Brand Talk: J. Crew

Posted by Sam

In my new, and sure to be infrequent column, I’m discussing brands of note, some old, others new, and those long gone. As someone interested in the development of brands, these posts are less about business, and instead about where art and industry marry in historic form.

An unexpected brand making well-deserved headlines is J. Crew. Yes, that one. I had the same reaction when a few of my trusted friends made me aware of the brand and it’s current status. My memories of the brand were from the mid-90’s, of $98 Rollneck sweaters and greater misdeeds. Now I count myself amongst the fans for this most seemingly common of brands.

In it’s current moment, J. Crew has become less of a product line and more of a sensibility. The best example of J. Crew as a ‘perspective’ is their ‘In Good Company’ collection, which combines the 2000’s obsession with brand collaboration and good old fashioned curation, pairing the company up with well-worn heritage brands like Sebago and England’s 86 year-old outerwear brand, Belstaff. This is what is affectionately call an “ethos grab” or the adoption of the traits from greater brands via their inclusion in your own.

Riding on a wave of preppy fascination ushered in by a few East Coast indie bands, men’s clothing saw a sea change in recent years towards a more subtle look, taking over for a trend of logos and bright colors. J. Crew also wisely eschewed an overt prep direction, Instead opting for classic American and work-inspired clothing.

Like any brand resurgence (Apple, being one), it starts at the top and it infects the whole company. Mickey Drexler is the patriarch of this evolution, and his attitudes towards hiring and culture have informed the brand’s ascendency since he joined in 2003. Creative director Jenna Lyons has become a celebrity in her own right.

The inclusion of Andy Spade, co-founder (with his wife) of Kate Spade and his own confusingly named Jack Spade brand, was another brilliant hire, whose sly blend of Midwestern charm and a hint of old school smarm (David Spade is his brother) created the best asset perhaps of J. Crew-dom, the Liquor Store shop in Tribeca. A barely refurbished bar as men’s shop, and a signless work of retail genius.

Mr. Spade on the relative anonymity and modest scale of Liquor Store:

“It’s odd that people think they have to brand everything with their own name to be successful. Certain companies are experts at certain things. I love brands that show humility and don’t try to be all things to all people. How many brands that got bigger got better?”

J. Crew
Founded: 1983
Golden Age: 2008- ?
Typeface: Goudy Old Style

29 Comments Leave A Comment


Alex says:

August 16, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Excited about your new column Sam!

Partiucalry enjoyed this bit from Spade:

“It’s odd that people think they have to brand everything with their own name to be successful.”

Curious to find other examples of anonymous brand creations…


Rik says:

August 16, 2010 at 6:01 pm

I’m looking forward to your column very much :)
I love this line, really well balanced, beautiful clothing:)
Too bad I’m too fat to wear them XD


Khoi Vinh says:

August 16, 2010 at 6:05 pm

I’m a fan of what J. Crew has done in recent years, particularly in the past year. Walking through J. Crew used to be the equivalent of having mayonnaise on white toast, but now it’s genuinely, if moderately, interesting. That said, lines like “J. Crew has become less of a product line and more of a sensibility” sound naive at best. J. Crew is a sensibility in the same way that Wal-Mart is a sensibility, little less and little more. It’s a clothing brand and a commercial venture on a *mass* scale. It doesn’t take away anything from the new-found taste that J. Crew have been able to imbue in their design to say that they’re just as cynical and unfeeling a vendor of goods as any other. To propose that they’re something more is to play the role of what I believe people call ‘a tool.’


Andrew says:

August 16, 2010 at 6:13 pm

We all need to make a living, but I’d prefer to keep up the illusion that this blog is free of corporate sweatshop- brand pandering.

Two Thumbs Down.


Sam says:

August 16, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Thanks for the feedback.

I’m glad there is some criticism which is often lost in the fast-moving “like” button moment we inhabit.

I’m aware that dialogue about companies is fairly taboo, especially in tight communities like this site.

The aim for these posts is to analyze how companies define, or re-define, themselves in the context of design. Future post ideas include skateboard companies, one-man design shops and record labels. I’m open to any suggestions of course and would love to learn more about new and old brands.

The point is not to sell anything here, it’s to share perspective on how groups of people band together to affect change, large or small. The views are strictly my own, not any of the other writers. If you don’t like my posts, I’m sure Scott will boot me before your loyalty wanes.

It also should be noted, these are not corporate profiles. I’m not looking at the manufacturing, sustainability or finances of said companies. Other blogs watchdog this world far better than I could.

As far as the debate between corporate and independent companies. The reality is that “culture” is not limited to the boutiques and blogs of the world.

Design is aided and propagated by the sponsorship of individuals of all income and education levels. I’m interested in the people and companies, big and small, who put design and quality front and center of their priorities.


Jakub says:

August 16, 2010 at 7:19 pm

“Walking through J. Crew used to be the equivalent of having mayonnaise on white toast” I remember those days but they are definitely gone, I even check out the women’s shop on Prince St just for season color schemes or look for something for my sister.


