There was a time when on any day ending in “Y” I would be dressed head to toe in J.Crew. That time has passed. And on a day like today I am actually wearing nothing from the storied brand. The pants are Bonobos, the shirt is Gant, the shoes are Sperry, and the belt is Abercrombie & Fitch. So, what happened? Unlike some, I have not shunned J.Crew. But I have moved on. I still own plenty of their clothes, and will probably continue to wear them. But as we all know, somewhere along the line they took a wrong turn, and sent many of their core customers running towards other brands. Many blame a ladies’ cardigan for the fall. I have my own theories.
My J.Crew story starts in 1988. I was in summer camp. Teen tours (though not quite a teen.) It was the height of hair metal. My friends and I all had mullet hair cuts, and wore Mötley Crüe t-shirts. Anyway, we had a camp trip to the South Street Seaport in Manhattan. At the time there was still a large fish market on site, and also the first ever J.Crew retail store. My camp counselor was a prep school kid who nearly jumped out of his Sperry’s when he saw the shop positioned among the cobbled streets. “Let’s check it out,” he said. We reluctantly followed him inside and grumbled for a good five minutes until he finally relented and took us out. Looking back I’m sad we didn’t let him shop, but what did I know? I was 11.
It wasn’t until several years later that I began to develop my own interest in J.Crew. I was in high school, and was wearing mostly Old Navy. I had gotten a copy of the J.Crew catalog, and thought the clothes looked interesting. I asked my buddy Dave to take a ride over to Roosevelt Field Mall with me to check out the store. “It’s too expensive, and that mall is too far,” he told me. I didn’t venture off alone.
When I got to college in the fall of 1995, my freshman duds were not much different from what I wore in high school. But a few of my fraternity brothers wore J.Crew, and I rekindled my interest. My interest in staying at that school, however would be short lived. I left after my sophomore fall semester. I wasn’t slated to start at my new school until the following fall, so I enrolled in a couple of classes at the local community college, and made my way back to Roosevelt Field Mall – a quick ride from both schools – to get a part-time job. And wouldn’t you know it, J.Crew was the winner.
I worked in the store for pretty much all of 1997, and the very beginning of 1998. It was an interesting time for the brand. They still relied on their core preppy customers, but were also trying to be relevant at a time when guys were buying very different clothes. I remember lots of stretch fabrics. And they weren’t nice. There was a pair of pants that we all nicknamed “bed wetters” because of their odd fabric. Most of what interested me were the jackets and ties. I even still have a few of those ties in my drawer hiding at the bottom.
I left the company early in 1998 after being offered a job by a former manager to be a salesperson at the Emporio Armani in Manhasset. It was a position I couldn’t refuse due to the proximity to my school, the bump in pay, and the perceived prestige that came along with the brand. I thought I was pretty darn cool working at Armani, and wearing the clothes. Looking back, I probably should have tried being a college kid while I could, but that’s neither here nor there. I made good money. I had a blast. I met some interesting people, and continued to develop my style. My J.Crew clothes sat in my closet.
After graduating at the end of 1999, I stayed with Armani for another year. In 2001 I left the sales floor, and joined a company operating behind the scenes in retail. (I am no longer with that company, but I am still in the industry.) My attire when I started at that company was mostly stuff I had acquired while at Armani plus some Banana Republic. And then it happened. I walked into J.Crew in SoHo (before they had split the men’s and women’s stores,) and bought a shirt. It was a multi-colored gingham shirt, and I loved it! My love affair with J.Crew was rekindled.
Over the next few years, J.Crew started to morph into the fashionable power house many of us had grown to love and rely on. The neo-prep movement was at its peak, and everyone was wearing it. I bought jeans, chinos, & oxford shirts. I purchased two of the first Ludlow suits. And I continued to buy J.Crew for the next several years. At no point am I going to say I’ve stopped. I haven’t. But I don’t need as much new stuff these days as I did when I was building my wardrobe. My tastes have changed to some degree. And frankly, a lot of what I see there now is just not my style.
From a retail and business perspective, I think they opened too many stores. And many of those stores always looked empty. Too much dead space. And customers began to expect daily discounts. And then they opened way too many Factory stores where instead of finding past season gems, they just had cheaper versions of much of the same items they were selling in the main stores. And by cheap I mean price AND quality. And then the quality of the main store items began to drop as the prices rose. And it goes on and on.
But I think they can right themselves. In the same way that I have a story about J.Crew, J.Crew has a story about J.Crew. And with the recent personnel changes, they are starting a new chapter. I am hoping they can make the right product and store changes that bring them back to their glory days, and bring the core customers back into the stores. Give me a shop where I can go to pick up a solid pair of jeans or chinos and an oxford shirt that doesn’t squeeze the life out of me, and a pair of penny loafers, and heck maybe even a Barn Jacket. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll write another article about J.Crew, and when you scroll up I will again be head to toe. Fingers crossed.