From Dirty Towels To The Top Of The Heap

Mickey Drexler surrounds himself with handsome things. Museum-quality wooden model airplanes hang from the ceiling of his San Francisco waterfront office. Art books on the prairie architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the street-life photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the desert paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe are stacked on tables and scattered across his cherry wood desk. Out the window, the silver towers of the Bay Bridge dominate the view.

Of course, his fans would say that Millard S. Drexler himself is responsible for some handsome items--the clothes lineup at The Gap. But it took a while for this kid from the East Bronx to realize he had the merchant's knack for spotting trends and creating styles. An only child, Drexler grew up wanting to be a businessman--but he had no idea what business. His father bought buttons and leather for a coat manufacturer, but that didn't spark any immediate interest in the rag trade. As a boy, Mickey worked for his uncle's laundry business, folding and separating towels: The spotless ones went to restaurants, the stained ones to gas stations.

`A SPARK.' After graduating from Bronx High School of Science, Drexler got a business degree from what is now the State University of New York at Buffalo and an MBA from Boston University. He kept a low profile. His Boston University classmate Edward D. Winkler, president of Vermont Research Corp., remembers Drexler this way: "Never heard of him."

Drexler finally blossomed as a summer intern at Abraham & Straus, the department-store chain based in Brooklyn, where he worked in the jeans department. Says Drexler: "It was the first time I had a clue as to what I really liked to do." He was good at it, too. After getting his MBA, he took a job in junior sportswear at Bloomingdale's Inc., where he caught the eye of merchandising manager Melvin Jacobs, who now runs Saks Fifth Avenue. "He had a sense of style. You could see there was a spark there," Jacobs says. Within six months, Drexler became buyer for women's swimsuits and sweaters. "It might take someone else two to three years for that kindof promotion," saysJacobs.

Drexler moved on to R.H. Macy & Co. and back to A&S again. All along, though, he chafed at department-store bureaucracies. At Bloomingdale's, for example, he came across a collection of basic but colorful crewneck T-shirts he thought would fly out the door. Eventually, they did. But first, Drexler had to go through layer after bureaucratic layer to get his order approved. "You were always being second-guessed, always having to negotiate," he says.

In 1980, he broke free as president of Ann Taylor Stores Corp., where he got credit for a major turnaround at the chain by updating the look and lowering prices. "He's contentious, he's contrarian, I could see how he could be a real pain in the butt at a department store," but he was just what Ann Taylor needed, says Sally Frame Kasaks, who worked with Drexler at Ann Taylor and was recently named the chain's new president.

Like Ann Taylor, The Gap in 1983 needed an overhaul when founder Donald G. Fisher flew to Manhattan and coaxed Drexler to sign on. Fisher had been trying for years to shake The Gap's ho-hum, bargain-basement image, but none of the merchandise managers he had hired seemed to grasp what he was looking for. "Mickey was the first person to understand what I wanted to do." Drexler left his beloved New York City and moved to California with his wife and baby boy.

In New York and San Francisco, Drexler remains tightlipped about his life outside the office. He refuses to discuss his wife, for example, in deference to her privacy. But it's no secret that a handsome office hasn't been Drexler's only reward: His 2.5% holding of Gap stock is worth some $175 million. Not bad for a Bronx kid who once folded towels for grease monkeys.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE