J.Crew is attempting a comeback. After faltering for years, the retailer has announced that it will unveil what it calls “the New Crew” on Sept. 10.
The J.Crew brand achieved its first quarter of positive growth in four years during the second quarter. The retailer that had been heralded at fashion week and envied for the leadership of merchant supreme Mickey Drexler had since fallen on hard times.
Laboring under $1.7 billion of debt, the buzz, if you can call it that, around J.Crew, the company, had mostly centered around whether or not it would succumb to the same fate as other highly leveraged, and now defunct, retailers like The Bon-Ton Stores and Rue 21. J.Crew has managed to hang on thanks in part to some legal maneuvering that included parceling off its intellectual property into a separate subsidiary from the rest of the business.
Through it all, the retail group has had one bright spot. Madewell, which is often thought of as a younger sibling to the J.Crew brand—though president Libby Wadle would disagree with that characterization—has been on fire. In the second quarter alone, Madewell sales were up 29 percent, led in part by a strong denim business.
For J.Crew, it’s harder to identify one thing that the brand is known for today. Once the bastion of preppy Americana, the company seemed to lose focus, at one point going so far as to create looks that cloned former president and chief creative director Jenna Lyons’ own quirky personal style. The evolution ultimately turned off some of its most loyal fans.
“I haven’t shopped there in a while!” said Beth Fahey, a once avid J.Crew shopper. “Every once in a while I’ll get something from J.Crew Factory because I feel like they are still doing a semblance of what I used to like about J.Crew: well-priced, well-made basics, with some striking prints thrown in. Now it seems like everything at J.Crew is very unflattering and overpriced.”
Maria Kuberiet, who is now more likely to hit Nordstrom than J.Crew, also noted the clothing as “expensive.” And while she’d like to see lower prices, she also says the retailer needs to broaden its assortment. “I think they never branch out of the ‘preppy’ style, and that’s very niche,” she said. “I do not really fit into that category so I find it hard to shop there all the time.”
Clearly J.Crew has heard these complaints about cost and styling before, as both were addressed in CEO Jim Brett’s rundown of the company’s planned updates during its second quarter earnings call.
First, in response to the company’s sometimes scattershot design, Brett said, “For us to offer the elements needed to express one’s own style, we don’t need to carry every trend and aesthetic. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Instead of chasing fast, disposable fashion our focus is classic enduring American style reflected through a few key aesthetics.”
To achieve this more cohesive, consistent assortment, J.Crew plans to roll out new sub-brands and re-introduce old favorites. Colorful, New England preppy pieces will be evident in a few brands, as will relaxed looks washed in muted tones that lend a West Coast vibe. Professionals will also be able to find tailored pieces perfect for work.
The company also vows to take bodies—and wallets—of all shapes and sizes into account, too. “Color will return as well as a breadth of fits, sizes and proportions along with an assortment of good, better and best price points with great value and the quality you expect from J.Crew,” Brett said, adding that he recognized the company’s offering has been too narrow. “The size extension will open up to the 50 percent of Americans that can’t shop our brands.”
At least some male shoppers are hoping the attempt to outfit more body types extends to men too, because, according to one would-be shopper, “the selection for large dudes is lacking.” The wife of another complained about the slim fit, which doesn’t work for her husband.
The focus on quality will also cheer other former fans.
Mom of two Pam Brill, who would occasionally shop the J.Crew catalog, liked the classic styling but said the longevity of the pieces were a major plus for her. “In the past, I appreciated that I could buy an item (a cardigan that I’ve had since college) and it has stood the test of time. Styles were classic and quality of materials, top-notch,” she said. “I also enjoyed buying occasional items for my young daughters in their Crewcuts line, and didn’t mind splurging because I knew they would last.”
Christa Babcock, who hasn’t shopped the chain in at least five years, was turned off when the quality headed south. “The staples at J.Crew were at one time perceived as timeless classics I had in my closet years ago, and when I went back to J.Crew just to see what they had, I found the same Super 120s dress and I could tell that the fabric and quality had decreased,” she said.
While the company had let quality lapse, a host of direct-to-consumer brands have sprouted up offering fashion and premium fabrics and construction. Babcock said that’s what she favors now along with clothing found at independent boutiques, though she’ll still pick up pieces from Theory, Rebecca Taylor and Joie.
Babcock also gave voice to another concern many shoppers have today. She said she wants J.Crew to “talk about where the brand is sourcing product to show transparency in the supply chain. Everlane does this along with many other brands and it makes the customer feel empowered in the purchase process.”
In a sign of the times, Brett outlined three things the company plans to espouse: dignity, sustainability and advocacy. While it’s not clear whether J.Crew will be able to achieve the same transparency as a company like Everlane, it is evident that the retailer recognizes today’s consumer is more demanding in this area.
In addition to overhauling its assortment, J.Crew is leaning into wholesale more in a bid to make the brand easier to shop. From its successful partnership with Nordstrom, the company now offers its wares on Amazon Fashion, Hudson’s Bay, Galeries Lafayette and John Lewis, among others.