For a fashion brand, getting picked up by J.Crew is practically the equivalent of getting venture backing in Silicon Valley. "We buy what other people do much better than we can ever do," says J.Crew’s Chairman and CEO Mickey Drexler of the retailer’s strategy to play curator. So while J.Crew’s designers come up with fashion juggernauts like the The Ludlow Suit (aka "the perfect suit"), the company finds brands to pair up with—from a $13.00 Japanese Rollbahn spiral notebook to handmade Alden Revello Cordovan Longwings at $710 a pair. All of this subtly reinforces to its customers that J.Crew is not only a retailer, but their personal tastemaker.
J.Crew’s President and Chief Creative Officer Jenna Lyons explains that, unlike Target, which often provides high-end designs at a lower cost, each J.Crew collaboration is intended to handpick something special. "Sometimes it’s a matter of resurrecting something that’s old, going into their archives, or doing a collaboration where we use our own fabric," says Lyons, who was featured in Fast Company’s May cover story. About one out of every 40 products pitched to the $2 billion retailer makes the cut. Lyons says she personally receives at least one package a day from brands trying to woo her.
Of J.Crew’s more than 100 collaborations, we found seven of the most fascinating backstories behind how these lucky brands got the green light from Lyons & Drexler:
"Randomly I got a box at my desk with no note," recalls Lyons of the mysterious skinny-stretch-selvedge jeans—a combination she had never seen before—that landed in her office one day last winter. Over the course of several days Lyons, who often uses her corner office as part dressing room part focus group, took the jeans for a spin around J.Crew’s Greenwich Village office and kept getting compliments. "Jeans are all about someone saying, ‘Wow, look at those jeans! That’s the only way you sell jeans,’" says Lyons, who at six feet tall is the height of a model. "That’s how Seven Jeans came to be, that’s how Rag & Bone has done it."
It turns out the jeans were from "denim guru" Adriano Goldschmied, a founder of Diesel in the '70s, and now a partner in Citizens of Humanity and Goldsign. Goldschmied also happened to know J.Crew’s CEO Mickey Drexler from Drexler’s former life as CEO of the Gap. So Goldschmied worked both tracks: While Lyons was falling in love with the jeans, Goldschmied called Drexler to set up a meeting. "Jenna was already excited about the fit and look of the jean," says Goldschmied, by the time they all met. Unlike the androgynous fit of most J.Crew women’s clothes, the Goldsign for J. Crew capsule collection, which debuted in January, was inspired by the 1950’s curves of Norma Jean Baker. "Jenna, every time you talk to her, it’s always a Yes or No, never a Maybe," says Goldschmied in his thick Italian staccato. "I love people who have opinions."
"I somehow turned a hoarding tendency into a lucrative business," says Lisa Salzer, the platinum-bleached-pixie-haired, 30-year-old founder and jewelry designer behind Lulu Frost. In 2004, after doing a business summer program at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, Salzer, then 21, moved to New York to launch her "mod-vin" line of necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Four years later Jenna Lyons was in a Los Angeles boutique and purchased a Lulu Frost necklace—Salzer’s modern reinterpretations of vintage jewelry from the Edwardian Era to '80s punk. A friend of Lyons who also knew Salzer spotted Lyons’ necklace and told her the two had to meet. Soon enough Lyons and her design team showed up at Lulu Frost’s tiny Manhattan studio to rummage for hours through the more than 10,000 pieces of vintage jewelry Salzer had collected over the years.
At the time J.Crew was about to open its higher-end uptown Manhattan store and Lyons asked Salzer to create 20 pieces for the shop’s opening day. Then, the day of the opening she got a call from Drexler. "‘Who is this Lulu, Lisa? It’s Mickey,’" recalls Salzer, who had worked at a J.Crew store in high school. "Even though he’s a mogul he’s so personal and cuts through the crap." Dexler said the line was selling so well he wanted 50 more pieces for the following day. Salzer and her team stayed up until 4 a.m. assembling the jewelry. Since then, Lulu Frost has become a staple collaborator for J.Crew, now in its sixth season with the retailer. "Seeing my line which I created out of a dorm room to be lauded by J.Crew in their catalog, which goes out to millions of people was a huge moment," says Salzer, who now considers Drexler a mentor she can call at any time. "They continue to support us in a very personal way. It’s not just product placement, it’s always accompanied by a description of who I am and what my aesthetic is. I’m very grateful for that."
"If you went back 10 years, you'd see us as a different kind of company," says Bob Clark, vice president of Alden, the 130-year-old New England shoe company. At first glance, tassel loafers and caramel-colored wingtips sound more like an octogenarian’s wardrobe than a Lower East Side, New York, hipster, but that’s not what J.Crew’s head of menswear Frank Muytjens, saw. "I always liked Alden Shoes," says Muytjens, a Dutchman obsessed with American workwear style. "I had one pair which I was wearing all the time and we thought, ‘Why don't we just go seek them out go visit them and see what we can do together?’"
