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Former J.Crew CEO Drexler: Things have been 'miserable' in retail

Lauren Thomas
David A. Grogan | CNBC. Mickey Drexler has said he didn't realize how quickly technology could impact the retail industry.

"Things have been miserable in retail," Mickey Drexler, the former CEO and current chairman of J.Crew, said Thursday at the New York Times' DealBook conference. "The last two or three years have not been fun whatsoever." Drexler stepped down after 14 years with apparel company J.Crew, telling The Wall Street Journal at one point he didn't realize how quickly technology could impact his industry. "Things were moving in this direction, but I don't think anyone was prepared," Drexler said Thursday about shopping moving online. Drexler was famed for his turnaround of Gap in the 1990s. When he arrived at J.Crew in 2003, he worked hard to do the same by introducing the idea of providing designer quality clothing for the masses. That strategy succeeded for a while. Recently, J.Crew is struggling to find its footing in a sea of apparel brands, each striving to win shoppers' dollars. Meantime, there are new entrants flooding the market, and many of them non-traditional e-commerce players. Companies like Stitch Fix, Rent the Runway and Untuckit run the majority of their operations online. "Fast fashion has had huge growth," Drexler said about players, like Zara, in apparel retailing. He also called out up-and-coming brands Allbirds and Outdoor Voices for their recent successes. Notably, Drexler is chairman of Outdoor Voices, an athletic apparel company based in Austin, Texas. When asked about Wal-Mart (WMT)'s recent acquisition of men's clothing company Bonobos, Drexler said: "I don't understand it. [Wal-Mart] should have bought J.Crew." At one point, Drexler said his management team at J.Crew approached Amazon (AMZN) about a partnership, saying he has "enormous respect" for the internet giant. But those discussions never resulted in a concrete deal. In turn, Amazon is seen quietly creating its own private-label apparel brands, tackling the industry head-on. "It's not to say that everybody is dying," Drexler said, adding that he doesn't think clothes are "that important" to retail anymore. "Long term, we'll see who wins and loses." According to Drexler, monitoring changing consumer behavior is the most important thing an apparel retailer or mall owner can do. "You can't just blame technology," he said.

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