At the Parsons Table

Millard Drexler speaking at the University Center's John L. Tishman Auditorium. Photo by Jonathan Grassi.

Millard Drexler speaking at the University Center’s John L. Tishman Auditorium. Photo by Jonathan Grassi.

On a cold January Monday, J.Crew CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler—the man credited with turning The Gap into an immensely profitable and influential store in the 1990s and in the process helping to democratize style, before doing it all over again at J.Crew in the past ten years—was in Chicago, eating cold pizza with eight J.Crew store managers. It’s how he keeps in touch with the retail side of his business, finding out what works and what doesn’t, and looks for new ideas. “You know, people can be afraid to share their ideas,” Drexler says later, “but no one ever gets fired for having a bad idea. You get fired for not doing your job. You don’t get fired for having a bad idea.”

Like many executives, Drexler has too large a role in the firm to ever be managing affairs in just one place at a time. So while he met with Chicago J.Crew store directors, he had asked the Parsons graduates on his New York staff to assemble. Drexler was speaking later that night at The New School and was curious about just how many of his employees had attended Parsons. As it turned out, quite a lot. When Drexler arrived at the new University Center for his talk, “At the Parsons Table: Millard Drexler and Paul Goldberger,” on Monday, January 27, he brought a sheet bearing the names of 26 J.Crew senior staff members who are Parsons graduates. In fact, from menswear to marketing, all of J.Crew’s creative departments are led by Parsons alumni—including the brand’s influential creative director, Jenna Lyons. “And these are just the ones who could make it to a last-minute meeting!” Drexler said.

Drexler was speaking with New School professor and Pulitzer Prize­–winning critic Paul Goldberger in the relaunched conversation-format lecture series At the Parsons Table. Goldberger was the dean of Parsons during the last incarnation of At the Parsons Table, which brought art and design legends like Frank Gehry, Chuck Close, Donna Karan, and Michael Graves to the university. The series has been revived by Parsons Executive Dean Joel Towers, who also introduced the evening.

Drexler and Goldberger’s conversation was one of the first public events held in the 800-seat John L. Tishman Auditorium in the new University Center. The venue, one of the largest in lower Manhattan, enables the university to host notable personalities for talks to students and industry professionals. Just two weeks into the spring 2014 semester, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Victoria Beckham have all appeared in Tishman.

During the hour-plus informal conversation with Goldberger, Drexler was relaxed and unassuming, pausing occasionally to greet people he knew in the audience or casually ask them questions. He covered topics such as balancing commercial and artistic considerations, the ins and outs of managing a major international clothing retailer, the importance of the retail staff at individual stores, and dealing with failure. Drexler is committed to producing fashions that have broad appeal but understands that not every product will be a top-seller. He’s refreshingly sanguine about failed designs. “You just have to take your markdowns and move on,” he said.