Remember J.Crew? The preppy brand broke beyond New England shoppers to national fashion acclaim in the mid-aughts and very recently seem to have fallen into the trap of bloated mall retail: the ‘Crew is dying.
The brand is losing lots of money and lost their extremely fashionable president and executive creative director, Jenna Lyons, last month. These are bad things. It’s a sign of both failure and a stepping away from a product that isn’t as fabulous as it once was. (Moreover, we could maybe even credit Lyons with the ‘Crew’s rise because of her unique approach to styling. She sadly was blamed for failure once the brand started to slump.) Menswear head—and all around hyper fashionable male himself—Frank Muytjens is sadly also leaving the ‘Crew too.
What happened? How did the ‘Crew get lumped with stores like Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, brands that it once stole customers from? Why did J.Crew fail?
To understand, we have to look at our young selves: we have to look at our millennialness. Joshua Rothman of the New Yorker recently posited this in a nice summation of why J.Crew is dying. This passage was of note.
The short answer is the Internet. Millennials tend to spend money on gadgets, rather than clothes, and rarely go to the mall; savvier customers have learned to wait for coupon codes. The middle of the market has disappeared: while aimless, open-minded shoppers are happy to haunt Zara and H & M, discerning ones turn every purchase into a research project, gravitating toward Web-centric brands such as the California fashion startups Reformation and Everlane, which are more transparent about sizing and manufacturing. Then there is Amazon, which accounts, by itself, for more than half of all growth in online retail, according to the market-research company Slice Intelligence. By allowing customers to search across brands, it devalues branding in general, reducing the potency of the world-building in which companies like J. Crew have invested so much.
Ouch. While I do not subscribe to any of this (I online shop, sure, but at none of those brands. Moreover, I save and then buy pricier shit because I’m finally an adult like that.), I do understand it. For the casual consumer who isn’t located on the coasts or in a big city, J.Crew wore out its welcome. In some ways—as Rothman says—it became the embodiment of class divides and retro Americana that we’re all griping about in politics. Not a great look.
It might be that latter note, about the style and affluent inspiration, that killed it: we weren’t afforded enough individuality, both in the design and the wearability. Often I found myself shrugging at J.Crew clothing because it was neither unique or versatile enough. It felt like a Groundhog Day of retail. What a bummer! I barely shop at the store since I’m looking for things that no one else has or that I can dress up or down. I typically turn to vintage stores or pricier places to get that since going to places like Topman (Too young.) or Zara (Too Euro.) or H&M (Too cheap.) leave you looking and feeling cheap and xeroxed.
In asking “Why did J.Crew fail?,” we must look at ourselves. As age does, we’re different than we were ten years ago. We don’t look the same. We don’t make the same amount of money. We don’t live in the same places. We don’t have the same things. Above all in this conversation, we don’t wear the same things. In that, we—those who J.Crew was turning to—wandered away, finding ourselves elsewhere as we sought styles that reflected a new maturity instead of a posed, manufactured maturity. I see this as I scan old reviews I once did of the J.Crew Style Guides, modern catalogues that always added a little inspirational boost to your work week. Today? They end up in my recycling with nary a glance.