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The J.Crew Comeback Starts Now

With its new menswear collection under creative director Brendon Babenzien, the retailer has its best shot in years at returning to the fashion zeitgeist.
Man in red jacket stands on a dock, looking down to a golden retriever with a sweater tied around its body.
J.Crew's first collection under creative director Brendon Babenzien is drivenly largely by classic American style. (J.Crew)

Fashion critics and financial analysts agree: J.Crew may be finally hitting its stride.

The American retailer on Monday released its first menswear assortment under creative director Brendon Babenzien, the co-founder of streetwear brand Noah. The full fall collection is available to shop online and in J.Crew’s 125-plus stores nationwide.

Two men and a woman, three models dressed in prep, stand next to a canoe.

The much-awaited lookbook — Babenzien was tapped to lead J.Crew’s men’s apparel in May 2021, and menswear aficionados already lauded the spring collection, noting the early hints of Babenzien’s touch — brings back J.Crew’s New England charm but with an edgy twist. Preppy classics such as rugby shirts, cable-knit crewnecks and blazers with popped collars are accompanied by dark patchwork shirts and mock-neck sweaters. Its signature slim-fitting pants are still there — next to wide cropped trousers and acid-wash jeans. Babenzien’s streetwear influence can be seen throughout the collection.

“This feels like J.Crew has a vision again,” said men’s fashion writer Derek Guy.

Two years after filing for bankruptcy, J.Crew is pinning its rebound on better merchandising and more exciting design. After explosive growth thanks to its iconic catalogue in the 1990s, and under then-CEO Mickey Drexler in the 2000s, the chain struggled in the following decade to come up with clothes that felt different from its neighbours at the mall. Drexler left in 2017, and two successive CEOs failed to alter the brand’s downward trajectory. Libby Wadle, who headed the successful Madewell brand for several years, was promoted to the top role at J.Crew Group in the fall of 2020.

Blond model wearing acid wash jeans standing on dock in front of lake.

Under Wadle, Babenzien and head of womenswear Olympia Gayot are tasked with redefining the J.Crew look. So far, the results are promising. Since March 2021, J.Crew has seen 16 consecutive months of sales growth, according to data analytics firm Earnest Research. In June, sales grew 8 percent compared to the same period a year prior.

“J.Crew’s definitely getting more traffic,” said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail consultancy A Line Partners. “The fashion’s improved so much. It’s more relevant to the customers they’re targeting, Millennials and Gen-Z.”

Babenzien’s objective was to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations, the designer told BoF.

“I just really want a return to a time when we made the best possible products,” he said. “That’s the J.Crew I grew up with.”

Americana in Bloom

Babenzien’s vision for the fall collection was rooted in American style, and it comes at a fortuitous time. The influence of streetwear, which has dominated men’s fashion for the better part of the last decade, is subsiding. In turn, consumers are hungry for a refresh.

“Streetwear has had a big influence on fashion and style, and inevitably, people just want something new,” Babenzien said. “An alternative to that… look is American style. We’re seeing a natural return to that.”

Paisley colour-blocked shirt.

J.Crew now has the opportunity to lead the charge in defining the next chapter in menswear, according to Guy.

“A lot of guys got into men’s clothing because of J.Crew,” he said, either from its catalogues in the 90s or in the 2010s, when Jenna Lyons and Frank Muytjens brought a modern look to the brand, taking the fashion industry by storm.

“J.Crew was always accessible, both price-wise and mentally,” Guy said. “If you are a guy who’s not that into clothes, you could see yourself in the black-and-blue field coat or the zip-up red jacket.”

Model standing on dock wearing blue jacket.

It’s a tricky balance to strike — to appeal to the mass consumer and still retain a point-of-view, Guy added. But Babenzien’s collection has achieved just that.

In womenswear too, Gayot’s offering hits all the right marks in trends, but maintains J.Crew’s preppy tone.

“In women’s, they’ve got all the right silhouettes: the cutouts, the backless dresses, the puff sleeves,” said Santianello. " There’s cohesiveness between menswear and women’s. The Millennial woman can walk in with her husband and they can shop together now.”

Slated for Success

J.Crew isn’t the only struggling mall chain, but its status as a trendsetting brand is fresher in consumers’ minds compared to the long-ago heydays of Gap, Banana Republic or Brooks Brothers. If J.Crew can once again tap into the zeitgeist, its future will look much brighter than the rest of the pack.

“These other retailers make practical clothing. No one gets excited over it,” said Guy. “In the 90s, every time I’d get a J.Crew catalogue in the mail, I got so excited… This is why people are still rooting for them.”

Models in New England fall time.

Customer sentiment for J.Crew since 2018 has been overwhelmingly positive, according to data from consumer intelligence company Brandwatch. More than 70 percent of online conversations about J.Crew have been favourable, with most negative mentions in regard to its Chapter 11 filing in 2020.

“J.Crew, it appears, has struck this unique middle ground with its online conversation between the retail and luxury fashion industries,” Brandwatch head of communications Kellan Terry told BoF in an email.

Whereas high-end labels are more likely to garner positive sentiment among consumers who act like fans, J.Crew has also cultivated an “aspirational fandom” and enjoy the “positivity of the luxury fashion industry while not necessarily adhering to the textbook definition of that industry,” he added.

Man stands in doorway wearing mockneck sweatshirt with the letter 'R'

To be sure, it’s far too early to say J.Crew has recovered from its slump in recent years. The world’s slow return to the office may be a potential headwind, though its new designers are focussed on more casual, fashion-forward looks. They’re on the right path, straddling the line between classic and modern. Too classic and products come off as boring, whereas veering too much in the opposite direction ultimately resulted in the abrupt end to the highs of the Jenna Lyons era.

“It’s definitely better today than it was a few years ago,” Guy said. “I went into a J.Crew store recently and was impressed with the collection.”

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