When I was in college in the early 2000s, I looked forward to getting J.Crew catalogs in my mailbox, mixed in with Jane magazine and postcards from my parents. I loved the gorgeous spreads: lithe models traipsing around the world, spending a luxurious weekend in Jaipur, scooting through the Tuscan countryside on a Vespa, lounging on a beach in Santorini. This wasn’t the preppy white fantasy J.Crew let loose in the ’90s. After Mickey Drexler joined the company in 2003, the brand became more worldly. Before we could travel the globe via Instagram photos, J.Crew’s carefully constructed lifestyle shoots were my passport to everywhere.
Each season, J.Crew designers highlighted the craftsmanship of each featured material: Indonesian batik, Italian cashmere, French lace. I distinctly remember a series of videos J.Crew created about the various spots in Italy where the company made shoes, shirts, and prints. Back in those days, flats cost about $150, while wool coats would veer toward $300. These were aspirational price points for a college student like me, but they were more within reach than any other luxury brands on the market that offered the same level of quality. By the time I graduated and was drawing a paycheck, J.Crew was an affordable luxury. If I was at a mall–which was something we still visited back in 2007–I would always pop into the store.
But since those days, J.Crew has spiraled into chaos. Yesterday, 72-year-old Drexler announced that he would be leaving the post of CEO after 14 years. This comes after Jenna Lyons, president and executive creative director of the brand stepped down in April. These changes follow several years of poor performance. For 10 quarters, sales have been falling. In the 2016 fiscal year, J.Crew sales were down 6% from the previous year, hitting $2 billion. Drexler will be succeeded by Jim Brett, the president of the furniture brand West Elm.
There are many reasons for J.Crew’s decline. Drexler recently confessed that he didn’t adequately help the brand adapt to the technological changes that swept through retail. This means everything from rethinking the in-store experience now that products can be easily purchased online to using analytics to predict trends. J.Crew’s distinctive look, which was influenced largely by Lyons’s taste and was characterized by bright colors, an unusual mixing of prints, and shiny baubles, lost its luster. (Meanwhile, J.Crew’s sister brand Madewell, which has a more muted and accessible aesthetic, has been thriving.) The market has also gotten more competitive, as fast-fashion brands have driven prices lower and promoted a culture of discounting.
In many ways, Drexler’s “affordable luxury” formula was a winning one. Many other companies popped up over the last few years offering high quality and excellent craftsmanship at lower price points. Everlane is perhaps the most notable example of this, but dozens of other startups have followed suit, including American Giant, Cuyana, M.Gemi, Idoni, Oliver Cabell, Citizen’s Mark, and Margaux.
While this crop of fashion brands have found a market–and many are scaling quickly–J.Crew appears to have lost its focus. First, there were drops in quality. I first noticed it in the flats, which were made in Italy in 2011, but in Brazil by 2014. I noticed that the brand’s featherweight T-shirts sprang holes after a single wear and dresses were increasingly made of polyester rather than silk.
Then, incomprehensibly, J.Crew began to increase its prices. Loyal customers began to write open letters to the brand protesting these new unattainable price points. In 2015, the Hairpin posted a handwritten letter (complete with drawings) by Tricia Louvar that tallied the price of one J.Crew “everyday” outfit to $596, together with a list of other things she could by for that amount, such as a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Honolulu. That same year, a customer named Eliza Cohen posted a letter that went viral about how to fix the company, pointing out that its collaborations with luxury brands often resulted in $500 garments. Even Drexler admitted that the brand had lost its way. “We became a little too elitist in our attitude,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
If J.Crew had stuck to its original vision of offering world-class quality without the inflated prices, it might have been better poised to compete with the new flock of fashion brands that have risen up in its wake.