So Babebenzien designed his J.Crew to do something different. His philosophy is so direct and his ambitions so seemingly modest that one might think his vision for the brand is simple. Because when you hear it, his plan – to make affordable, accessible and high-quality clothing available to the widest possible audience – can sound simple. Not up to the monumental scale of J.Crew’s problems. Annoying only at the edges.
But then you look around and realize that no one else is doing it.
You would think so It would have taken me longer to figure out what to wear to an interview GQ. But back then, almost a decade ago, there was really only one answer to the question: I wore J.Crew (white oxford shirt, black knit tie, light-wash jeans). It was what I could afford, but in a way I also knew I should wear it. In cities across the country, people in jobs without a formal dress code—marketers and architects, chefs and low-key lawyers—had adopted the J.Crew uniform seemingly overnight. My new colleagues were partly responsible for this shift as they supported the brand’s relaxed but slightly dressed look on the pages of this magazine. But they also seemed to be going the way: After I got the job, I saw that many of my co-workers in their 20s wore J.Crew, as did our supervisors in their 40s. Occasionally there was whispering, as did the editor-in-chief.
J.Crew began as a catalog business in 1983 and quickly became a competitor to heritage brands like LL Bean and Lands’ End. But even in the early 2000s, when Todd Snyder started out as a menswear designer, “menswear was always an afterthought,” Snyder told me. “The business wasn’t very big, and it was always in the basement.” That changed under CEO Mickey Drexler, who came from Gap in 2003 — and, Snyder recalled, encouraged experimentation. Along with marketing genius Andy Spade, they transformed a Tribeca liquor store into a progressive store for J.Crew, surrounding the brand’s new men’s designs with high-end third-party merchandise like Red Wing boots. The most successful of these designs — like the instantly ubiquitous Ludlow suit, a slim-fitting silhouette suited to weddings, board meetings and first dates — were made less than a mile away at the company’s first all-men’s store (after the liquor store) in SoHo. “It started, and then it just went on and on,” Snyder said. (Drexler declined to speak for the record.)
But the trick to aligning your brand with fashion is that the attention of the fashion world is fleeting. And less than a decade after the Ludlow’s introduction, signs of change were everywhere. The dress code in the office began to relax. Sneaker culture was on the rise. Fast fashion began to copy European catwalk trends more quickly, and Kanye West traded in his tweed blazer for a $265 Givenchy Rottweiler t-shirt. J.Crew’s casual polish — the downright cuffed jeans tapering to bare ankles and worn dress shoes — felt dated almost immediately.
It wasn’t just that Americana lost momentum, however. The retail model that J.Crew was known for was beginning to look dated, and the company was slow to adopt an e-commerce strategy. This state of affairs was compounded by the fact that Drexler arranged a leveraged buyout in 2011 that turned J.Crew into a private company and left it with a huge debt load. “The company put itself in a position where it couldn’t afford to take a hit,” Maggie Bullock said. In 2014, the company reported a loss of more than half a billion dollars. Drexler left the company in 2019. The next year the company filed for bankruptcy.
Can Brendon Babenzien make J.Crew cool again?
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