Anyone wondering how J. Crew’s fashion fairy tale came to such a crashing halt this week, as the company became the first retailer to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy during the new coronavirus pandemic, need look no further than its own home page. Featuring an attractive cast of windswept young men and women in various nautical stripes and florals on a sailboat off the coast of some New England town, it declares: “Blue skies ahead …”
Well, obviously not. Not for customers, isolated in their homes in the face of Covid-19, nor for the brand itself. Storm clouds and gray skies, more likely.
If ever there was an example of tone deafness (or maybe just desperate wishful thinking), that image, and message, is it. And it speaks to a deeper disconnection that has come to define J. Crew, which not that long ago occupied a distinct, and valuable, position in the American fashion hierarchy.
There’s no question that the current pandemic, with its enforced store closures, was the immediate cause of the company’s ills. Or that its debt burden, loaded on during a private equity buyout, was a major factor. But there is another, more essential reason for its failure: a loss of aesthetic identity; an inability to give urgent, desirable expression to who we are now. Or any discernible form at all, really.
Once upon a time, in the mid-1980s, J. Crew was the apotheosis of New England prepster style, crew-neck sweaters and wide-wale cords brought to you in a catalog of cheer. In the early decade of the next century, it became synonymous with a certain eccentric rule-breaking: cheerfully steamrollering old distinctions between night and day dressing, haute and street, on-duty and off, to great acclaim. It carved out its very own sweet spot somewhere between Ralph Lauren, L.L. Bean — and Dior.
It felt modern in a hopeful way, and not just because Michelle Obama, a thoroughly modern first lady, wore it. Or because its Ludlow suit for men offered the aspiring Wall Street world a hipper alternative to a classic Brooks Brothers. But because, with its bright colors and shiny, pedestal-kicking promise, J. Crew connected to the myths of American heritage, bootstrapping and independence, as embodied by its designer, Jenna Lyons, who wore a hot pink taffeta evening skirt to the Met Gala with a denim jacket.
But what does J. Crew stand for today? Nothing much. It began losing currency about five years ago and, by 2017, was in a steep downward slide, accused of becoming self-satisfied and self-referential, and missing the importance of inclusivity.
That was the year that both Ms. Lyons and Mickey Drexler, the chief executive, left the company. They were replaced by a rotating cast of executives, on both the corporate and creative sides, who introduced other, cheaper lines that seemed driven by market research rather than intuition. And they failed to do much other than muddy the point as they flailed around, trying to connect. Remember Nevereven? Thought not — it existed for the blink of a shopper’s eye. Mercantile? Much the same.
Which raises another question: Do we really need J. Crew at all any more?
That’s harsh, I know. And it has implications for jobs. But the idea that brands deserve to be preserved, invented and reinvented ad infinitum is a late 20th-century creation. The notion is born from the luxury groups of Europe, who theorized that it is easier to restart an already established, if decrepit, name (hello, Patou!) than create one from scratch. It is not, however, an American tradition. Maybe it doesn’t need to be.
Traditionally, the United States has been happy to let brands live out in their natural life span — to believe they should not, necessarily, be seen as immortal — and be replaced by the new, the young, the of-their-time. Fashion history is rife with memories of bygone names: Bonnie Cashin, Claire McCardell, Willi Smith, Stephen Sprouse, Patrick Kelly. Donna Karan. Maybe J. Crew is ready to join them.
That doesn’t mean we can’t be nostalgic for such a company and the role it may have played in our lives, or mourn its passing. It doesn’t mean we can’t honor its place in getting us to here. But it does mean putting its demise in perspective.
Currently, along with the sailing pictures on the home page, J. Crew is offering a 60 percent-off sale. Plus, at the bottom, there’s a note to “the J. Crew community” that links to the bankruptcy news and describes it as “positioning J. Crew and Madewell for long-term success.”
In this moment of great stress and change, when we are all reordering priorities, questioning value systems and rethinking our own choices, what a brand stands for is crucial to its relevance and survival. Last year, Chris Benz, a new designer, was brought in to rethink J. Crew yet again. Much was made of the fact that he had begun his career at J. Crew under Ms. Lyons before leaving to start his own brand. He understands the DNA of the name, went the thinking. He can bring it back!
Yet going back should not be the goal (though you can understand how investors, who look longingly at the old balance sheets, think that way). The question is, rather, can he find a way to go forward? Can he create J. Crew collections that solve the dressing problems we have today, that allow us to discover who we may want to be in whatever brave new world is coming?
If not, it doesn’t matter how much restructuring is done, or how much trimming of the retail chain. We’ll still be in the same boat.