“I wish that jacket was famous,” says Mickey Drexler, pointing to his own outfit on a recent spring afternoon over lunch at his usual spot, Sant Ambroeus in New York’s SoHo. He’s wearing a soft, slightly faded denim version of the more common worker style from Alex Mill, the clothing line his son Alex Drexler founded nearly a decade ago.
If anyone knows how to make a jacket famous, it’s Mickey. An American retail giant, he is best known for leading the Gap and J Crew when the two brands were not just mall giants, but cultural indicators that created and defined the American casual uniform.
Mickey, 77, attributes his successes to an intangible instinct for the product: understanding what people want to wear and what they want to pay for it. He’s a retailer who remains as obsessed and passionate about product, design and retail as he was when he began his career over 40 years ago. Outspoken and opinionated, he frequently digresses into detailed histories of his colorful career, with a keen memory for names and numbers. A question about pricing strategy may lead to a story about Steve Jobs’ first Tesla car, an anecdote from Mickey’s years on the Apple board. He spices up the conversation with questions like “How much did you pay for that sweater?” (too much, it turns out) or “Where did you buy that?” (from a label that copied the Gap playbook, he notes).
At one point, he takes off one of his shoes to illustrate the difference between a boring sock and one that “speaks” to him: in this case, it’s the fabric – cashmere – and the delicious surprise of a yellow toe and with a bright blue heel. . “It’s about the colors and how they go together,” he says, retying the laces of his Alden bluchers. “I can not explain it.”
After stepping down as general manager of J Crew in 2017 (and stepping down as president two years later), Mickey says it was only a matter of time before he found a way to get back into the game. the fashion industry full time. At Alex Mill, however, his lifelong journey of providing the modern American uniform is a family affair and, for the first time, free from the scrutiny of corporate boards and private equity bigwigs with whom he bumped his head in the past. (He was fired from Gap and left J Crew on less than rosy terms with his backers, both amid downturns.) The result is an unusual kind of clothing brand, one with the energy the nimbleness of a digital startup and the weight of influence of one of the industry’s most passionate leaders. “I love to work, I love business and I always have unfinished business. That’s what I do,” Mickey says. “To me, small is the new big.”
Understandably, Alex Drexler resisted joining the industry his father is big on, considering law school or a career as an FBI agent first. But he came to realize that fashion was “in his blood”, he says after touring Alex Mill’s comfortable open-plan office above Lafayette Street, recently extended to accommodate the growing team. Today, Alex’s title is just Founder, though his role includes something like Director of Marketing, focusing on Alex Mill’s brand identity and community, as well as special projects like collaborations and other operational elements. He’s more shy and cautious in conversation than his father, but with a similar obsession with detail, from button placement to logo stencil typography. Somsack Sikhounmuong, co-founder of Alex Mill and its design director, says that Alex has “an eye or an instinct that you will only have to rub shoulders with for so long”.
Alex Mill was founded in 2011 when Alex saw a niche in the market for what he saw as the perfect men’s shirt. It became a niche business with a Japanese influence that matched a growing passion among American shoppers for menswear that was well-known, but loved by both men and women. Mickey was still leading J Crew when Alex went on his own. “I never helped him at all,” Mickey says. “The only thing I said to him was ‘Open a store, Alex’.” (He did, on Elizabeth Street in New York.) But growing the label was tough, and in 2018 they decided to pursue a different strategy. Mickey felt the brand had the potential to really evolve. “I loved the name, I loved what they were doing,” he says, emphasizing the importance of branding for growth, citing the success of the household names he launched earlier. in his career, such as Old Navy and Madewell.
Mickey first introduced Alex to Sikhounmuong, a talented designer who had recently left J Crew and Madewell after 16 years in the business. (“I was like Somsack’s unofficial agent for jobs,” Mickey says. dollars, creating 100 new shirts each season, and was looking for something more personal and fulfilling.
“We said, ‘Well, why not take the name Alex Mill and make it something bigger? “, Says Alex.
