Commentary

Ex-CEO Brett Says He And J.Crew Board Couldn't 'Bridge Our Beliefs'

After less than 18 months on the job, J.Crew CEO James Brett is leaving, and his duties are being split between four other executives at the company, which has seen a recent uptick in sales following several years of declines and upheaval

“Returning J.Crew to its iconic status required reinventing the brand to reflect the America of today with a more expansive, more inclusive fashion concept. However, despite the recent brand relaunch already showing positive results, the board and I were unable to bridge our beliefs on how to continue to evolve all aspects of the company,” Brett says in the J.Crew news release announcing his departure Saturday.

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Brett, who previously had been president of Williams-Sonoma’s home furnishings chain West Elm, succeeded longtime leader Mickey Drexler, who is now chairman of the J.Crew board, in June 2017.

The transitory office of the CEO will be occupied by president and COO Michael Nicholson, president and chief experience officer Adam Brotman, chief administrative officer Lynda Markoe, and Madewell brand president Libby Wadle. The board says it will be working “to establish a permanent management structure.”

Brett had “recently overseen efforts to relaunch its famously preppy namesake brand to focus on diversity by offering more size options and entry-level prices. The company had success with Madewell, a brand designed to appeal to millennial women by embracing more of a tomboy style,” write Bloomberg’s Daniel Zuidijk  and Caleb Melby.

“Under Brett, the retailer posted positive comparable sales for two straight quarters after years of declines, thanks in part to Madewell. It also partnered with Amazon to offer clothing on the Amazon Fashion platform, and broadened its reach by selling through Nordstrom,” they add.

Brett “lowered prices, launched new brands and tried to reposition J.Crew as an inclusivity-driven, one-for-all label not so tied down by its preppy heritage, especially as it had most recently been interpreted by agenda-setting designer Jenna Lyons. In a sharply worded email sent to senior staffers in July 2018, he dismissed Lyons’ work, which turned polarizing near the end of her tenure, while laying out his own priorities,” Lauren Sherman reports for Business of Fashion.

It included the line: “Femininity is critical -- pretty is critical -- femininity is powerful. These things are in starch [sic] contrast to Jenna’s masculine, sexual and overtly aggressive J.Crew.”

“While Lyons’ vision had stopped resonating with consumers, Brett’s fix was viewed by some analysts as a watering down of the product,” Sherman writes. 

“In recent weeks, the company had a heated board meeting in which members clashed with Mr. Brett over his decision to start a new brand called Nevereven and expand J.Crew’s Mercantile budget line as its own brand,” sources tell the Wall Street Journal’s Khadeeja Safdar. “They also raised concerns over operating earnings. … Mr. Brett held his ground and offered to part ways, they said,” Safdar continues. 

“In some ways, Mr. Brett’s strategy was a reversal from Mr. Drexler’s vision for J.Crew, with a distinct aesthetic and controlled distribution. At a media conference last year, Mr. Drexler also said he wouldn’t sell on Amazon. ‘Number one, they own the customer,’ he said, adding that Amazon would ‘take every best seller and put it into their private-label collection,’” Safdar points out.

But up to now, Brett’s “strategy seemed to be paying off, as J.Crew's same-store sales numbers turned a corner in the company’s most recent quarterly results after dropping for the last four years. In August, J.Crew's namesake brand reported a 1% increase in comparable sales for the second quarter,” Mary Hanbury observes for Business Insider.

“In September, J.Crew unveiled its new look with a diversity-driven ad campaign that features groups of people from creative and non-profit organizations dressed in J.Crew clothing,” she adds.

“The new campaign features diverse ‘crews’ from different organizations, including Girls Inc, Brooklyn United, Save the Waves and Creative Mornings,” Nerisha Penrose wrote for  Elle when the advertising rolled out under the hashtag #meetmycrew

“As for the new prices and styles, the brand says this initiative aims to ‘reflect the America of today.’ For each piece, sizes are expanded from 00 to 24. There’s also a new range of cuts, like the Curvy Toothpick Jean and the Slim-Fit Shirt, to better outfit real bodies,” Penrose continues.

Brett, who was not available for comment over the weekend, is presumably now looking for a more simpatico crew to hang with than the Drexler-led board at J.Crew.

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