Peep S.F.'s First Madewell—Plus An Exclusive Chat With J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler!

Madewell says hello to San Francisco with its new location on the first floor of the Westfield Centre.
One of the most revered visionaries in the fashion business, J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler has a thing or two to share when it comes to making it in the uber-competitive industry. On the eve of the grand opening fete celebrating San Francisco's first Madewell store, we caught up with the marketing and product genius—who not only founded Madewell and Old Navy, but was also responsible for Gap’s revolutionary heyday in the ‘90s—to find out about what’s inspiring him now, his take on the fashion scene in S.F. (where he lived for 18 years), and his tips for success! Here's how to get Made, Mickey style.
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Why was it important for Madewell to open a S.F. location?
"It’s important because it’s a Madewell kind of town. There’s a lot of classic here, there’s a lot of Haight-Ashbury here, there’s a lot of Mission here, there’s a lot of everything going on in San Francisco and there’s a great appreciation for fashion in this town. I think the city has its own unique vibe and we’re also opening in Corte Madera on August 30th."

A plush leather couch and furniture found at the Alameda flea market are scattered about the store.
How did you decide upon this space and neighborhood?
"We waited two years for this spot. We looked Downtown and we felt that this floor, in this center, in this store was the best first move for Madewell because of traffic, etc. I love doing business with, well, I like to call them artisans. And so we have a lot of great hometown heroes stuff in here, from Mollusk Surf Shop and other unique companies."

The 'Hometown Heroes' table features local brands that have Madewell buzzing.
The spread of clothing and accessories just inside the front doors.
You lived in San Francisco for 18 years back when you worked for the Gap and Old Navy. What do you have to do when you come back to visit?

"We go to Unionmade to visit and hang. Todd Barket [Unionmade’s owner] used to work with me and we sell J.Crew there. I went to Bi-Rite ice cream, which is fantastic. I love that. Today I’m going to Mollusk Surf Shop and I’m going to the DODOcase offices to see new colors [J.Crew currently has a collaboration with DODOcase]. And I stay where I always stay: The Four Seasons. I actually come out to San Francisco every three months for Apple board meetings, but this is an extra trip for me."

Cute beaded barrettes sourced from the Outer Sunset's General Store.
There’s been sort of a J.Crew-ification of several other mainstream retailers of late. Does that annoy or flatter you?
"There will always be competition in this world. Someone is always going to watch what you’re doing. And as long as you were there first, you were there dominantly, and with the best style and quality, then you’re going to win and the followers will always be behind the leaders. You’re always going to be copied if you’re a leader. Look at Apple. But last I knew, Apple was way, way ahead of #2. We strive to do the same thing. We run this business with very high standards, quality, fit, and point of view. And as I’ve said to one of our competitors, I think it’s better that you follow your own vision instead of someone else’s because that’s what makes great companies. But let the followers follow and in the end of the day, the customers know."
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Some of Madewell's nouveau preppy looks.
You've been a very successful business man. Do you have business icons that you look up to?
"
I learn as much from my own mistakes as I do from anyone else’s mistakes. But I’ve been on the board of Apple for 12 years and I’ve had an extraordinary education there. Steve Jobs is an easy one to use as an icon. And for me, I know him very well and I’ve admired and watched what he’s done. He certainly fits the bill. I don’t have a lot, because a lot of us who are trying to be better everyday are constantly raising the bar on who we admire. But I learn from everyone and anyone. We wake up everyday as a team and we’re looking for who does it better than us. And everyday, somebody’s doing something better than you and those are the people we learn from. Whole Foods I admire immensely. Starbucks. I also admire companies like Alden Shoes, for their craftsmanship more so than the commerce. They don’t compromise on anything in the world."

Load up on beaded bangles at Madewell's 'Bracelet Bar.'
And, um, we sort of want all six of these...
You interview almost everyone who wants to work at J.Crew. What do you look for in an employee?
"I call them associates, I don’t like the word employee. Some of what I look for is immeasurable and some of it’s measurable. I look for a certain energy and feeling and passion coming out of their bodies. I like someone who’s focused and can tell me what they’ve done well and not well and who’s very open, honest, and self-aware. If you get someone right out of college, and I meet a lot of them, you’re not going to get a lot of experience at all, so you have to feel the ambition and desire, which is based on a lot of factors. You banter and you talk and you get a sense of the speed of thinking and flexibility. If they’re not flexible or they don’t think quickly, maybe they’re not in the right place. It’s not terribly scientific, but I interview a dozen or two dozen people a week and I get a certain vibe reasonably fast. You’re not always right. Sometimes you’re wrong, but I’ve learned to go with my gut and my judgment."
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We're totally sold on this $45 Fall Festival Necklace.
Summer whites and plaids.
If you look back, what do you think your keys to success have been?
"I think the key to success is vision that adjusts on the way, but doesn’t at all falter. It's about not compromising and following your gut to a certain degree, based on knowledge, instinct, etc. And not listening to the naysayers. This business [Madewell] right here, is 6-years-old and I’m really happy to be where we are. We opened that first store in Dallas and it didn’t do well. The second store was in a bad location in Las Vegas. And I didn’t stick with it because of emotion, but because I feel that long-term there was an opportunity to succeed. The other thing that’s really important is when you get knocked down, you sort of have to bounce right back up. You develop strength through adversity. You have to keep moving towards your goal through huge obstacles. It’s not easy. Especially a business like this where there are so many moving parts. You have to build a good team and know who’s good and not good and you have to keep raising the bar on your life. For me it’s always, 'I have to get up and do a little better today and go to work to learn.'"

Locally made Yellow Owl Workshop pendants sit in the 'Hometown Heroes' display.
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