The J. Crew Conundrum

This post has been a long-time coming.

J. Crew Spring/Summer 1989 Catalog 

I’m having a hard time understanding the ‘what’ of J. Crew.  They seem to be in a world of chasing earnings reports and making somewhat reactive moves to ensure that their losses aren’t as significant as last quarter.  Their situation has been covered quite a bit in the news, and CEO Mickey Drexler continually cites a ‘challenging retail environment’ as the cause.  I respect Drexler quite a bit, but don’t envy the position he’s in.

J. Crew produces some really great stuff.  No joke.  I like the fit of their shirts and sweaters, their pants are a great casual option, and their Ludlow loafers are still a staple in my rotation.  Mrs. RCS likes J. Crew as well, especially their shorts and workwear (she is in a business-professional environment).  As she puts it: ‘their clothes fit without having to get alterations’.  This post doesn’t touch on women’s wear; I just wanted to give some perspective from my stylish better half.

Here’s what worries me about J. Crew: I haven’t bought anything at full price.  Ever.  Neither has Mrs. RCS (that I know of).  I must get four or five emails a week from J. Crew, every one of them offering some lucrative percentage discount off either a collection, or off of everything.  In addition, their sale section is always slam packed with items, a bunch of which are from the current season.  It’s hard for me to believe that this is a good business model.

Another problem is the actual size of their collection.  There are so many choices, which ultimately moves me into an analysis-paralysis mentality.  It’s hard to shop on their site.  Sid Mashburn has been quoted as saying ‘guys don’t need that many choices when getting dressed’.  I buy that.  I purge my closet at least once a year (admittedly, I’m a bit of a clothes horse) and have become quite a stickler as to what items keeps real estate.  My brother, who is basically my size (but not nearly as good looking) always loads up.

Because of the size of their collection, Goodwills are LOADED with J. Crew.  For example, I found this shirt at last week for $5.35:

There is nothing wrong with the shirt.  In fact, it looks like it was never worn.  It is a great filler shirt.  Looks good with jeans, khakis, or shorts, and if I run into a mustard-lathered hot dog, I’ll toss it.  I’m out less than six bucks.  I’m not making the argument for Goodwill (which I think does that on it’s own), but for THE OVERABUNDANCE OF J. CREW.  This, I believe is the root of their problem.

So what do they do to fix it?  J. Crew needs to regain a feeling of EXCLUSIVITY.  From this humble blogger (and customer)’s perspective, There are a few ways I believe they can do it:

First, they have to re-train the customer not to expect to buy everything at 30%-40%-50% off.  For example, their slim-fit khakis, known as the 770s, are great, and listed at $75 a pair.  Quite frankly, this is a fair price for the fit and the quality.  The problem is that I know if I need a pair, it’s only a matter of time before I get emailed a coupon and get them for 30% or 40% off of that.  Since there are ALWAYS colors and sizes available, I have no problem waiting for anything I see in the catalog go on sale.

Second, cut the collection in half.  For example: they have 22 different styles of linen sport shirts.  No offense to linen shirt wearers, but they are like corduroy.  Idea vs. execution.  Everyone loves the idea of a linen shirt (and corduroy pants), but no one really wears them, unless you are on vacation or getting pictures made on the beach.  J. Crew should carry a couple styles of linen shirts for the tried and true, but don’t jump the shark.

A part of the Alden for J. Crew collection 

Third, stop trying to set trends, and understand your swim lane.  Ten years ago, J. Crew was a basics store that competed with The Gap.  They had a few cool and interesting pieces that provided a nice layer of icing to a relatively standard collection.  What’s wrong with that?  What is J. Crew today?  The collaborations are generally good, especially the shoes (Alden, New Balance, and Sperry), but why have so many other vendors that compete with J. Crew line (Gitman Vintage, Cordings, Lacoste, Hill Side)?  J. Crew shoppers should be there to buy J. Crew items.  Not only would this be good for brand loyalty, but the margins would be much better.

One of my favorite shirts: Thomas Mason for J. Crew navy & white gingham

Forth, design with designers, and sell products exclusive to J. Crew.  They do this with Thomas Mason (which is really only a high-end fabric company), but expand on that.  Want to carry a line of sport coats and suits?  Bring in Southwick or Oxxford to do a special line exclusively for J. Crew.  How about some exclusive Birdwell X J. Crew swimsuits in exclusive colors?  Alan Paine X J. Crew cashmere sweaters…  You get the point.  J. Crew shouldn’t sell anything in their stores that doesn’t have their logo on it, and it should be done sparingly.  For example: do three blazers in navy wool, tan camelhair, and black and cream herringbone.  Two colors of swimsuits.  Four, maybe five, colors of cashmere.  That’s it.  Keep it simple.  Keep it tight.

Finally, define the customer.  J. Crew is shockingly close to becoming a micro-fashion brand like H&M and Uniqlo.  These brands rely on quick quantity over quality, with no clear direction on their collection.  Whatever is hot, the produce it en masse.  Very Kardashian.  I believe that for J. Crew to be successful, they can’t be all things to everyone.  They have to dress a certain type of guy, and focus on dressing him well.

Extra credit: no one rolls their pants like this:

No one.

J. Crew is 100% salvageable, but they need some course correction.  As a customer, I’m pulling for them.  They have a place in the #menswear ethos, but need to become their own brand (again).



  1. jay
    06/28/2016 / 8:37 AM

    Isn’t it kind of what we talked about with Polo? Granted, J. Crew many more designers and vendors, but they could use a trim on the breadth of their offerings. Half the time, the product you do purchase is NOT from the store (see Polo). On the other hand, if you’re going to do a tight roll circa 1988/9, THAT is not how it’s executed.

