Same as the Old Boss?

On the home page of J. Crew recently was the subhead “Familiar Territory.” If I were J. Crew, I’d have opted for a different tagline.

The apparel cataloger/retailer has just hired a new CEO, former Gap kingpin Mickey Drexler. Now at most companies the arrival of a new chief executive isn’t an everyday occurrence, but it’s getting to seem that way at Crew. Six months earlier, Crew had hired Ken Pilot as CEO. Adding to the sense of redundancy is that Pilot was also a Gap alum.

Sure, Drexler is renowned as the man who transformed The Gap from a struggling retailer with all the excitement of day-old salad into a retail powerhouse with stores on every third corner. Leaving aside the question of whether the Western world needs a Gap on every third corner, there’s also the matter of Gap’s performance during the last few years of Drexler’s tenure there. Sales tumbled as the apparel became too fad-conscious, then in reaction to that complaint, too generic.

The Gap is recovering now, largely because in the months before he quit, Drexler once again involved himself more directly in merchandising. Come to think of it, though, wasn’t merchandising supposed to be Pilot’s forte?

There’s no doubt that J. Crew needs someone to sharpen its merchandising strategy. I read the catalogs and visit the Website frequently, and I’ll be damned if I can distinguish the new spring line from last year’s spring line — or from the spring clothes I’m seeing at Abercrombie & Fitch, or American Eagle, or even at The Gap. Talk about your familiar territory.

At the Shop.org Members’ Forum this past January, David Brooks, the author of BoBos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, spoke of one gauge for judging the strength of a brand: whether consumers can easily and vividly conjure up the “typical customer” of the brand. We all know who the Talbots woman is, of course, and the J. Jill woman, and the L.L. Bean family and the Orvis man.

Seven years ago, we knew who the J. Crew couple were too. Not so much now. Back in August, J. Crew was expecting Pilot to fix that. Six months later, it decided that Drexler would better be able to fix that. Because he’d done it for The Gap, twice — early during his stint in the corner office, and then shortly before departing.

In other words, J. Crew’s identity crisis is familiar territory for him.

But doesn’t familiarity breed contempt? I’m feeling a bit contemptuous of an apparel marketer whose executive suite has undergone more change during the past year than its merchandise line has.

PS: Speaking of change, if you haven’t yet seen the refurbished Catalog Age Website (at the same familiar address, www.CatalogAgemag.com), I hope you’ll visit it soon. We think it’s easier on the eyes and simpler to navigate. Let us know if you agree (or disagree).

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