Premier crew

Chic and approachable, high fashion and high street: J Crew sells clothes that defy categorisation – to the tune of $2.2bn last year. Now it’s setting up shop in London. Its CEO and president talk exclusively to Maria Shollenbarger about the methods behind the design magic. Portrait by Circe

J Crew Group chairman and chief executive Millard Drexler (right) with president and executive creative director Jenna Lyons and a selection of pieces from the brand’s autumn/winter collections
J Crew Group chairman and chief executive Millard Drexler (right) with president and executive creative director Jenna Lyons and a selection of pieces from the brand’s autumn/winter collections

Millard Steven Drexler – Mickey to most (and The Merchant Prince to those who follow his extraordinary career trajectory), the chairman and chief executive of J Crew Group, the US apparel brand whose revenues reached $2.2bn in 2012 – has a story he wants to tell me about rash guards.

Cashmere Zelda jumper, £412, crepe May skirt, £396, and suede pumps, £254
Cashmere Zelda jumper, £412, crepe May skirt, £396, and suede pumps, £254

Rash guards – the utilitarian nylon vests surfers wear to protect their skin against abrasion – as fashion fable? Yes. It transpires that not too long ago, on Harbour Island in the Bahamas (where Drexler has a home), at a local café/shop in Dunmore Town called Sip Sip, there was a very small inventory – “I mean a tiny one, like this,” he says, holding his thumb and finger about an inch apart – of rash guards J Crew had, as a one-off, produced. Sip Sip’s co-owner, Julie Lightbourn, saw Drexler on one of his habitual lunchtime visits and mentioned that she desperately needed more of them; she had sold out. More what? he asked her. More of his rash guards, she said. “I hadn’t paid much attention to how rash guards were selling at J Crew; I certainly didn’t know she had them,” he says. But she did; eight or 10 of them, and they’d flown out of the shop. “So I called the team to see how they were selling for us.” HQ’s response: rather well, actually. “So we decided to get into the serious Rash Guard Business.” The original was blown out across two pages in the following month’s catalogue, and rash guards for women, rash guards for kids, multistripe rash guards, rash guards in Liberty prints followed – successful runs, all. The moral of this story? “In retail, there’s always a message if you’re paying attention. You learn to look for things that are not out there, or not out there in a way your customers can see or feel. You don’t make them mainstream; you make them yours. That’s what we do.”

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In much-simplified terms, yes, this is what Drexler, along with J Crew’s president and executive creative director, Jenna Lyons, several design and merchandising teams and a staff of just over 1,000 at company headquarters in downtown Manhattan do, with significant success. In the decade Drexler has been at J Crew’s helm, the company has grown on an impressive scale in a vertically integrated business model, via a design output that marries the high and low of fashion arguably more adeptly than any other in the US.

Embellished wool-mix Ariana coat, £1,188, silk Mila dress, price on request, and leather pumps, £245
Embellished wool-mix Ariana coat, £1,188, silk Mila dress, price on request, and leather pumps, £245

In 2013, if J Crew were a film, it would be both box-office winner (with revenue growth since 2005 often in double digits, including a 12 per cent jump in Q1 2013) and critically acclaimed success (its proselytes range from Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet – who has carried J Crew on the site since 2010 – to clotheshorse par excellence Gwyneth Paltrow to Michelle Obama, who famously confessed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2008 to a habit of jcrew.com surfing). Its inventory comprises men’s and women’s capsule collections, bridal wear, swimwear and denim, a children’s line called CrewCuts, jewellery, shoes and handbags, and a signature Italian cashmere line. It produces 13 catalogues a year – referred to around the offices as “style guides”, replete with editorial counsel and profiles – distributed in the US and Canada (where by the end of 2013 it will have nine shops). As of January, its website ships to 103 countries.

Embellished merino-wool Jemima Popover top, £878, wool trousers, £130, and haircalf clutch, £347
Embellished merino-wool Jemima Popover top, £878, wool trousers, £130, and haircalf clutch, £347

This October the company will make its first, much anticipated bricks-and-mortar debut outside North America, in its second-biggest overseas market for sales: the UK. The flagship will be housed in a two-storey, 1,600sq m landmarked building at 165 Regent Street, previously home to Burberry, bringing its total number of stores worldwide to over 300. The central London emporium will include separate men’s and women’s boutiques, as well as special “shops” for shoes, handbags, Italian cashmere and childrenswear.

Embroidered-wool Titina pea coat, £2,200
Embroidered-wool Titina pea coat, £2,200

It’s a high-street address of the most prestigious sort – but a high-street address, nonetheless. This is a categorisation to which in undeniable respects J Crew hews, from price points (which across much of its apparel will square it in the UK with the likes of Massimo Dutti, Reiss and Cos); to its direct-sales channels – the website and the catalogues – which extend its market reach on retail and markdown merchandise in a way more exclusive brands don’t operate; to the fact that many of J Crew’s stores are in malls and, yes, on high streets across America.

