The Merchant Prince Prevails

In 2002, Mickey Drexler departed unceremoniously from Gap Inc. (GPS ) He had made the company famous during his nearly two decades there, but the retailer had been struggling over the previous three years. He was offered a multimillion-dollar farewell payment from the board of directors -- and turned it down. That's because, as part of the deal, Drexler would have had to agree not to work for a competitor. It wasn't pride that motivated him but something more elemental: his sense of purpose in life. Drexler was nothing if not the Merchant Prince; little other than a new throne in the fashion world would do. In early 2003, three months after Gap named his successor, the 58-year-old Drexler moved from San Francisco to Manhattan to run J. Crew Group Inc. (JCG ) It was, he knew, one of the companies whose image and potential could rival Gap's.

Drexler has always insisted he's not motivated by revenge. But he has poached some two dozen Gap managers, and in the fall of 2004 he happily spread the word that Gap's celebrity pitchwoman at the time, Sarah Jessica Parker, had stocked up on J. Crew cashmere sweaters (as gifts, said her spokeswoman). Last year the company's sales rose 18.5%, and in June the retailer went public in one of the strongest offerings of the year.

Meanwhile, over at Gap, Chief Executive Paul Pressler is struggling to avoid becoming the next fashion victim.

By Susan Berfield

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