Scott says:

August 16, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Just to be clear, if you were implying that we were compensated in some way for this post (“We all need to make a living”) then I’d like to assure you that we have never been compensated for any of the posts on this blog. We cover things we’re interested in, because we’re interested in them and not for any other reason. I myself have posted more times than I can count on Canon, Nikon, and Apple products. They make things that I use and develop technology that is exciting to me, therefore I post on them.

Although, to be honest, I really wish Canon would send me a free 5DMK2…


Ian says:

August 16, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Being a lanky dude myself, it’s rare for me to find something that actually really fits me from J Crew. I feel like the majority of their stock suits the stocky individual. This has been a hard thing for me to accept, because I really do actually like their style.


John D. says:

August 16, 2010 at 8:16 pm

This write up is very interesting to me. I think J-Crew is nothing like what it was even in the early aughts. You could find unique clothing there, and I often did, but now it’s nothing more than broken-in khakis and shirts with special washes to make them soft (along with their dressier work stuff) season after season. The catalog and website are admittedly more exciting than what I actually see in stores, but it’s all too expensive for what it is ($100 Levi’s in boring cuts and washes, $150 Timex watches). I do like how they are representing/branding themselves these days, but actually going in the stores…it’s all the same boring stuff. For men at least. I feel like they’re still pandering to yuppies who don’t have their own sense of style.


Alan LeBlanc says:

August 16, 2010 at 8:29 pm

I worked at J.crew this last high school summer before heading off for college and definitely enjoyed it for being just a summer job. Like Ian above me said, J.Crew’s clothing definitely isn’t tailored for the slim individual on the men’s side. Excluding a few pant types like their “Classic fit” or some of their suit pants, the regular fit and even vintage slim fit pants are pretty bulky and square on someone who may not be a really built individual.

On the other side of things, the graphic tees displayed in our store were pretty miserable. Their attempts at authentic looking, or maybe even vintage style graphic tee’s weren’t the best but other clothing made up for it in the other departments. I remember at some point asking our manager who designs the graphics for our t-shirts and that “I’d like to have that job one day” – being a reader of this blog and thinking I could at least pull enough inspiration to make a design that wasn’t centered around a bar or sailing team.

Despite these things, the plaid button downs and solid cardigans kind of make up for almost everything in the store. You can’t find really inexpensive oxfords at that price for the quality if you live in a small city. Most of the patterns (especially in the winter) are usually pretty eccentric and nice looking if you’re dressing up for an event or somewhat enjoy just being a well dressed dude.

!!!! Before I even forget, what’s much more important than the clothing is the style their really pushing in their store. So young and alternative with all the new-wave indie stuff they play all day. While working I heard Animal Collective, Discovery, even Yeasayer… Bands that I would have previously discovered on this blog or fell into the same sub-genre’s as the music featured here by Jakub. A lot of that poppy summer mentality with the vocals with alot of reverb and tangy guitar.

That’s what made work so pleasant, I wouldn’t have ever came close to surviving all summer helping almost all women pick out their sizes.


ANDREW says:

August 17, 2010 at 9:07 am

Thanks for your assurance, Scott- I have the utmost respect for you and your associates.

Nonetheless, I feel J. Crew is nothing more than a simulacra of an urban indie aesthetic. I had hoped that the hosts and patrons of this site, which is about taste and style, would think twice about glorifying this homogenized caricature of ourselves, targeted to American Mall Culture.

Plus, their clothes don’t fit me, either.


NAVIS says:

August 17, 2010 at 11:39 am

I just took a look at Brook’s Brothers newest catalog and it was way off. Their entire target market was geared at young, hip kids entering college or already in college. I’ve always remembered Brook’s Brothers being a company that sold expensive suits and fancy shoes to older, middle aged men who had money.

Not that I like BB but I don’t see how they’re going to sell anything. The clothes in general were incredibly ugly and expensive as hell. $950 for a woman’s silver bracelet? $700 for a suit jacket? I’m pretty sure that 95% of college kids they’re targeting can’t afford an $80 neck tie. And the other 5% that can probably wouldn’t buy a Brook’s Brothers tie.


fr says:

August 17, 2010 at 1:54 pm

An interesting thing about the branding… I almost skipped over this post since you opened with a picture of the logo and I have no interest in J. Crew. Then I read it anyway for some reason and found it pretty interesting, particularly the shots of the liquor store. If you would have opened with those pictures I would have started reading immediately. That kind of makes Spade’s point about not always using the branding, doesn’t it?


Just a Thought says:

August 17, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Judging by the majority of comments on these most recent posts, I would say the general web-public are poop heads. Would everyone please get off your high horses and enjoy a thing or two. I can just see your narfed faces as your thinking of something awful to say. It probably looks like you’re trying to bite your own ear.

I’m gonna clue you contrarians into something really quickly – this is largely a design blog. Scott and the crew are probably going to create some posts having to do with design. Sometimes it will be music. Sometimes it will be whatever they feel like putting on THEIR blog. If you don’t like it, slither on over to your local coffee shop and congratulate yourselves for how terrible you’ve been instead of wafting your negativity in all of our faces here.



