This morning, I came across Lauren Sherman's piece on BoF on The Challenging, Emotional Remaking of J.Crew. As I read J.Crew CEO Jim Brett's vision for the troubled retailer I was confused, particularly by his notion that J.Crew could be for everyone because "women just want to look pretty". He believes that moving away from trendy pieces and focusing on more feminine styling is what will give J.Crew the boost it so desperately needs. While this inclusive and more diverse approach to styling and marketing will certainly help, is it really enough?
In the early 2000's I considered J.Crew synonymous with preppy and while the brand's pieces were always nice enough they never inspired me to pull the trigger. Not until about seven years ago. That's when Jenna Lyons' cool girl preppy finally fit into both my lifestyle and my budget, and I found myself head over heels for the beautifully crafted wool blazers, colorful shoes, and off-duty staples. As years went on, the luster of the J.Crew aesthetic grew duller in my eyes. It felt a bit like same old, same old from season to season. Regardless of the stagnation in the design and the declining profit numbers, I was still surprised by the departures of both CEO Mickey Drexler and Creative Director Jenna Lyons. They were part of the brand's DNA after all. The appointment of Jim Brett followed and here we are today, 15 months later with a new direction for the brand.
Brett has made some attempts at improving the product range. He has fully committed to Point Sur and reimagined “/Jean” — both denim lines. He has diversified the store offering by bringing some Madewell and "Factory" pieces to mainstream stores. There is talk of expanding to homeware, but is that enough to appeal to a broader customer base?
And the bigger question is... should he be trying to appeal to everyone?
J.Crew is moving away from the fashion-driven model, aiming to offer "pretty" designs at more affordable prices, which are achieved through a number of cost-cutting measures. Some of these measures are reasonable (such as sourcing fabric directly instead of through agencies) while others somewhat questionable (for example cutting some of the more premium fabrics from its lineup), but is this lower priced one-style-fits-all aesthetic what customers actually want? I would argue that it's not.
The new direction seems like a step backward. The original J.Crew explosion happened only when it moved away from its full-on preppy designs and embraced the more fashion-forward vision of Lyons. She might have alienated the original customer base to an extent, but the new look appealed to a lot more consumers and allowed J.Crew to grow at a breakneck speed.
The times have changed. Customers are more fashion-forward and trend-savvy than ever and in my opinion, a paired-down vanilla approach to fashion won't replicate that growth frenzy that Jim Brett is hoping for.
Then there's the question of quality. Part of the reason why J.Crew enjoyed such a long reign is that it consistently put out a good quality offering. How will the new direction impact that? Jim Brett maintains that his "pretty" pieces will retain the craftsmanship of the past, but will the cost-cutting measures truly allow that? From what I saw in stores back in June, I would think not.
I went in with the hope of picking up another staple black blazer, something that would see me through both the workweek and the weekend. I was bitterly disappointed on all fronts. The selection of styles was very limited. The fabrics were, by and large, poly-blends or wrinkly cotton. The only wool blazer I managed to try on was ill-fitting and oddly cut. Not something I have experienced at J.Crew often.
The new generation of customers, particularly Gen Zs (those born in 1995 and later), are growing in importance as is their spending power. This new type of customer gravitates towards a more streetwear type of aesthetic and is driven by newness and freshness. Current J.Crew offering does not fit the bill.
By putting his eggs in one "pretty" basket, Brett is essentially alienating this new generation of consumers. I guess J.Crew is not for everyone after all.
That said, it's not all bad. BoF mentioned that J.Crew is launching Stylegraph, "a Stitch Fix-like service, where customers will be virtually paired with retail associates to help them choose items". Given how reliant we all are on our smartphones and the increasing amount of shopping research that is done on social networks, this seems like a no-brainer.
In my opinion, what J.Crew really needs are original products that can appeal to customers' ever-changing appetites and someone with an unwavering creative drive that can deliver this. Someone as innovative as Jenna Lyons was back in her prime. Someone that can help the retailer take the next step and make the brand relevant again. It remains to be seen whether Johanna Uurasjarvi, who was brought on by Brett in June, is the person to turn the J.Crew lemons into sweet moneymaking lemonade.
I would love to hear your thoughts on Jim Brett's vision for J.Crew. Comment below.
Read the BoF article on The Challenging, Emotional Remaking of J.Crew here.
If you have more time, have a look at this article on Gen Z consumers.
All photos from @JCrew Instagram