J.Crew has been in the news a lot lately; though not for the greatest of reasons. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they along with several other retailers (and other businesses) have declared bankruptcy. Many, including J.Crew will likely reorganize and emerge (hopefully) in a better position, but the fact that this is happening at all is indicative of what had been brewing for a long time. You can click on any recent articles from trade publications, Grailed, or the New York Times to read about the history of J.Crew and how they grew from a small catalog business into the brand that defined #menswear for the better part of a decade. This here will be told from a more personal level. Read on…
I was first introduced to J.Crew in the late 1980’s. I was 11 or 12, in summer camp. Our camp was a Teen Tour (actually pre-teen), which meant we took a different road trip every day. We hit the beach once a week, and took one overnight trip per summer. And we always did a couple of trips into NYC including to the South Street Seaport. My counselor was a proud prep-school guy who was so excited to see an actual J.Crew store on our trip to the Seaport. At the time this was the only J.Crew retail store in existence (as far as I know.) He dragged my group kicking and screaming into the store so he could take a quick look. Our grumbling continued inside, but I do remember him picking up and admiring an oxford shirt.
Fast forward to 1995. I’m in my freshman year at SUNY Oneonta, and my wardrobe is mostly Old Navy, Levis, and band t-shirts. I joined a fraternity, and noticed that some guys dressed pretty well. Their style wasn’t fancy, but there was a laid back cool to it. I come to find out they wear J.Crew. I begin to look through the catalogs. My interest is piqued. I left Oneonta in early 1997just as we were starting spring semester. I decided to move home to figure out what I wanted to do. I enrolled in a couple of classes at Community College, and looked for a part time job. I went over to Roosevelt Field Mall with the idea that I would get a job at a clothing store – either Banana Republic or J.Crew, ideally. Banana Republic didn’t call; J.Crew did.
It didn’t take me long to settle in and to start building up my (discounted) wardrobe. I remember starting with a dress shirt and a couple of ties – male employees were actually required to wear a shirt and tie at this point in time. I went on to purchase chinos, sweaters, more shirts, more ties, etc. I actually still have many of the ties I bought at this time. Over the summer they had a sample sale in Manhattan. I went, and for about $100 I loaded a huge bag full of stuff including a flannel sports jacket, several pairs of pants, and yes more shirts and ties. I was building quite the wardrobe. I remember some questionable items hitting the floor during my time with J.Crew. There was a pair of pants that felt plastic, and we lovingly named the bed wetter pants. This was also a time when tech fabrics and stretchy, torso hugging shirts were in style for men. J.Crew jumped on this bandwagon. I didn’t like any of it. I remember one gay employee referring to some of this stuff as “Gay-Crew.” His words, not mine. I believe the company was trying to find itself at this time. I wouldn’t stay through the transition as early in 1998 I accepted a position at Emporio Armani at the Americana Manhasset where I would stay for the next two years, followed by a year at Giorgio Armani before leaving to get into the store fixture installation business where I remain – albeit at a different company – to this day.
The early 2000’s were interesting. Post-9/11 I began to rethink a lot of things including my wardrobe. The mood of the entire country was changing, and after a brief retail downturn things started to come back in a new and big way. Mickey Drexler joined J.Crew in 2003 and so began a new era in the company. J.Crew became the new cool in both men’s and women’s clothing. It was around this time that my personal interest in J.Crew began to come back. I loved the casual cool vibe of the new merchandise from the cotton-cashmere sweaters to the new, broken-in chinos. I also bought my first of what would be many gingham shirts, which would end up becoming ubiquitous as well as a staple part of the midtown uniform. I still own two – one casual, and one in a dressier Thomas Mason fabric, and wear them…sometimes.
I would go on to revamp almost my entire wardrobe in J.Crew items. When they introduced the Ludlow suit, I bought two. I tried the Ludlow dress shirts, but was not a fan. I also purchased outerwear, cashmere sweaters, underwear, swim, an umbrella, bags, hats, t-shirts, oxfords… I visited the Liquor Store not long after it opened in 2008, but my favorite shop was the one they opened at 484 Broadway in SoHo. It wasn’t until after Drexler and Frank Muytjens made their exits, and the brand started to falter that my opinion changed.
I knew it was time to move on when one day I walked into a Factory store, looked around, and walked right out. Many blame their downfall on changing tastes or some weird women’s cardigan. I think they spread themselves too wide and thin. The clothes became boring. They were releasing the same things season after season. The fabrics felt cheap – even at the regular price stores. Speaking of which, there was never any reason to pay full price anymore – there was always a sale! I’m not going to say I never buy J.Crew anymore. That would be a lie. I still love their broken-in t-shirts (which they just brought back), and I will gladly wear one of their oxford shirts to work from home or run to the store. My favorite chino shorts, and a loose weave cotton sweatshirt-sweater are still worn religiously to this day. I’ve even purchased a new military-style jacket from their Wallace & Barnes line that I love!
I think J.Crew needs to rethink their strategy moving forward. The time is ripe for an American company to take hold of a market segment and run with it. They will need to close a good number of their mall stores, and concentrate on what made them great in the first place – preppy staples that are easy to wear. I would be very sad to see them go away. J.Crew and I have a history that goes beyond just the clothes. I stand in solidarity (and in That J.Crew Gingham Shirt) with J.Crew. I hope they find their way.