Inside J.Crew’s Identity Crisis, Except When It Comes to Christmas Socks
The preppy brand’s CEO resigned after 16 months. Then it shuttered Mercantile, a collaboration with Amazon, after just 16 days. Inside J.Crew stores lie what is needed next.
When I woke up this morning, I did not expect to spend part of my day waiting in a line for socks.
And yet, there I was, staring at J.Crew’s five color-coordinated shelves of socks, straining my neck to see whether the print on one pair was of the fire emoji or Rudolph the Reindeer. (Closer inspection revealed the pattern was actually a repeated gingerbread house.)
If you walked into New York City's Rockefeller Center J.Crew and took one look at the sock-fawning crowd, you might forget for one second just how much internal instability the brand has seen in the past few weeks.
First, James Brett, who had been CEO for J.Crew for only 16 months, resigned from his post on Nov. 17. According to The Wall Street Journal, brand chairman Mickey Drexler clashed with Brett over what he viewed as attempts to "cheapen" the brand with the launch of Mercantile, a spin-off line with Amazon.
It came as little surprise that less than two weeks later, the company announced that it would ditch Mercantile and Nevereven, another new label that had only existed for 16 days.
A rep for Amazon Fashion declined to to answer the Daily Beast's questions.
Customers might have written off these headlines — CEOs are replaceable! I just want my work-appropriate sequins —but there was more bad news coming. On Black Friday, J.Crew’s site crashed, presumably due to traffic.
According to Tracy David, vice president of marketing for Listen First Media, there were more than 2,300 tweets mentioning J.Crew, written by “mostly disgruntled customers.”
“I’m two manhattans deep with a functioning credit card and the speed of your website is not conducive to me spending regrettable amounts of money on your products rn,” wrote one wannabe shopper. Another resorted to all caps, reporting that the site crashed “AS I WAS PAYING.”
But inside the store at Rock Center, shoppers appeared to be singing a different tune—mainly, “Winter Wonderland,” which was playing in the store, leading at least three different women to start lip-syncing along while they perused cashmere stock.
However, those who entered appeared to be grazing more than handing over any actual money. Two friends in Canada Goose and North Face coats, respectively, zeroed in on an assortment of brightly colored leather driving gloves.
“These are cute!” one cooed. On second thought, after trying them on: “These make me look like a burglar.”
“Let’s go back to the front of the store,” the other woman suggested, looking overwhelmed. It’s easy to see why they needed a shopping re-do. Many pretty things dot J.Crew’s aisles, such as slippers, printed tote bags, cocktail making kits, and many, many scarves.
However, these accoutrements seem to be mainly distracting, drawing attention away from clothing. This proves problematic, as most people do not walk in to J.Crew in search of Rosé Gummy Bears. Rather, the brand has built its reputation off of providing basics with a twist, including Meghan Markle-esque chambray button-ups and many a festive sweater.
In fact, according to David, Instagram data reveals that the people have spoken (OK, more like double-tapped), and they want sweaters. Pictures of models in jumpers “drive an average of 8.3k responses for post,” she said, adding that is the most-loved content on the brand's feed.
Yet there was little sweater love inside of a Flatiron J.Crew on Fifth Avenue. While there was more yuletide lip-syncing—this time to a cover of “This Christmas”—certain shoppers looking for sales were dismayed by the price tag of a $120 crew neck sweater.
“Wait until after Christmas, it will be $30,” one woman told her friend, despite the fact that a fair isle knit is best worn before the holidays, not afterwards, once everyone is over winter.
A spokesperson for J.Crew declined The Daily Beast’s request for an interview, but did say that the brand would focus on expanding inclusive sizing and customer rewards service to continue the resurgence of J. Crew.
There are signs that things are getting better for J.Crew. Perhaps due to its now-ousted CEO's efforts to bring J.Crew to a wider audience, the brand reported a 10 percent growth in revenue for quarter three.
To keep things moving forward, higher-ups at the brand must reckon with the fact that its modern day customers spend more time perusing malls than attending regattas.
“There is a hard time telling J.Crew apart from other WASP fashion brands like Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, and Tommy Hilfiger,” said Laurence Newell, managing director of business valuation company Brand Finance. “It's hard for one brand to come out on top of such a competitive environment in which there's relatively little differential around brands.”
But rather than appearing WASPY, the Fifth Avenue store felt like a Uniqlo. There were rows of turtleneck sweaters in varying colors.
Don't like the mustard? Don't worry, we have it in coral, too. What about one with the word "Salut" printed across the chest? Oh, you speak Italian? OK, here's one that says "Ciao."
Rather than opting for sartorial thirstiness, the brand would do well—and come off as quite more confident—if it toned things down a bit. This proved successful at the beginning of 2018, when J.Crew's collaboration with Universal Standard was lauded for offering pieces that went up to a size 5X.
Along with that, the items were wearable. There were go-to white button ups you could buy five minutes before closing on the night before a job interview. There were Michelle Obama-esque gingham blouses that had a little oomph without being too busy.
Even the tops and dresses that catered to the wacky sleeves trend—including one hot pink sweater dress and black puffer top—were items that you could eat your lunch in without fear of a big mess.
Yes, 'tis the season for leaving your home in flannel pajamas, a puffer vest, and metallic gold moccasins, as one store mannequin was wearing. But J.Crew would be wise to cool it on the kitsch and re-cement itself as a staple for shoppers weary of too-trendy fast fashion alternatives. Until then, by all means, gingerbread sock away.