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Q&A: Tracy Gardner, Former President of J.Crew

Tracy Gardner, former president of J. Crew, can command a room instantly. Last Fall, Tracy made a trek to New Haven from New York, where she is currently a Visiting Professor in Fashion and Fashion Business at NYU, to share her experience in overcoming obstacles and leading a $2.4 billion revenue-generating company with her signature grace, humility, and unbounded curiosity. In a follow up interview, Tracy dives into the world of fashion entrepreneurship and the grit it takes to reach the top. Discover what it means to not only be an entrepreneur in a fast-changing industry, but also learn what it means to be an insightful, charismatic, and resilient leader below:

What does a startup mean to you?

If you want to start your own company, you have to become comfortable with fear. Fear is a good thing once we master the ability to move through it. Fear comes from the german word per: to try, to risk, to go over, to go through and the Greek word peira: to trial, attempt, and experience. So much of what we do requires unwavering confidence in our abilities and mastering and moving through fear.

What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs in the fashion industry?

What’s interesting to me is that there have never been more platforms and network effects where one can decide to launch a business. Companies like Shopify, Amazon, and Etsy have expedited the growth of e-commerce. There is a trend to create a greater emphasis on manufacturing, like Detroit’s revival. With all these innovations taking place, you have the traditional business challenges of fierce competition and execution, but with new formidable challenges like adapting to continuous disruption.

Competition in the fashion industry is fiercer today than ever before, but fashion design is no longer the king that it was 10 years ago. Today, we are navigating towards experiences within the ecosystems of mobile devices. Fashion is not as important as it once was – add on how e-commerce allows individuals to create websites in less than an hour and you have new competition constantly flooding the market with creative ideas and customer experiences.

Consider as well how apparel is one of the only deflationary commodities out there. You’re paying the same amount for clothes as you did as a teenager. It’s the only thing that doesn’t seem to inflate. All the raw materials are inflating but consumer’s price expectations are not. It’s a race to the bottom. You have to adapt to how new technology and materials can instantly change your business model.

Even with all these challenges, it’s an exciting time to be in fashion. You can scale your own micro business with a simple Google search and a Facebook ad posting.

In your 25+ years of experience in developing and growing omni-channel brands, what do you think are the biggest growing pains for a fashion business/start-up?

  1. People give up and lose their laser focus. When you see a problem, you have to fix it. If you give up, the business gives up with you.

  2. Entrepreneurship becomes a money raising cycle, which can skew strategic goals. Scarcity drives innovation because when you’re feeling overwhelmed and have limited resources, you end up hammering in on the details that matter. That’s why it is important for entrepreneurs to continue to have self-imposed scarcity as the startup grows.

  3. Founders come up with solutions too slowly. Perfectionism kills entrepreneurialism. You have to be willing to make a decision that is only 60% there.

You talk about the role of globalization and the need for greater sustainability in fashion. Do you believe entrepreneurs are more likely to tackle this problem, or large industry players like Gap Inc. and Zara?

The merging of sustainability and fashion is going to happen both on a  micro and a macro level. Resources are finite and you will be forced to tackle sustainability whether you like it or not. It’s going to take a village and I believe it will behoove startups to integrate sustainability into their ideas. It’s smart. It’s efficient. And it’s the right thing to do.

For big players like Gap and Zara, sustainability is definitely at the forefront of their business considerations. There are a lot more manufacturing links now to make sustainability more efficient. Big companies,however, have to reverse engineer their supply chain to make things more efficient. If I were starting a company today, there’s no question that I would be working on making it sustainable.

As a leader, you’ve had to make a lot of difficult and challenging decisions, especially in growing J. Crew and Gap Inc. What were some tools that you employed to help you come to conclusions in stressful and seemingly unsolvable situations?

I’ve never had a situation where something was unsolvable. It’s a mindset that you learn to get in.  In 2008 when the sky was falling at J. Crew, I remember how stressed my team became. It was then that I found as a leader, you need to get people out of an anxiety ridden mindset. You need to separate the brain into two minds – the anxious mind, where you are paralyzed from decision-making, and the curious mind, the mind where true greatness comes from. When you look at your team, you need to ask them and yourself, “what is the worst thing that can happen”? One you accept the worst case scenario, you can move into the headspace of a visionary and problem solving mind.

Ultimately, everything comes down to mindset. Those who do remarkable things have an extraordinary mindset. It will come from a place of confidence and openness and it is what will separate us all.

What are your favorite books on your bookshelf?

  1. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

  2. The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy

  3. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

  4. The Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell

Do you have any additional words of wisdom that you would like to share?

Having a good team that that you can trust is vital. You can’t build a startup without a team. It takes obsession and like-minded people to operate in scarcity.  You’re only as good as the team you work with and the relationships in those teams. Do we work well together? Are we intellectually honest? These are cultural tenets in a great team. When ego is left at the door and you’re just attacking the problem, you’re able to make better decisions and iterate faster. Constant cycle. What has served me well is relying on the team. I’d rather make a fast mistake than a slow and lingering mistake in purgatory.