J Crew’s CEO steps down after a short run

J Crew’s CEO is stepping down less than two years into the job, a sign of turmoil as the retailer heads into the holiday shopping stretch.

In a surprise announcement Saturday, the company said that Jim Brett was leaving because of a disagreement with the board of directors over how to “evolve” J Crew. Four senior executives will share CEO responsibilities.

Brett took over last July from veteran chief executive Mickey Drexler, who led the company for 14 years after a stint at Gap. Drexler helped position J Crew as a top clothing brand known for its quality and preppy aesthetic before a years-long sales slump.

“The departure of Jim Brett is worrying for J Crew,” said Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail. “It leaves the brand leaderless at a time when it needs to focus its efforts on rebuilding sales and reconnecting with customers.”

Brett came to J Crew from West Elm and faced the tough job of revitalizing the brand. J Crew’s sales have been on the decline and it carries close to $2 billion in debt from a 2011 leveraged buyout.

“This company just hasn’t resonated in a special way with shoppers for years,” according to Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester Research. “They missed athleisure as a trend and didn’t pivot hard enough into digital or alternative brands when the consumer was buying more online from niche labels.”

Pricing has been a persistent issue at the brand. J Crew maintained it could charge premium price tags even as customers drifted away, Saunders said. “Today’s more democratic fashion marketplace abounds with retailers selling on-trend, low-priced basics, which made J Crew’s position untenable.”

Brett oversaw a brand relaunch– “New Crew” — to shift J Crew off its preppy roots and connect with a broader range of shoppers.

As part of the approach, Brett laid out plans to make J Crew more size-inclusive, striking a deal with plus-size retailer Universal Standard. J Crew expanded its assortment of lower-priced basic clothes, and partnered with Amazon to sell on the website for the first time.

It also launched a loyalty program last summer giving shoppers money back after a certain amount of purchases.

“We must reflect the America of today, which is significantly more diverse than the America of 20 years ago,” Brett said in an interview this year with The Wall Street Journal.

“You can’t be one price. You can’t be one aesthetic. You can’t be one fit.”

In August, J Crew broke a four-year streak of declining sales at stores. Brett called it a “watershed moment.”

Three months later, he is leaving the job and J Crew’s future is up in the air.