In 2007, as J.Crew was developing the Liquor Store, its men’s experimental Tribeca one-off store that served as a Petri-dish for collaborations, it approached Alden and the two decided to work together. Since then J.Crew’s designers regularly go into Alden’s archives to pick specific leathers, "so they become exclusive to us, so no one else has them," says Muytjens. Six years into the partnership Alden’s Clark credits the retail giant with injecting a youthful spirit into the old-school shoemaker. "In the timeframe of when J.Crew came to us, we've been discovered by a younger generation," says Clark. Although the collaboration has expanded Alden's audience, it hasn't changed the artisanal nature of the operation. There are still limits on how many pairs of shoes its factory can produce—so don't expect to see Alden in J.Crew stores across the country any time soon. "We'd pass out if we saw those numbers," says Clark.
If Mickey Drexler decides on something, it happens fast. Just ask The Laundress, a small New York company that specializes in high-end fabric detergents. When Drexler unexpectedly showed up for a denim event at J.Crew-owned Madewell and saw their sleekly packaged detergent, "he approached us and asked, 'Why doesn't J.Crew have this? We need this for cashmere, for swim, for shirts," recalls cofounder Lindsey Boyd, a graduate of Cornell University’s Fiber Science, Textile, Apparel Management and Design program. "Next thing we knew, we were in the J.Crew office."
Boyd remembers being shocked by how quickly the J.Crew team acted—but also by the creative freedom given throughout the process. The retailer treated Boyd and fellow cofounder Gwen Whiting—also a grad from the same Cornell program—as the resident laundry gurus, leaving them to create washes for the company's cashmere and denim-packed catalog. "We're unique among the other 'In Good Company' brands in the fact that we're the experts on washing and they're the experts on clothing," Boyd says. After a few meetings and pitches, the duo had a lineup for the Fall 2008 collection and hasn't lost any steam five seasons later. Now they're in talks to be a part of J.Crew's international expansion, later this year. "We'd actually like them to buy more," Boyd says.
In 2009 the Corsillo brothers decided to hatch an experiment out of their Bushwick, Brooklyn apartment: create a tie company of selvage denim. "The novel thing about The Hill-side," as the tie brand would be called, "was it was square-end ties that had selvage at both ends. That was a recognizable detail and also a decorative thing and no one had done that before," explains Emil Corsillo, a 33-year-old graphic designer and self-described "denim nerd." They wanted the brand to grow organically and small, restricting supply to three independent shops. Yet within two months, J.Crew somehow caught wind of it. Men’s head of design Frank Muytjens contacted the Corsillos to consider carrying the collection in a couple of J.Crew shops, but the brothers were apprehensive about pairing up with a huge, corporate retailer. "It's like not wanting your favorite punk band to sign with a major label when you're a teenager," says Emil. That is, until Drexler got involved and unleashed his signature, spontaneous brand of persuasion.
The Hill-side is now on its fifteenth collection with J.Crew. "I don't know if Mickey said anything specific that persuaded us, but he's very charismatic," says Emil. "Basically, any worries we had about their intentions pretty much dissolved at that meeting."
J.Crew’s head of men's design Frank Muyjtens may have loved his New Balance 1400s more than New Balance did when it first released the shoe in 1994. "It had a cult following in Asia but we never merchandised it," says Jennifer Lynch, New Balance's Senior Product Manager. It turns out the particular running shoe model was popular in Japan—where Muyjtens had purchased his—but it had never found a niche in the U.S. A few years ago Lynch ran into J.Crew’s VP of Production at a trade show and soon enough she had plans to visit the retailer’s Manhattan office to meet with its design team.
At the time J.Crew had been increasingly touting the craftsmanship of American-made products, and the 100-year-old shoe company was still manufacturing in five U.S. factories. "So we pulled the 1400 from the archive and said 'Let's do something exclusively for J.Crew,'" says Lynch, who has since collaborated with the retailer on a number of models. "The beauty of J.Crew is they appreciate what a brand means. They don't want to tweak it because that's what makes a brand special."
"Let’s face it, with cell phones you don’t need a watch to tell time," says Timex Group President and CEO Gary Cohen. Which is why the brand has had to work harder than most to convince a new generation of watch-less consumers that wrist hardware is in fact a fashion statement. Meanwhile, in 2007 J.Crew was dabbling with the idea of creating its own watch, but in those early days testing its "stick with what you do best motto," the retailer decided to find a watch brand to import from the outside. (It also didn’t hurt that Drexler was a Timex watch collector, according to Cohen.) Timex and J.Crew’s menswear team paired up, taking vintage Timex military watches from the 1940s and 1950s and giving them a modern update. "The fact that when people search for our product they see us associated with J.Crew gives more credibility to us," says Cohen.
"Successful brands get their success from the company they keep," he says. Cohen, who spent his career managing huge consumer brands for companies like P&G before joining Timex in 2011, says working with Drexler has even boosted his own approach to innovation. "He says you have to constantly reinvent yourself, you have to take risks, make smart mistakes," says Cohen. "We’ve learned to be fast, speedy, and nimble and I owe a lot of that to him for his inspiration."
[Photos by Yu Tsai; Hair And Makeup: Troi Ollivierre; Hair And Makeup Assistant: Amy Chin]