  2. Nem
    06/28/2016 / 8:45 AM

    Nice write-up. Your positions are spot on, sadly. You mention Mashburn and I agree that his menswear options are superior to anything JC has available today from a quality standpoint, not to mention the “exclusivity” quotient. While I have many JC pieces in the closet, some from 1988 or 89 even, my taste in clothes has matured some and the rumpled, sandy-from-the-beach look isn’t my thing any longer.

  3. Trip
    06/28/2016 / 9:40 AM

    I agree with four of your five points, especially the breadth of their collection. The one I disagree with is price. It’s a pretty well-known fact that JCrew quality has turned to garbage over the past 10 years. It would be CRIMINAL if they actually charged full price for everything. While I do agree with the idea of getting rid of the constant sales/discounts, they need do so by selling the clothes at the sale prices, not the “full retail” price.

  4. Cory
    06/28/2016 / 10:59 AM

    Get out of my head, RCS!
    Seriously though, I have a closet full of J.Crew stuff, but I haven’t bought anything from them in a long time. And if I happen to want something, I’m certainly not going to walk into the store to get it when I know I have an email in my inbox with a 30% discount code. Plus, these days their clothes just don’t appeal to me as much. I guess I have matured, but they haven’t. I spend most of my clothing dollars these days with Billy Reid and Sid Mashburn. You’re right that J.Crew could be saved, but they need to have the willingness to do so. Right now, they just seem like a discount store.

  5. Seth
    06/28/2016 / 11:00 AM

    I think their biggest issue is that there is no clear style direction. Is it streetwear? Is it preppy? There’s no consistency. Whenever they branch out and do something eclectic to match streetwear trends, they end up on a sale rack. However, I’ve never seen a university striped oxford or a khaki pair of chinos on deep sale with an extra 50% off. Stick with the “preppy” staples and stop trying to peddle so many pairs of selvedge jeans for $200. Stay in your lane.

    To follow that up, they are competing with themselves primarily. Their “Factory” store is just cheaper versions of their main line. Frequently, a well-selling style is reproduced with cheaper fabric and sold at their factory. Why not simply restock that item if it is so popular?

    They need to make some premium line that isn’t primarily geared towards the RRL, Mumford-and-Sons-dressing crowd like Wallace & Barnes is. The women’s line has it, why can’t the men’s? Have a company like New England Shirt Co make premium oxfords and slap a fancy new J.Crew logo on them like Epaulet in NY does. Maybe then they could compete with Gitman Vintage and the like, but right now they just don’t cut it.

    My apologies for writing this like I’m penning a letter to the CEO, but I’m happy someone finally shed light on what I’ve been thinking for awhile.

  6. 06/28/2016 / 1:12 PM

    This issue began in ~2008 when JCrew realized that it could begin expanding and increasing it’s sales.

    This is a simple, cyclical, corporate issue that isn’t exclusive to JCrew.

    Pathways for market share are fraught with peril. But one thing is for certain: what you have gained, you will someday lose.

  7. MRS
    06/28/2016 / 2:44 PM

    Agreed that the problem is that J.Crew doesn’t seem to have direction – is it preppy? Is it hipster or streetwear? These are issues that have plagued Banana Republic for over a decade (I worked there – I know). I think the comparison to Mashburn is a little unfair because J.Crew has operated at a slightly lower price point, and the less said about Billy Reid, the better. The confusion at J.Crew reminds me of a more pronounced version of the confusion at GAP – a place where a guy could usually go for basics in khakis/shorts, polos, basic tees, maybe even sweaters and shirts – but now, you don’t know what you’ll find from one season to the next. Price is an issue, though, so I guess it’s fair to circle back to Sid. If you’ve got the scratch to pay regular price at JC, why not spend a few bucks more and go with Sid.

    Funny enough, Ivy Style has a nice piece up today about J. Crew’s Prep Shoppe.

  8. Scott Seaton
    06/28/2016 / 2:57 PM

    I quit shopping at J Crew 2 years ago when they quit carrying size 38 waist shorts and pants in the store. I am not a big guy, but I haven’t walked into a store since. BONOBOS gets all my clothes money now. Everything fits the same way everytime!!

  9. Stephen
    06/28/2016 / 4:04 PM

    I agree with Trip. Either make the clothes less expensive or make sure the quality is such that the clothes are actually worth paying retail for. Right now there’s no reason to buy sub-quality clothes that may or may not fit for anything more than 40% off.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if they shut down a bunch of main line stores and replaced them with J Crew Factory (or the classier “Mercantile” as they sometimes call it) which seems to be doing a better job of competing with the fast fashion stores like H&M (and is seemingly always having a sale). Might not be a terrible idea, and would give them the chance to make the main line more exclusive.

  10. Bobby Rooney
    06/28/2016 / 7:58 PM

    Hysterically, i bought an Irish linen shirt from them today. I’m going on vacation. $65 down to $23. I also picked up a pair of 770s. under $18. plus a few shirts for my mrs. It was all so cheap I sprung for the express shipping.

    As a former employee (in CT and NYC in the mid-late 90s) Crew breaks my heart lately.

    One thing you forgot to mention: the collars. Any smaller and they won’t cover the tie.

    I will say, though, they seem to have changed their oxford fabric recently, and the latest shirt I bought is probably the nicest OCBD I’ve ever had, by feel.

  11. Jeff
    06/30/2016 / 1:19 PM

    This is a great post. It’s all well and good for us to lament changes at places like JCrew and Brooks Bros, but they have to sell to a much broader audience than trad/clothes horse types. Very difficult to stay true to the brand, and old core customers, when said customers age and start buying SAS shoes to wear on cruise ships.

    Allen Edmonds faces a similar existential crisis, and I think they are doing as good as can be expected in an increasingly casual world.

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