After becoming a major brand for Michelle Obama, J. Crew has been a staple of the American fashion landscape for decades but in recent years has lost its footing. Now, with nearly 500 stores worldwide currently closed by the coronavirus pandemic, J. Crew Group Inc. – which operates J.Crew and Madewell – filed for bankruptcy on Monday.
J. Crew Group started as the Popular Club Plan in 1947, a door-to-door business that sells cheap women’s clothing. In 1983 the company was re-launched as J. Crew, a catalog-only retailer, and positioned itself as a cheaper alternative to Ralph Lauren’s. The first J. Crew store opened in 1989, in Manhattan, selling cheerful American women’s clothing.
But about ten years ago J. Crew was truly successful – transforming his image from comfortable to beautiful, and becoming an inevitable part of the fashion landscape, from stylish magazines and blogs to women’s wardrobe.
Jenna Lyons at the 2015 Met Gala, in New York City.
Under the supervision of CEO and chairman Mickey Drexler (now chairman of the sports clothing brand Outdoor Voices) and Jenna Lyons, who took over as creative director in 2008 and was promoted to president two years later, J. Crew came to symbolize a certain type of recession-era elegance .
Inspired by Lyons’s unique blend of casual design and upscale pieces (he is famous for wearing a fluffy ball skirt and loose beige sweater for Met Gala 2011), J. Crew sells button-colored pastel buttons and neatly wrapped T-shirts; sequined blazers and oversized costume jewelery; jacquard pants and distressed jeans.
Seen here in J. Crew argyle sweaters in 2012, Michelle Obama has become a big fan of American brands. Credit: Pictures of Alex Wong / Getty
The poppy campaign is run by Joan Smalls, Sasha Pivovarova, Amber Valletta, Lauren Hutton and other top models providing social media food. Lyons’ approach is so widely embraced that, in 2013, the New York Times dubbed it “The Woman in American Dress.” This brand offers a type of luxury that is more accessible.
First Lady Michelle Obama chose a pair of J. Crew pumps for the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Credit: Douglas Graham / CQ Roll Call / Getty Images
Celebrities such as Jessica Alba, Blake Lively, Gwyneth Paltrow (2012 campaign star) and Reese Witherspoon are often seen on their best J. Crew. But their most influential celebrity fan is Michelle Obama.
Reflecting the sensitivity of the high-low Lyons, Obama seems to have a brand in constant rotation during his tenure as First Lady – the crew’s leather gloves paired with the ensemble Isabel Toledo at her husband’s inauguration in 2009, the salmon and sweater skirt worn on the Vogue yard, the pink pump praising the dress brocade by Tracy Reese at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Michelle Obama on “The Tonight Show” in October 2008, wearing J. Crew. Credit: Paul Drinkwater / NBCU Photo Bank / Getty Images
Its influence causes the stock to sell out and increase the stock market: In a 2010 study, New York University professor David Yermack found that J. Crew shares rose 25% after Obama used J. Crew on “The Tonight Show” in October 2008.
But J. Crew has struggled to maintain that level of curiosity in recent years, because buyers who have been dedicated to lament the brand design is increasingly eccentric and prices continue to rise. In 2017, Lyons left the brand and was replaced by Johanna Uurasjarvi the following year. He was quickly replaced by Chris Benz, who was hired as early as 2019. Nothing could reignite J.Crew’s interest.
Today, Lyons’s eclectic arrogance, which is beneficial as well as original argyle sweaters and chino pants from the brand, appears to be from a different time. In an era of gender neutral dress, streetwear and – more recently – locking loungewear, it seems that trends and buyers have moved and J. Crew has not. Unfortunately, it is not relevant to have to be paid handsomely.