Comeback Crew: How J.Crew Became Cool Again

J. Crew store sign
Image credit: Mike Mozart / CC BY 2.0

If you’ve been at all dialled into online discussions about menswear in recent months, in addition to the usual buzz about hyped sneaker drops, the dissemination of trendy lookbook photos, and the reposting of clothing-based memes, there has been a lot of talk about something that is altogether less inside baseball. Since May of last year, there has been a growing level of excitement that has reached a kind of fever pitch in recent months about — of all things — J.Crew, the 75-year-old erstwhile shopping mall stalwart that faced bankruptcy just two years ago. You might, quite reasonably, be wondering what exactly has been going on. 

Before jumping into J.Crew’s resurgence in the present day, let’s turn for a moment to its origins. The company, known initially as Popular Merchandise Inc., started as an affordable, door-to-door womenswear operation founded in 1947 by Mitchell Cinader and Saul Charles. As the business grew over subsequent decades, a menswear line was added, but it was not until the 1980s that the brand truly came into its own thanks to the hottest thing in American retail at the time in the form of mail-order catalogues.

Riding the same wave that brought massive growth to the likes of L.L.Bean and Land’s End, Popular Merchandise Inc. rebranded as J.Crew in 1983 and positioned itself in the prep sphere as a more affordable alternative to the likes of Ralph Lauren. At the same time, it was sending out as many as 14 catalogues every year, each bulging with about a hundred pages of in-depth product information. These catalogues were great for business — their sales reportedly grew by about 25% per annum in the 1980s — but they also served as a valuable source of information to those reading them. 

Not unlike the roles performed by trade publications like Apparel Arts or magazines like Esquire half a century prior, the J.Crew catalogues of yesteryear essentially taught large swathes of America how to dress well. To those in need of help, they provided a model of what a wardrobe should look like, as well as offering a convenient place to buy the necessary elements.

J.Crew was selling Americana with a youthful twist and America proved only too eager to buy it. It also didn’t hurt that the prices seemed too good to pass up, especially when the equivalent all-American preppy aesthetic sold for several times the price over at Ralph Lauren. 

J. Crew cable knit cricket vest
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Of course, the golden days of mail order catalogues were waning by the end of the ’80s, so to combat a decline in sales J.Crew decided to take on another approach they hadn’t yet tried and one that would cement the reputation of the brand for decades to come (for better or worse). They embraced brick-and-mortar retail beginning in 1989 and, by the turn of the millennium, had opened more than a hundred shops across the United States. At the height of their powers, they had expanded into one hundred countries and operated over five hundred stores. 

This physical presence in the retail landscape was the springboard for the brand’s resurgence in the late-2000s and early-2010s. With the heritage menswear movement gaining ground, J.Crew proved one of its commercial flagships.

Once again, J.Crew became a place where men could learn how to dress. Their stores offered a less stuffy sales environment than the likes of Brooks Brothers or J. Press and they prioritised hiring a knowledgeable sales staff who could not only help you buy something but tell you a bit about where it came from and how you might wear it. What’s more, via the trendy (and now sadly closed) Liquor Store boutique in Soho — the brainchild of designer Todd Snyder, branding whiz Andy Spade, and J.Crew chairman Mickey Drexler — they further introduced a carefully curated selection of third-party items and spiffy collabs, like Red Wing boots, New Balance sneakers, and Barbour jackets, all facilitating an ever-deeper plunge into the exciting world of menswear.

Meanwhile, J.Crew’s business was also booming elsewhere. The brand’s womenswear line had always done well, but around this time it was reaching new heights under the curatorship of creative director Jenna Lyons and with superstar fans like Taylor Swift, Blake Lively, Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, and most famously of all, First Lady Michelle Obama, who regularly sported J.Crew during high-profile public appearances. 

At the same time, J.Crew’s men’s division continued to define the #menswear moment literally to the point of parody. While designers like Sy Devore and Hedi Slimane get a lot of the credit for slimming down suit silhouettes over the years, it was the (in)famous Ludlow suit that brought the style to the masses in the late aughts and early 2010s. Then there was that J. Crew gingham shirt — also the name of an Instagram account boasting some 13 000 followers — which became so ubiquitous as to provoke an inevitable backlash. 

Despite the cultural saturation of the Ludlow and a certain gingham garment, by the mid 2010s J.Crew faced a changing tide that would eventually result in their filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020. 

There are several factors to point to in explaining this decline, first among which was a shifting menswear landscape. The heady days of J.Crew’s Liquor Lounge-fueled primacy were defined by a relatively unified menswear community, but within a few years the landscape had splintered into an endless proliferation of niche interests, including streetwear, normcore, dadcore, gorpcore, and ’70s sleaze (to name just a few). These changing tastes and ever-expanding subcultures suddenly seemed to leave J.Crew in the lurch. 

Add to this a host of behind-the-scenes problems and macro-economic woes: In 2017, the formidable trio which had overseen the brand’s cultural dominance from the late 2000s onwards in the forms of creative director Jenna Lyons, menswear designer Frank Muytjens, and CEO Mickey Drexler all stepped down from their positions at J.Crew, leaving the company unable to replicate the commercial magic they had once conjured. Instead, this erstwhile font of stylish and affordable clothing had begun to acquire a reputation as an out-of-touch and increasingly over-priced mall brand. 

It also didn’t help that those very same shopping malls were in steep decline themselves thanks to changing consumer habits. While J.Crew had gone in heavy on brick-and-mortar retail and once thrived in the world of mail-order catalogues, they were slow to develop an e-commerce strategy. Moreover, their raised prices and declining quality came down to the considerable debt they had to service in the wake of a $3 billion buyout in 2011. A subsequent decline in sales meant that the company was never able to return the investment made by private-equity firms, the outcome of which was a crippling $1.7 billion in debt.

As a result, J. Crew filed for bankruptcy in May 2020. Covid-19 proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. It meant that J.Crew went from ranking as arguably the most popular clothing brand in the US in the 2000s to being the first major American retailer to declare bankruptcy during the pandemic. 

Man wearing a J.Crew rugby jersey
Image is my own / All rights reserved

It was not the end of the story, however. The terms of their bankruptcy protection meant that J.Crew was relieved of their debt burden, meaning they could remain operational and had the opportunity to once again reinvent themselves.

In May 2021, a year after the business filed for Chapter 11, the nature of that reinvention came into focus when the company announced Brendon Babenzien as its new menswear designer. Suddenly, the pandemic’s first large-scale retail victim was beginning to resemble a phoenix brushing ashes from its feathers. 

Brendon Babenzien’s appointment was met with resounding excitement throughout the menswear community. Babenzien is a lauded streetwear pioneer who was once Creative Director of Supreme, which reached global success under his stewardship, before reviving another cult streetwear brand in 2015 in the form of Noah, which he had originally founded back in the 2000s.  

It was Babenzein who revived menswear’s interest in J.Crew over the last year or so and responses to the brand’s collections released during his tenure — particularly the first line fully designed by Babenzien in the form of the recent Fall 2022 collection — have recalled some of that unanimous love J.Crew enjoyed just a decade ago. 

Of course, as mentioned earlier, the menswear landscape looks a lot different now. But with Babenzein and his team at the helm what is also clear is that there is unquestionably a place in it for J.Crew. With the recent ascendance of streetwear-infused preppy brands like Rowing Blazers, and, to a lesser extent, Drake’s, Aimé Leon Dore, and Babenzein’s very own Noah, it seems clear that there is certainly a group of menswear fans out there who are once again all too eager to have J.Crew help them figure out how best to get dressed.