We All Want J.Crew to be Good Again

A few weeks ago I went on a bit of a rant about Brooks Brothers when it was announced that the company was filing for Chapter 11 protection. Even before that happened I was thinking about J.Crew and how it could turn around its fortunes. I felt like I have a lot of perspective on J.Crew for a few reasons. First I know many of the players that were a part of the successful team during the Mickey Drexler era. Secondly, I worked for several years to help briefly revitalize the one-time J.Crew competitor Club Monaco. Even with Aaron Levine’s awesome aesthetic and taste level, it wasn’t easy to get traction. We had a serious uphill battle to try and outmaneuver J.Crew.

Even though I have a lot of proximity to the business, I assumed that there had to be a lot of stuff I didn’t know and I could learn from all of the press attention given to the bankruptcy. Most of the stories I have read just wanted to blame debt, COVID-19, and management. But I wonder what the answer is with J.Crew? Can it come back or is this a complete downward spiral?

Anyone who has followed J.Crew for the past several years could have predicted this might happen —even before COVID-19. The company’s debt had mounted and it seemed like the business became diluted. Then the discounting kicked into high gear to generate cash to service the debt and everything started going downhill. It’s the classic Domino Theory chain of events. Trends changed, debt pushed the company to discount, design and direction didn’t evolve, product quality deteriorated, too much emphasis was placed on physical retail, and the absence of a community all contributed. Then a pandemic hits and it’s a big magnifier for disaster.

This piece in the FT charted the demise fairly well and I think the kernel of a rebirth is in here. The paragraph that stuck out was this bit about the style bible Take Ivy.

“What purveyors of prep might need, then, is not so much a shift in aesthetics — though some of that is needed — but a shift in values. Increasingly conscious of the ills of fast fashion, consumers are looking for what prep style has long offered: timeless, good-quality, easily interchangeable clothes that can be worn for decades.”

What I’m hearing Lauren Indvik say here is that J.Crew’s somewhat dated take on an “aspirational prep lifestyle” is just DOA in 2020 and severely challenged even going back a few years. (And her story even appeared before the recent social unrest across America.) The brands that are most successful now are all built on communities— be that premised on an influencer, a sport, a hobby, or even social good attributes like sustainability. Social media and the internet have enabled people to become hyper-tribal and find the aesthetic or niche that perfectly fits their POV — in the same way, we all curate our Twitter and Facebook feeds to reflect our world view. J.Crew, GAP, Brooks Brothers, and other similar retailers are just too generalized for how modern people shop and they struggle to fill consumer’s hearts. On the other side of things if a brand is going to try and compete on price and trend how is it going to beat H&M and Zara? If it is going to try to compete on price and quality how can you beat Uniqlo? J.Crew just doesn’t have the differentiator at this point. The question “Why should J.Crew exist?” doesn’t have many easy answers. But people still love J.Crew and I feel like it can make a comeback.

Speaking mostly with regards to menswear, if you look at the J.Crew heyday era of 2008-2012 the brand helped pioneer the idea that it’s ok for American men to be interested in what they wear. Guys from every income bracket and background could revel in the idea that menswear was not only cool to care about, it could become a legitimate hobby for a generation. This was a seismic shift in the way men shopped and under the direction of Mickey Drexler and Todd Snyder J.Crew helped to pioneer it. Simple things like merchandising the store with cool indie brands helped to elevate J.Crew’s basics. This was a fairly revolutionary idea for a vertical retailer of J.Crew’s size. It was happening at good specialty retailers like Steven Alan for a long time but it was a fresh concept for a big vertical retailer to do it. The way these In Good Company brands were curated was refreshing and got a lot of attention from media and shoppers. It drove discovery, positive press coverage, and generally got people excited.

In those early days, I was just starting my blog and the guys J.Crew was selling to were the ones coming to ACL to geek out over Aldens or Red Wing boots. J.Crew was the first advertiser I had on the site and I considered many of the people there to be work friends. The NYFW presentations the brand did were huge hits and widely attended by the most important people in fashion. The brand was riding as high as could be and it was cool to see men’s fashion without a capital F was getting so much mainstream attention.

