Fashion cults are nothing new. Marc Jacobs madness, Céline cliques, Ghesquière groupies, Lanvin lunacy…We’ve seen it all. The hallmark of those particular obsessions is their exclusivity; the status and cachet that come from owning something created by a master couturier at the top of his or her game. The cult of J.Crew is of another magnitude altogether. This preppy-chic retailer, which debuted as a catalogue company in 1983 and opened its first store in New York in 1989, is one of mass fashion’s greatest success stories, with an avid following to match. (Consider the numbers: 229 stores worldwide, 40 million catalogues in circulation each year, a company value of $1.6 billion and a doubling of sales over the last seven years during a punishing recession.) Some of the world’s most watched women—Michelle Obama and Anna Wintour—have J.Crew in their closets. There’s even a blog called, yes, J.CrewAholics.
Still, when FLARE tweeted last year that Canadian women would finally be getting their own J.Crew (the brand made its debut in August at Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre, with plans to expand into other key Canadian markets), it was a surprise to see the Twitterverse go into fashion overdrive, with the news picked up by media across the country. Clearly this cult following knows no borders. But what exactly is the secret to the brand’s mass appeal? Curious to crack the code, FLARE approached J.Crew and was invited to take an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of their New York headquarters along with a sneak preview of the fall collection.
Minutes into my meeting with J.Crew president and executive creative director Jenna Lyons and women’s head designer Marissa Webb, we’re interrupted by a disembodied voice (CEO Mickey Drexler on the office-wide intercom, as it turns out) announcing he has a long-time customer on the line. The customer, who suddenly has the attention of every person in the office, declares her undying love for J.Crew, then explains she’d like to discuss one of the recent styles and whether the team might consider producing it in a different colour. Lyons and Webb listen carefully and take notes. When the woman has gone, they both laugh a little self-consciously and swear up and down that the call from on high wasn’t a set-up. “That happens all the time,” Webb assures me, “every day.” When I comment that Drexler reminds me of Charlie addressing his angels via loudspeaker, Lyons remarks wryly, “He’s got a lot more than three angels in the office though!”
There could hardly be two better ambassadors for this brand—and its evolution into a high street fashion powerhouse—than the women in this room. (OK, maybe Mrs. Obama and Ms. Wintour, but you get the point.) Lyons is a six-foot-tall glamazon whose effortlessly cool, borrowed-from-the-boys style has garnered her a following of wannabes in nerd-chic black-rimmed glasses, boyfriend jeans and sexy button-down shirts. Webb is petite with shiny black hair, flawless skin and legs seemingly made for J.Crew’s signature cigarette jeans. Both possess the kind of style the brand embodies: on-trend without trying too hard; preppy without being boring. Even Lyons’ office, where we’re meeting, is fabulous without being intimidating: a light-filled room overlooking Manhattan, filled with books, paintings propped casually against the wall and a huge mood board bristling with drawings, personal notes, quotes and inspirational fashion images.
Like most success stories, J.Crew’s formula is equal parts design and zeitgeist. Enter a J.Crew store and you’ll find several complementary little worlds. There’s the chinos/classic white shirts/cashmere twin-sets world that makes up the core of the J.Crew universe. Then there’s Collection, the higher-end, higher-priced line made up of limited edition pieces featuring couture-like details. Finally, there are canny collaborations with other fashion names such as Timex, Thomas Mason, Prabal Gurung, Eddie Borgo and Billy Reid, along with collectible accessories such as mannish watches, costume jewellery and chunky cuffs. In keeping with the fashion zeitgeist, shoppers are encouraged to mix it up: dainty lace camisoles paired with man-style blazers; slouchy khakis teamed with sexy heels.
The “new vintage,” high-low aesthetic for which the brand has become known is certainly no accident. It’s a carefully calculated juggling act that involves giving their long-time customer base the classics they love while simultaneously luring a more youthful, trend-oriented shopper. It also dovetails perfectly with how women want to dress today. “People ask us all the time, ‘How do you deal with the trends?’” muses Lyons, who started with the company as an assistant designer in 1990. “For us, it’s not about, ‘OK, everything is tribal, so the whole line is going to be tribal.’ Or, ‘Everyone is doing menswear tailoring, so the entire line will be menswear’…That doesn’t make sense for our customer and it doesn’t make sense for who we are.”
Another challenge unique to today’s retail climate is how to stand apart from literally thousands of other fashion purveyors, particularly now that e-commerce has become such a juggernaut. “The whole issue of differentiation is really hard,” Lyons says. “How to carve out something that feels very personal and very yours. It’s very easy to do classic style with a twist, a lot of people are doing that. How do you do that and make yourself feel a little bit different? It’s something we pay attention to a lot. That could be anything from styling to photography to the colour to the detailing,” she says. Adds Webb, “The balance is always having those core items and mixing in the fun fashion pieces.”
One of the ways J.Crew tackles this challenge is by reinventing how mass fashion is produced, and then educating the customer about the differences. “We’re not interested in doing disposable clothing,” declares Lyons. “Recently we did these videos where we went to Italy to explain that we do still make our shoes in Italy. It does cost more to do that, but we wanted people to understand why it costs more…that there’s a real value, and that you get something different than maybe what someone who makes shoes in China might be able to bring you.”
Instead of trying to keep up with the blistering pace of the fashion cycle, Lyons and Webb are keen to go the other way. “I think for us, we’re actually trying to slow it down a bit, the way we approach things,” says Lyons. “We have a style called the Jackie cardigan. We’ve been running that style for, I don’t know, 15 years. People keep coming back for it. We try every season to show somebody a new way to wear it…like, you can wear it over a pair of shorts, you can wear it over skinny little pants or a pencil skirt.”
Another hugely successful innovation was the introduction of Jenna’s Picks, a selection of items hand-picked by the creative director to feature on the website. “It was one of those things where we were trying to figure out something fun to connect with people,” says Lyons. “I think people are looking for someone to help edit, to go through and pull things out.”
We leave Lyons’ office to meet several other members of the design team, who share mood boards and their inspiration for the fall collection, which includes luxurious, grown-up separates inspired by the movies The Great Gatsby and Bonnie and Clyde. (There’s Faye Dunaway, looking ravishing in a tweed skirt and beret, surrounded by scraps of vintage lace, antique wallpaper swatches and images of a quirky outfit consisting of a fur skirt, grandpa shirt and tweed jacket.) The textures and finishes are tactile and luxurious, the more tailored and streamlined direction perfectly in step with fashion’s new mature moment. Of course there’s still that Lyons-driven J.Crew signature feel: a mash-up of vintage influences, boyish details and feminine tailoring.
The next day I attend the New York fall presentation and see all the looks come to life: Luxe cashmere capes, a divine shaggy grey coat with leather sleeves and a classic beige trench with a dramatically unexpected tulle underskirt are some of the highlights. Punchy splashes of colour—wide-leg wool pants in shocking purple, a burnt orange maxi-skirt, cheeky leopard-print pumps—provide the requisite whimsical elements.
When J.Crew made its Toronto debut this summer, it opened with what Lyons describes as the brand’s top-tier designs, including select items from the fall collection. Judging by the excitement in the Twitterverse over the launch, it’s not hard to imagine the company’s recipe of stylishly curated, affordable luxe classics winning J.Crew a whole new set of cultists north of the border.