J. Crew: Money and mojo

J. Crew's bankruptcy implies the end of those bright, optimistic clothes sprinkled with just enough spark to dodge L.L. Bean stodginess. But it's not time to stick a fork in the company yet. Other brands have filed for Chapter 11, restructured and survived, from Yohji Yamamoto to (so far) Forever21. (The demise of department stores, like Neiman Marcus, and specialty stores like Barney's is a whole other story.)

The old days 

A 2019 Vanity Fair article lauded J. Crew at its already-past best: "... in what had been a dead zone between designer and mass fashion, it gave American shoppers a conveniently-located, approachably priced land of not-so-basics with real mojo... buying them could feel a little like buying fashion... For a time, J. Crew conjured a blend of relevance and emotional resonance that any brand at any price, would kill to achieve."

But by the 2000s, with a bloated business (bridal, sneakers, cellphone cases, the luxury "Collection" and low end "factory" lines) and far too many retail stores, their debt ballooned to nearly $2 billion. Apparel is a brutal, capricious business and no amount of Jenna Lyons' quirk could dent those numbers.

My first piece in the late '80s was one of those roll-neck wool sweaters, which would still be wearable today. But as time passed, J. Crew went from a catalog full of clothes I'd be happy to wear to a search for something I might wear. In the past five years, as the red ink flowed in, and so did the synthetics and skimpier cuts.

But I still look, and recently re-upped their linen v-neck tee, even though it is two inches shorter than those from three years ago. (To their credit, it is made in sizes from XXS to 3X.)

Let's hope that debt protection reinvigorates their spirit. Major private equity investors will run it, the  retail stores will almost certainly close, and though this is counter to what I have seen countless times when private equity firms assume ownership, they could return to the canny mix of the arresting and classic that earned them their following.

I picked three pieces that illustrate what they can deliver when they provide structure, detail and assertive, saturated colour. (And a woman can get them on her doorstep, a good thing because many of the stores will close.)

Left: A-line dress in embroidered eyelet (back view)
Top right: Rose velvet blazer (out of stock)
Bottom right: Striped denim wrap jacket

Who stole J. Crew's customer? Fast fashion vendors like Zara, Mango, and H&M, who provide a dress for half the price (for someone who wants to wear it a season) or Everlane, who sell basics in neutral colours wrapped in virtue-signalish transparent pricing—but everyone in the apparel business is quaking in the current climate.

Even if I wouldn't buy these specific pieces, I want them to be available:

A (washable) aqua slip skirt, a zebra-print cashmere sweater, or a well-cut (no cap sleeve!) palest grey tee: who else, where else, in one place, with decent shipping prices?

If the acrylic goes, I'll be back. (And they had better drop the outrageous $25 restocking fee for international customers who return goods by mail.) Debt relief could be a lifeline, not only for the company, but for women in the Passage, who appreciate wearable but not dull clothes.


Jane said…
I am wearing a sweater from J Crew Factory as I type this. Yes, I knew better. I was taken in by the bright colors and bargain price. Let's call it a covid purchase. I have 5 more sweaters still in the packaging. I keep vacillating about returning them. Where have classic styles, pretty colors, natural fibers and decent construction gone? -Lily
Duchesse said…
Lily: Five more, but I am guessing not from J. Crew Factory? Where you will find the factors you name: Eric Bompard, Brora, Johnston's of Elgin (classic), Pringle, Ballantyne. All of these cost more than J. Crew's "everyday" liine but not more than J' Crew Collection and there are sales. Though known for cashmere, those companies make clothes in other natural fibres too— linen, silk, cotton, merino. However, the sizes are more limited than J. Crew; I loved that a plus-size woman could get a lime cashmere turtleneck there..

Other brands make decent knits too, but it is more hit and miss, and other brands I have not worn personally so don't know. One of the best sweaters ever was a J. Jill cashmere, go figure. It absolutely did not pill.
Leslie M said…
As you say, private equity investors are not known for bringing quality back to a business. They want their money, which usually equates to quantity rather than quality. The entire industry is taking a huge hit and the job losses will be devastating. We were living in a bubble.
Duchesse said…
Leslie M:
Add to that the problem of the supply chain, because so much raw material (all cashmere wool) and manufactured apparel from tees to coats comes from China or other countries devastated by Covid. So if you know, for example, that you'll need a pair of black jeans or your favourite bra for next fall, I would buy now.
LauraH said…
In addition to Brora and Eric Bompard sweaters, I am still wearing a cashmere cardigan from Lands End bought at least 10 years ago. And a cashmere sweater from Garnet Hill recommended by you many posts ago. Both still in good shape. So glad I bought when I did.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: I did not mention LE because drop in quality hit them, too. But more than a survey of other makers, I wanted to focus on J. Crew, which any number of persons whom I know thought was out of business... not presently the case, though no one knows for how long.
Leslie M said…
Oh, lordy. I hadn't thought about that aspect. Every store is having enormous sales right now, trying to get rid of inventory. That is to the benefit of anyone with disposable income, but you are right; the inventory will be severely impacted in the future.
Duchesse said…
Leslie M: Time to buy if need it, and can.. or for gifts. So far I have done a decent job avoiding comfort buying, except for a pair of Icebug running shoes at 40% off.
Wendelah said…
Last year (or whenever J. Crew extended their sizes online), I bought on sale a dress, a blouse, two tee-shirts, and a "spring" jacket which is warm enough for all but the coldest weather in southern California. I returned everything but the jacket. The dress was too big, the blouse sleeves too short, the tee-shirts too clingy and thin. But I adore the jacket. It's quilted and made from a pretty but subdued liberty cotton. It fits me perfectly, even in the shoulders.
Duchesse said…
Wehdelah: I have long wondered why e-tailers do not post detailed measurements for each garment, such as sleeve length, dress length and hip circumference. Instead,nearly all give only general bust/waist/hip measurements for the size, not the piece. Boden are an exception.
Carol in Denver said…
Another vote for online retailers providing detailed measurements for garments. "Size" means nothing. Measurement charts are of usually of body measurements, not clothing measurements, but one person will want an easy, loose fit while another would want something more fitted. When I used to buy from Ebay, such measurements were usually provided. I don't know if that is still the case.
Duchesse said…
Carol in Denver: eBay vendors are all over the place in terms of supplying garment measurements. Some who do not include them in the listing will send them if you ask. Another descriptor I have problems with is «  knee length »... I need overall length or from natural waist.

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