When Mickey was there, the offices had so much energy and it was always super exciting to go up there and potentially run into him. Between the insanity of the loudspeaker and his charisma, being there always made you feel super special and heard. He would stop and ask you questions. “What’s the best street in Georgetown to open a store? What have you seen out there that is cool? Have you seen anything interesting coming out of Japan.” He would do this to everyone as a part of his passionate curiosity and it would make you feel special. A CEO of a billion-dollar company asking *me* a question about what is cool? That’s a big deal and you could often see how Mickey’s curiosity would translate into the brand and the collaborations. The high point was the opening of The Liquor Store in TriBeCa. It was all of the greatest hits together in one tiny but potent shop. People loved it. It was special and for a brand the size of J.Crew to do something that inspiring was powerful. Usually, those things get diluted to hell by a corporate structure. With big companies, things that start as a great idea often get so watered down that they are unrecognizable by the time they launch. But that wasn’t the case for J.Crew of that era, they were on a roll.

If you reference some of those collections from J.Crew from 2008-2012 the clothes look just as relevant and wearable now as they were then. That says a lot about the design, styling, and overall structure of what Todd Snyder and Frank Muytjens were doing. Eventually though those guys left and things started to feel stale. Frank opened what feels like the most beautiful inn in the world. Todd Snyder moved out on his own and founded his label (which later was sold to American Eagle) with the playbook from his time with Mickey. Todd is a savvy guy and he always knows what is cool at each moment. When it comes to collaborations specifically he is a *master* at getting old brands to open up and collaborate with him. Think about what a huge hit Timex was for J.Crew and how much it continues to deliver for TS. Champion, New Balance, Alden, Nike, Globe-Trotter, and the list goes on. Todd Snyder proved that well-selected brands plus classic menswear not only still works, it kills.

The question is where should J.Crew go from here? The brand has the opportunity to use this Ch. 11 as a restart and redefine what an aspirational lifestyle is. Successful brands need a lot of things to be successful, but the most important are: good products and good marketing. Obviously, if the operations, planning, sourcing, and e-commerce aren’t there then it doesn’t matter how good your marketing or product is. But J.Crew is good at a lot of those operations functions. Not all of its stores are underperforming (well, they probably all are now with COVID, but there have to be some keepers in there if things ever get back to normal) and it can use Ch 11 to dump a lot of the dead weight in this restart.

Every company needs to re-evaluate at this point and put an emphasis on being inclusive, sustainable, diverse, and open. This is the perfect time for J.Crew to take stock in its values and redefine what American style looks and acts like. Everlane has stolen some of J.Crew’s younger consumers with a fresh take on basics and admittedly great marketing that emphasized openness and social good — although it has had some big failings recently. Maybe I am too old, but Everlane has never resonated with me. It feels like it is all marketing, and the product doesn’t live up to the hype. I’ve always thought of the product as a bit flimsy. Why buy that when you can just buy Uniqlo? Speaking of Uniqlo, I feel like the product is good (especially considering the price) but the store experience and online shopping experience are both pretty awful. Uniqlo has an app that basically routes you back through your phone’s browser to order something. It’s absurd. Both of these companies leave an opening for J.Crew to reinvent itself.

When I look at the brand I see a lot to work with and I think this moment could be perfect for it to make the hard decisions necessary to right the ship. Regardless of what has happened in the past few years people still love J.Crew. If conditions are right it can hopefully shed the baggage of the past and rebuild stronger.

Here are three things that I think J.Crew needs to do. Cue eye-rolling from executives!

  1. Take this moment to make the brand stand for something more than just “prep” and represent the new American Style through diversity, inclusion, and accessibility. Take this new DNA and build a community around it. Everyone wants to be the best version of themselves (smart, sustainable, ethical, socially conscious, stylish, etc.) and clothes can obviously be a part of that.

  2. Be more sustainable. The Fair Trade partnership was a good move in my opinion. J.Crew needs to make sustainability a major focus for the future. Sustainability is something every fashion brand in the world is going to have to come to terms with. Climate change is not going to resolve itself.

  3. Know thyself and make great product. Why are people paying $250 for a pair of old J.Crew pants on eBay? One genius move of the Drexler era was the use (and marketing) of good mills and materials like the famous selvedge chino. Make great stuff and surround it by cool brands. That old concept still works for Todd Snyder, so why not just do it again in an updated way?

I don’t think that I have all of the answers, but at this point, I don’t feel like any of the above could hurt J.Crew further. The elephant in the room is debt and how J.Crew can evolve and continue to be as big as it needs to be. The hard part is being willing to take a risk and establish a fresh point of view. I think it’s safe to say that the classic American prep style is too niche of an audience for J.Crew and it’s time to move on. That would be a bold move, but the brand is overdue for reinvention.