Sikhounmuong came on board and Mickey, who had invested in Outdoor Voices and Warby Parker before leaving J Crew, also invested. They put the brand on hiatus for a few months and relaunched it in 2019 with a different model, with expanded collections for men and women, a slightly lower price, a better website, and mostly direct-to-consumer sales.
Sikhounmuong’s vision was heavily influenced by vintage workwear and uniforms, such as the rugged, roomy chore jackets that first appeared in France in the late 19th century and became popular on both sides of the world. ‘Atlantic in the 1920s. Like a lark of sorts, Sikhounmuong introduced a women’s jumpsuit that quickly took off and surprisingly became one of Alex Mill’s best-selling styles and something of a brand motto. “[It] speaks to what I think customers are looking for these days, which is that level of ease and simplicity when dressing,” he says.
There are no skinny jeans or ripped trending items from TikTok in Alex Mill’s collection. The brand is synonymous with comfort and practicality, with a lived-in sense of style. “We have a slogan that we use – ‘Wake up, get dressed, don’t overthink it’ – we say that a lot,” says Alex.
His father, who officially took over as CEO of Alex Mill last summer, formalizing what was already a growing role in the company, espouses the same mentality. “Gap was very simple when we started, [and] it took off like a rocket… But that’s how we made all the companies grow. They have a point of view. Another Mickey’s priority for Alex Mill is avoiding the markdowns that have plagued Gap and J Crew in recent years, leading customers to expect discounts to shop. He says he has been advised to raise Alex Mill’s prices but is opposed to this as it can often require promotions to move products.
“It’s not the vision we have, there’s a value component to it,” Mickey says. “We never put anything up for sale.” He pointed to the denim work jacket, which sells for $195. “It’s a $300 jacket. And I think people say, “I love your products and I think the prices are fair and they’re well made.”
Although Mickey no longer has to explain himself to shareholders, working with his son creates its own challenges and sensitivities. “Father son – [there are] complications, but you get by,” Mickey said. “He is the founder and the conscience of the company… Without him, I would not be employed.”
Mickey describes Alex Mill as being in his “nascent” stage, but with the kind of growth potential that makes him dream of one day opening up to 40 stores in “the best places in America.” (Yet a far cry from the store networks of its previous brands, which operated thousands of locations across the country.) -he.
Alex Mill is looking beyond his US borders this year in small but essential ways. He has started shipping online orders worldwide and is also embarking on a collaborative exchange with Parisian menswear brand Brut. When Alex Mill opens his new store on Mercer Street in SoHo (replacing his second location across the street), he will carry a selection of vintage Brut pieces.
The collaborations are part of Alex Mill’s strategy to attract the attention of a wider audience. In 2020, she released a collection of pajamas with Jimmy Fallon and created a limited edition shirt with Joanna Goddard, founder of the Cup of Jo blog, along the same lines. Expansion into more accessories is also on the horizon. The brand launched its first women’s shoe last fall, a very feminine velor flat, and will continue to add cold weather items and other pieces that go beyond wardrobe basics with which Alex Mill started. “It’s not necessarily about entering many categories, but also about strengthening existing ones”, explains Alex, explaining the interest of offering new fabrics for key pieces such as the work jacket.
“Those are the fundamentals of everyone’s uniform,” says Mickey. “Not that they have to look alike. I remember all my mistakes all my life… at Gap, we had a campaign, ‘Everyone in leather’”, he says, recalling an ad that pushed too much for uniformity. “Terrible.”
Alex Mill is built on the idea of a uniform, but one that can be interpreted by young trendsetters as well as confident baby boomers. It’s a tricky message to get across, but one that its founders see clearly. “It’s about figuring out where the openings are in the market,” says Mickey. “We look at every product that comes in. I’ve done this with three companies – Old Navy, Gap and Banana Republic… But it’s never been like what J Crew has become or what I think we’re going to be. here.”