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Why Preppy J.Crew Staked Its Future on a Streetwear Star

Brendon Babenzien, co-founder of the streetwear brand Noah and former Supreme designer, joins the mall brand’s mens business as creative director. But an updated look won’t solve all of J.Crew’s problems.
Brendon Babenzien's first J.Crew menswear designs will be available in the second half of 2022. J.Crew.
Brendon Babenzien's first J.Crew menswear designs will be available in the second half of 2022. J.Crew.

J.Crew has its eye on hype.

On Monday, the retailer announced the appointment of Noah co-founder Brendon Babenzien as creative director for its menswear business, news that has streetwear aficionados positively giddy.

Babenzien told The Wall Street Journal that he’d shake up J.Crew’s style, exploring collaborations outside of the fashion realm and expanding beyond the brand’s prep-inspired aesthetic, all without alienating customers who still go to J.Crew for workwear staples. The brand’s Ludlow suit, a slim-fitting style first introduced in 2008, isn’t going anywhere, but he will add styles that incorporate pleats and looser fits, an emerging favourite among tailoring enthusiasts.

Whether that will be enough to break the brand out of its years-long funk remains to be seen. A year after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, J.Crew’s turnaround is well underway. The company’s new owners, including Anchorage Capital Group LLC, Davidson Kempner Capital Management LLC and GSO Capital Partners LP, have closed unprofitable stores. They’ve also cleaned house in the executive suite, replacing chief executive Jan Singer with Libby Wadle, who ran J.Crew sister brand Madewell, which thrived with its denim business in recent years.

Those changes, plus getting out from under a crushing debt load, have J.Crew in better financial shape. The logical next step, a creative renaissance, may prove harder to engineer.

Babenzien, who was also Supreme’s creative director for over a decade, faces a two-fold challenge: to convince the stalwart J.Crew customer to step outside their comfort zone (and pay full price when they do) and bring buzz back to the business.

Noah, which sells clothes that reflect a mix of prep, streetwear and skate culture, eschews the usual churn of the fashion system. Its marketing frequently speaks to issues like climate change and racial justice. The brand encourages consumers to make fewer, more high-quality purchases, a concept that Jian DeLeon, Nordstrom men’s editorial director, said “blew my mind” when the retailer teamed with Noah for its New Concepts@Nordstrom program in 2020.

“If he can bring in his punk mentality to change how J.Crew fundamentally does business from the inside out, that’d be the ultimate collaboration,” said DeLeon.

The Power of Collaborations

Babenzien, whose first J.Crew designs won’t be available for purchase until late 2022, must first reintroduce J.Crew into the menswear conversation, where upstart brands like Rowing Blazers and Babenzien’s own Noah have built followings by fusing hype and prep.

Leveraging the hype cycle and drop culture, whether through Babenzien’s own collections for the brand or collaborations (which may extend into music, film or even books), is also perhaps J.Crew’s best hope to break the discount cycle. The pandemic also made shoppers more willing to pay for new, covetable items and wait for them to be shipped, creating an opening for a well-known brand like J.Crew — if it can make items people are willing to line up to buy, said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail consultancy A Line Partners.

DeLeon pointed to Noah’s recent collaboration with Barbour, which brought prints like paisley or zebra stripes to classic jacket styles, as an example of a successful menswear partnership. If replicated with J.Crew’s DNA in mind, it could catch on with both J.Crew’s longtime customer and new audiences.

“Collaborations bring a halo effect to the retailer,” said Jane Hali, founder of investment research firm Jane Hali & Associates, citing other retail examples including Target and Nike. “It also brings immediacy, meaning you have to buy [products] then, you can’t just wait.”

The ‘Missing Puzzle Piece’

Appointing Babenzien to J.Crew menswear, however, only addresses one side of the retailer’s turnaround. After all, its womenswear drives the majority of J.Crew’s business. To succeed, J.Crew must create “congruency and cohesiveness” between its menswear and womenswear, something the brand has struggled with for years.

“The J.Crew guy wants to date the Madewell girl,” Santaniello recalls being told by a J.Crew brand merchandising employee five years ago, underscoring the fact that J.Crew’s men’s and women’s lines offer different aesthetics.

“The women’s business is the missing puzzle piece,” said Santaniello. “It’s definitely a question of what’s going to happen with the women’s business or if [Babenzien] will have any influence over it.”

Wadle told BoF that Bebenzien will work alongside Olympia Gayot, J.Crew’s executive vice president of women’s design, who replaced Chris Benz in September, to “establish the ‘J.Crew of tomorrow.’” More specific news surrounding J.Crew’s women’s collections has been limited in recent months.

“We want to reshape the J.Crew brand through reinvigorated designs and narratives that speak to both our existing audience and new customers,” Wadle said.

Still, J.Crew must simultaneously reinvigorate its look while modernising its distribution, including hundreds of stores and the never-ending discount cycle that characterised its pre-pandemic business.

Other retailers that faced the same issues have managed to turn their businesses around without appointing a star designer. Abercrombie & Fitch managed to shed its image — a brand for hunks with washboard abs and the model-like women who dated them — with a turnaround focused on changes to product, pricing and store environment, led in part by Aaron Levine, the brand’s senior vice president of design. Gap is trying a mix of both approaches, streamlining operations while also collaborating with Kanye West.

“[J.Crew] doesn’t need to chase their core customer or even a younger customer, but focus on the DNA of the brand, rebranding and reinventing it again,” said Santaniello. “If they do that and it happens to appeal to younger customers, the older customer is going to come back, too.”

Related Articles:

J.Crew’s Survival Plan: Edit Out ‘the Ugly’

J.Crew Says Bankruptcy Is the Reset it Needs. But There Actually Has to Be a Reset

Chris Benz Exits J.Crew

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