The problem, though, was that it takes more than a singular shirt, or a single localized customer, or one immersive retail experience to keep an expansive retail and catalogue business afloat. J.Crew’s golden years towards the end of the 2000s and early 2010s came with the formidable trio of creative director Jenna Lyons, menswear designer Frank Muytjens and CEO Mickey Drexler at the helm. They honed in on a formula that worked, from both a business and aesthetic standpoint. When Lyons, Muytjens and Drexler left J.Crew, in 2017, the company was already in a worrisome position, but at least they had some semblance of creative direction.
J.Crew has been unable to replace the trio in any meaningful way and those that have tried to fill their shoes have tried to replicate what Lyons, Muytjens and Drexler accomplished. All of this was enacted under the misguided belief that what worked in 2010 will work in 2020; it’s only a decade of difference, but things have changed considerably. J.Crew’s casual cool, the brand’s identity—the, “I look good without looking like I spent a month’s pay on this shirt and pants”—owed a lot to the leadership group
demanding that the brand’s staff, from the head office to the stores, live and breathe the J.Crew lifestyle. Since their departure, that hasn’t been the case and now J.Crew is left with an identity that gets ever murkier.
Of course, it’s not solely a personnel issue. J.Crew’s declining fortunes owe a lot to changing consumer trends. While men were dressing up in the first part of the decade and discovering things like
selvedge denim, madras and chambray, the second half of the 2010s was defined by Supreme, tracksuits and sneakers—none of those being things that paired particularly well with J.Crew’s staples. With then-J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler— coming off the rise and fall of Gap— actively moving J.Crew away from “athleisure” as it was beginning to percolate in the early-2010s, J.Crew was setting itself up for failure in the long term. Couple that with the decline of malls—where countless J.Crew stores are found—and you have a recipe for relative irrelevance.
J.Crew’s history should have offered the brand lessons. Its initial successes were rooted in selling the J.Crew way of life, which was as much the focus of the brand’s catalogues as the garments themselves were. To boot, J.Crew did this without an outsized brick and mortar presence. Even the success of the Liquor Store exemplified the brand’s winning formula—a smaller, specialized outpost that sold a mood as much as it hawked wares. Unfortunately, J.Crew’s national presence as a “mall brand” made it hard for one-off concept stores and a move to increase the quality (and by extension, the price) of its garments to have any significant impact.
Instead J.Crew found itself saddled with debt—more than a billion dollars worth—and stores that bled money, and without something that set it apart from competitors. The quality of the products suffered, too, with the company less able to afford strict quality control measures and better production facilities. From 2017 until now, the downward spiral has done nothing but gather pace, with the forced closure of the brand’s stores being the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Rather ironically, it appears that menswear is headed back towards the kind of world where J.Crew would have tremendous success. Men are dressing up again, but in a way that’s casual. The Lyons-Muytjens-Drexler-era J.Crew would have had a field day, but, instead, the brand has been outpaced and replaced. Brooks Brothers, J. Press and Ralph Lauren remain as the longstanding Americana icons, but a new caste of brands like
Rowing Blazers, and, to a lesser extent, Aimé Leon Dore and Noah have emerged to fill some of cool prepwear void left by J.Crew. Of course, none of them do so at the same affordable prices J.Crew once offered.
It’s important to note that bankruptcy protection does not mean that J.Crew is folding—the brand is still around, but it’s hard to see it returning to the place it once occupied, even as the trends swing back in its favor. J.Crew sold a dream and it educated customers. It no longer does the former well and we’re living in an age where customers are already extremely knowledgeable—the internet having replaced brands and salespeople as chief style educators.
If J.Crew wants to be successful again, its best bet is probably to downsize; to lean into its history as a New England prep brand and not try to dress everybody and anybody; to close most of the stores and ensure that those that remain ooze the J.Crew ethos and not that of whichever mall they happen to sit in.
But that probably won’t happen. In all likelihood, J.Crew is poised to become but another brand that lacks a defining ethos, selling chinos without a purpose—irrelevant save for its history and deeply discounted outlets.
The saddest part is that’s not what J.Crew once was.