recent decision to resign as J. Crew CEO is perhaps the most stark reminder that fashion and marketing expertise alone can’t rescue an industry besot by rapid demographic and technological change. Other big names in fashion, including Ron Johnson (J.C. Penney), Terry Lundgren (Macy’s), and Sharen Jester Turney (Victoria’s Secret), have vacated their posts in recent years. Kathryn Bufano (Bon-Ton Stores) and Linda Heasley (Lane Bryant) also resigned this year.


It might be tempting to say that Drexler lost his fashion touch and that people just don’t want to buy J. Crew clothing. But the industry has been rapidly transforming.

The populism we have witnessed in politics seems to be sweeping through the fashion industry as well. Whereas merchant princes and princesses once told us what to wear a year from now, Millennial shoppers look to the more fickle and unpredictable trendsetters on social media.

“Drexler was the guy that everyone thought had the magic touch,” said Chicago retail consultant Brian Kelly. “But retailers today should be using data … rather than attending last year’s fashion show.”

The next generation of retail apparel leaders will not be experts in fashion. They will focus more on data and supply chains.

Walmart, which is known more for logistics prowess than for fashion, said Friday that it will buy online men’s retailer Bonobos for $310 million.

“There’s more to retail right now” than just making nice clothes, said Mark Lovas, a former top executive at Bonobos who is now CEO of Trumaker in San Francisco, another online men’s clothing shop. Apparel retailers must craft business models that deliver merchandise to customers and remove unsold clothing from inventory in the quickest, most cost-efficient way possible, he said.

Those skills seem at odds with the merchandisers and marketers who have traditionally run apparel chains.

In the first half of the 20th century, big family-owned department stores dominated the U.S. fashion industry. Customers would trek to a downtown Bloomingdale’s, Marshall Field’s or Dayton’s to find the latest look.

A CEO typically would have started at the company as a buyer, traveling across the country and eventually around the world to meet designers and attend fashion shows. Drexler came from a fashion background: He was merchandising vice president at Abraham & Straus in New York and later worked at Ann Taylor, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. After his stint at Gap, he led J. Crew as CEO for 14 years.

But the world of merchant princes has been upended. The Internet has allowed shoppers to quickly find a wide range of information — prices, styles, opinions — beyond catalogs, magazines or Sunday newspaper circulars.

“Most retailers enjoyed opportunistic time periods,” said Alicia Hare, a former strategy executive at Target Corp. who is now a regional president for SYPartners, a consulting firm in San Francisco. “But they had no sense of purpose. Why do they exist? During challenging times, if you can’t fall back on some kind of North Star, it’s difficult to find a path through.”

Some emerging e-commerce companies like Bonobos and Touch of Modern in San Francisco, by contrast, have a laser focus. Both offer limited assortments of well-fitting men’s clothing in the most convenient way possible.

Jerry Hum, co-founder and CEO of Touch of Modern, said he and his friends created the startup partly because they hated shopping at malls. Whereas women will try out several outfits at a physical store, men will buy several colors of the same shirt they like, he said.

And though Hum and his employees had no previous experience in design or merchandising, they now feel confident enough to create their own brand of clothing lines.

These e-commerce startups enjoy a distinct advantage over chains like Gap and J. Crew: The chains must spend a lot of money operating physical stores. That’s why retail leaders must mind every penny and root out waste, especially in stores and the supply chain.

“Retail chains require a lot of labor,” said Ash Fontana, a managing director with Zetta Venture Partners in San Francisco. Reducing labor costs requires using artificial intelligence systems and data analysis, he said.

For all of his talent on the runway, Drexler isn’t particularly known for his expertise in technology and logistics.

It’s an uncomfortable truth about apparel retailers: Clothes may make the man, but they no longer make the CEO.

Thomas Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. He is author of “Rebuilding Empires” (St. Martin’s Press) on how big-box retailers will adapt to the digital age. Email: tlee@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ByTomLee

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