This week, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that preppy chain J.Crew has hired Noah co-founder and creative director Brendon Babenzien to lead its men’s business, which along with the rest of the brand’s offering, has been struggling to recapture its relevance to consumers. To menswear aficionados, the move was both welcome and not a moment too soon — although why Babenzien’s designs won’t be available to buy until the second half of 2022 was certainly a head scratcher in a drop-speed world.
Importantly, Babenzien has said he is not in the business of fashion, much like his former boss, James Jebbia of Supreme, who wondered out loud why he was receiving a CFDA design award back in 2018. With a palette predominantly pulled from surf, skate and prep, Babenzien is less like a traditional designer striving for originality and more like a great DJ, remixing existing elements to produce something that feels fresh, especially to younger consumers who aren’t old enough to know the references.
Babenzien is less like a traditional designer striving for originality and more like a great DJ.
Yet, what makes Babenzien’s appointment particularly interesting for a brand like J.Crew is not just his skill as a remixer, but the way the values he embeds in his garments attract and inspire consumers. Indeed, Babenzien recognises that values are as important as great products, or as he has put it: “Without a strong cultural movement, clothing has less meaning.”
Seemingly more inspired by Yvon Chouinard’s Patagonia than traditional fashion brands, Babenzien has woven values into the very fabric of Noah. There’s his commitment to transparency on sustainability, his belief in diversity and inclusivity, and his respect for past greatness that deserves enduring approbation from unfamiliar younger people (See: Earth, Wind & Fire, New Order and Straight Edge).
More than any design innovation, these values provide context to the offering and are what really differentiate Noah from any number of skate-prep brands on the market. As a result, Noah fans don’t just want cool clothes; they want to belong. They run in its races. They hang out in its blonde-wooded “clubhouses” designed by Babenzien’s business partner and wife Estelle, whether in Manhattan, Amagansett or Tokyo.
The greater challenge (which may also hold greater promise) will be defining J.Crew’s system of values.
As Babenzien takes the reins at J.Crew’s menswear business, it’s a likely bet that the brand’s product assortment will improve. He will surely mine the archives and find no shortage of items to reinvigorate and remix. But the greater challenge (which may also hold greater promise) will be defining J.Crew’s system of values.
The fact is, younger consumers are not yet proud to wear J.Crew emblazoned on t-shirts. The brand needs a clear set of values to make its preppy basics stand apart from competitors — nay, to make them stand at all. This is no small feat, especially as there’s an entire women’s side to the business run by a different design organisation.
Nevertheless, there is perhaps nobody better suited and booted than Babenzien for the challenge.
Jonathan D. Cohen is a marketer based in Brooklyn, NY and Los Altos, CA.
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