Andrew says:

August 17, 2010 at 6:13 pm

I assume the iso50 blog has comments enabled to encourage lively discourse, not just for back-slapping platitudes.

I would like to believe Scott values people’s opinions, even if they differ from his.


Bryan says:

August 18, 2010 at 12:08 am

I think that I can stop taking myself seriously seeing that Andrew here is doing more than enough of a job for two people all by his lonesome. (A generous hint – its not what you say but how you say it)

I thought that this post was great. I’m finally at 28 paying attention to the clothing that I wear and looking my best, after years of a casual attitude to style and relying on gifts or items I bought solely for function, so this post is directly in my area of current interest. In the larger sense I would add that anything or anyone can create art/design/style to be looked at objectively without need to inject politics into the discussion.


Anonymous says:

August 18, 2010 at 8:48 am

This post was prefaced with the promise of writing about brands “long gone.

I would be interested to read your take on Fred Perry. My father recently bestowed upon me three (well-fitting, I’ll add) FP polos from the 80’s (and the color palette does reflect it). Chatting with those older than me, FP, once a prepster go-to, seems to have been cannibalized by RL, Lacoste, etc.

The brand is still around, obviously, and putting together nice collections- but it doesn’t seem like a wildly popular option (at least, among the collegiate crowd, the vantage point from which I write).


Joe says:

August 19, 2010 at 2:32 am

i don’t mind j crew. just isn’t my style, plus for the same money or cheaper, you can deff dress any way you like, if you wanna look like those guys in the ads you can do so but it doesn’t have to come at such a cost or come at the expense of knowing it was made wrongly in the underbelly of another country.


Paul Anthony Webb says:

August 19, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Not only was this post interesting, I enjoyed reading all of the comments as well. I subscribe to a small handful of clothing lines that I find interesting, such as Fred Perry, not because I necessarily wear them [ haha, too broke ] but because I love the overall aesthetic and despite not being a huge commercial name, they are continuing to do something different that works [ for the most part ].

I for one am looking to reading more posts like these. Unlike most 22-year-olds my age, I am very interested in styling myself in clothes that are laid-back and comfortable and paying attention to what I wear. The neon colors and crazy logos are nice and all but I’d like something different.


Shane Johnston says:

August 23, 2010 at 10:45 am

Funny, I worked for an artist who had a studio right around the corner from there…never new it was a j. Crew shop! I always just assumed it was some small boutique.


Frames Per Second says:

August 26, 2010 at 9:31 am

i friend of mine use to design for them.. in his words.

j-crew is as good as k mart these days…..he left the company to become one of RL lead designers ..


KevinBarcelona says:

October 16, 2010 at 4:34 pm


That’s exactly what J.Crew wants! They’ll do anything possible to get into your head.

J.Crew’s backbone is as good as broken and they’re trying their best to take their name out of context and make up for all those years of being “white bread and mayo”.

I wouldn’t glorify (re: retail genius) this anymore than smart marketing survival techniques.

“How many brands that got bigger got better?”

Andy Spade may think that J.Crew is “better”, but that would have to mean that at one point it was “bad”. Anyone who knows J.Crew has to agree that they had plenty of appeal at one point in their 17 years as an apparel company. I think the author and several others here have happily recalled their run-in with the brand.

Maybe it’s just a matter of words, but I’m one for clear communication. Sue me, I work in advertising. I think that instead of using grandiosity to sell what’s going on with J.Crew that Mr Spade should just be honest – J.Crew couldn’t hold it’s prestige, lost some of it’s market, and needed to make a huge change. That whole better thing is relative.

Sure J.Crew has somehow made itself appealing to SOME people but marking them in their Golden Age confuses me. I think there would be some hardcore rowers that despise the new look… would call it satisfying only to trend seekers.

I don’t wear J.Crew but I had respect for the brand. It appealed to certain people in certain circles. Now, it’s supposedly a more casual man who looks as if he may have some dirt under his fingers nails (denim on denim). Kinda like a guy who wears a beard to protect himself from thinking (or having other’s think) he’s a sellout despite the corporate paycheck.

Most people create a persona rather than be a person, and I don’t think J.Crew is any different. Let’s talk about this in 10 years after Spade’s ideas have worn thin, and there’s a new CD with “better” ideas.

“It’s odd that people think they have to brand everything with their own name to be successful.”

Oh really, isn’t that how successful brands work? Otherwise it’s a different brand.

I am picturing Spade in the boardroom listening to, “..our company is near dead, we need a change, a big one, even if it means taking our name off all our clothing and hopping the tracks.”

“I love brands that show humility and don’t try to be all things to all people.”

J.Crew was never “everything to everyone”. At least not in Detroit. Maybe Ann Arbor, Birmingham, or Grosse Pointe, but not in Detroit. With this new rather cool “retail idea” sans a brand makes them virtually nobody, unless of course they are trying to appeal to every man be being solely a “men’s shop”… oh wait.