Former J.Crew Execs Just Relaunched a Major Competitor for the Brand
Former J.Crew chief design officer Somsack Sikhounmuong has been quiet since leaving the American retailer in September 2017 after 16 years. Now, a year and a half later, he’s joining forces with Millard “Mickey” Drexler, J.Crew’s longtime ex-chairman and chief executive (he resigned in January, but still owns 10 percent of the company), on a venture that just may become their former employer’s biggest competition.
“After I left my last gig, Mickey had called and asked what I was up to,” Sikhounmuong reflects. “I told him, ‘Not much right now,’ and he was like, ‘Would you ever be interested in meeting Alex Mill?’”
Alex Mill, of course, is the men’s shirting label founded in 2012 by Drexler’s son, Alex. Now, the brand is being relaunched under Sikhounmuong’s direction as a full lifestyle company that’s building upon its existing menswear range and adding women’s and accessories into the mix, with prices ranging from $35 to $175.
“Alex had a really great niche business that already existed, and it wasn’t anything we wanted to get rid of,” Sikhounmuong tells InStyle of the choice to work under the Alex Mill name, rather than launching a brand new company. “There was a loyal customer base. The idea of starting from scratch didn’t even cross our minds.”
Instead, they chose to make, in Sikhounmuong’s words, “a more well-rounded collection. Up until a few seasons ago, [the company] was focused on shirts. Now, you’re going to have all of that, plus some pieces that will complement the core of the business. It’s the idea of easy, everyday essentials that are personal. Whether they’re personal in the way you can wear them and mix them into your wardrobe, or they’re personal in that they feel like they’ve been lived in. There’s a wash put into everything. There’s a detail put into everything. That philosophy already existed in men’s, we just carried it into women’s.”
That philosophy, as Sikhounmuong says, is that “looking good doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be easy to look good and have style.” And the clothing reflects that. The first collection, available February 19 on alexmill.com and at retailers like Nordstrom, Barneys New York, and Net-A-Porter, includes an array of classic pieces with a twist, from jackets with vintage scarf linings to a modernized boiler suit (think: a lighter fabric, tapered legs) based on a thrifted version found in Los Angeles, and a trench coat designed with extra-large pockets — “We love pockets!” Sikhounmuong jokes — and made from Italian waterproof fabric.
“Right now, the product is really key, and each season will build off of the last,” Sikhounmuong says of the offering, with a size range from 0-14 and XS-XL. “It won’t be about trends each season. The line will always look very similar and consistent. We want to build a following that feels organic and not too planned out.”
With its classic Americana feel, the comparisons to J.Crew will be inevitable. The similarities in terms of actual product are more striped T-shirts and neck scarves, and less overly-styled mix-and-match outfits (a Jenna Lyons signature). And perhaps that’s a good thing. But aesthetic isn’t the only difference between Sikhounmuong’s former and current employers.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Sikhounmuong says of the difference between working at a smaller company like Alex Mill versus a large corporation like J.Crew. "Because it’s so small, you get to do everything. But because it’s so small, you also have to do everything and learn everything. The scale of it is refreshing.”
What’s also refreshing is having his former boss back in his corner. Drexler, a retail savant, knows what it takes to build a business. And it’s his guidance that has helped refine what the next phase of Alex Mill will look like.
When asked about the best advice Drexler has ever given him, Sikhounmuong says: “Edit. Making sure there’s a good edit and focus. [Mickey] always asks: ‘Have you edited enough? Have you looked at the line well enough? What kind of eye are you looking at it with?’ He makes sure that everything we have is simplified and serves a purpose."
It sounds like they aren't immune to the Marie Kondo craze, either. "A huge conversation we had when we started was about ‘more stuff.’ Do we actually need more stuff? Well, people don’t need more clothes. They probably need the right clothes. And so, what are those right clothes?" Sikhounmuong adds, "At the end of the day, as a customer, I love a store that has a curated point of view. Sometimes more is too much.”
Though ‘editing’ may not be the first word that comes to mind considering the first women’s collection is comprised of more than 50 pieces, there is a clear connection and consistency across the products — they are all easy to wear and style, together or separately. They’re basics that can make up a wardrobe, but they’re also items that can compliment what you already own. And that’s the point. “We just want things to be accessible for people,” Sikhounmuong says. “We want people to be able to go on vacation and still be able buy our clothes, or go out to dinner and still be able to buy our clothes. It’s all about the idea of having clothes that fold nicely into your everyday life.”