Silk/wool trousers, £236
Silk/wool trousers, £236

But it is a brand that cannot be shoehorned into any one category. There are permutations of J Crew that move in a far more elite stratum of the fashion world. There are the capsule collections – small-inventory, high-cost mens- and womenswear produced four times a year and shown twice yearly at New York Fashion Week, which beget desirables along the lines of tailored snakeskin-stripe linen trousers ($795), a short-silhouette wool pea coat with gold-thread stitching on its lapels (about $2,500), and a women’s trench of divinely slim proportions. (Testament to the status J Crew enjoys among the fashion movida was on display at the autumn-winter 2013 collections presentation in February, which attracted, among others, Anna Wintour and most of her senior editorial team, W editor-in-chief Stefano Tonchi, Massenet, Caroline Issa and the top editors of TheNew York Times’s T magazine, Wall Street Journal and American GQ, Esquire and Elle – not a cross-section of names readily associated with the world of high-street apparel.) There is the Ludlow, J Crew’s signature men’s suiting line, whose details – pick-stitching, rolled lapels, floating horsehair chest pieces and fabric choices that include Japanese seersucker and four-ply cashmere – position it closer to the realm of Savile Row ready-to-wear than the high street. There is Wallace & Barnes, the military and vintage-inspired collection that presaged many other brands in owning the utilitarian menswear trend. And there is In Good Company, the limited-edition collaborations with niche and heritage brands – archive designs, or editions in special colourways or with bespoke detailing – that J Crew has cultivated for nearly a decade. These have ranged from the relatively obscure (minimalist-chic totes from the Massachusetts-based Steele Canvas Basket Co; beachwear from LemLem, a line designed by model and philanthropist Liya Kebede; Franco-Swiss watchmakers Mougin & Piquard) to incumbents in the pantheon of timeless style (Barbour; Alden; Persol; Baracuta, whose limited-production, ineffably chic women’s Harrington G10 jacket for J Crew your author will to her dying day regret not purchasing).

The Liquor Store in Tribeca, New York
The Liquor Store in Tribeca, New York

With their fine materials, their clever marketing and their scarcity, these capsule collections and collaborations speak to what is perhaps J Crew’s single most valuable asset: its skill at putting its customer at the centre of an exceptionally well-crafted narrative, in which quality, exclusivity and provenance – all pillars, incidentally, of the luxury-goods world – are the protagonists. This has had the effect of imparting cachet and fashion bona fides across the entire brand; the narrative extends to include, Lyons notes when we meet, the $5,000 wedding dress, the $3,000 Collection cashmere coat, the $150 trouser and the $22.50 Perfect-fit tank. Thus while the capsule collection pieces may command the four-digit sums, it’s a cotton T-shirt that Massenet might put together with her Ralph Rucci skirt, a pair of khaki short-shorts that topped Paltrow’s autumn favourites list on her lifestyle website, Goop. “J Crew’s brilliance has been to carve out a new space in fashion – a market unto itself, in a way – that combines real chic with real clothes, both in price and conception, and narrative originality,” says the Financial Times’s fashion editor Vanessa Friedman. “It writes its own story and tells it consistently through its catalogues, its stores and its stuff.” Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, who brought J Crew to the department store’s IFC Mall location last year, sees it much the same way: “[J Crew] spoke to us because it’s a brand that can be very ‘individual’; it has that ability to be an alchemist. That is retail gold, as it reads as fashion, yet approachability. And the wide range of customer that gravitates to it is testament to its success.”

Fox Brothers wool coat, £875, cotton sweatshirt, £112, cotton chinos, £66, and leather shoes, price on request
Fox Brothers wool coat, £875, cotton sweatshirt, £112, cotton chinos, £66, and leather shoes, price on request

This success, by most accounts, is in no small part down to Drexler, though he is at pains to illustrate the myriad ways in which every J Crew point scored is the result of a collaborative effort that might variously include a stock assistant, a senior designer, or a customer in possession of a strong opinion and the catalogue’s freephone number. Prior to his arrival at J Crew in 2003, Drexler spent 18 years as president and then chief executive of Gap and Gap Inc, staging a reversal of that brand’s fortunes, imbuing it with a genially cool new identity, launching Old Navy and Gap Kids and building its revenues from around $400m to $14.5bn, before being ousted in 2002 by his board. He is too modest to spell it out – at least in an interview with a journalist – but in the past seven-odd years he, along with the brilliant Lyons, head of men’s design Frank Muytjens and head of women’s design Tom Mora, has reinvented a brand that was in danger of permanent consignment to the catalogue-shopping memory bank of barn jackets, rollneck sweaters and other anti-fashion standards with which it had made its name in the late 1980s.

Tweed Ludlow suit: jacket, £396, and trousers, £220
Tweed Ludlow suit: jacket, £396, and trousers, £220

Lyons, who joined the company in 1990, describes Drexler as “the king of making something important”, citing those rash guards as an example of his acumen. “Sometimes he astounds me with what he picks up. But he will find the right interpretation. And to tell the truth I agree with him 95 per cent of the time.” Drexler by his own account works on instinct, but also ceaselessly solicits opinions – from editors, vendors and competitors to the receptionist on the ninth floor of company HQ. “Mickey doesn’t just talk to the senior team; he talks to everyone,” says Lyons. “If anything, he doesn’t want to hear from the senior team, he wants to know what the person who just started here thinks.”

Cotton cable jumper, £95
Cotton cable jumper, £95

J Crew’s mill partnerships are a particular passion of its top management. Among the key relationships with textile suppliers are Thomas Mason; Fox Brothers and Harris Tweed; elite Milanese textile house Larusmiani and Ratti, a printing mill in Como (which designed several silks and brocades for the ravishing autumn-winter women’s collection, inspired by a trip Mora took to Morocco). As with the In Good Company collaborations, they are tools deployed strategically in the J Crew story, nearly as fundamental to brand positioning as to product quality. “We try to find a niche where we don’t have the expertise, because it’s more generous and more honest to partner,” says Lyons of In Good Company. Sometimes there is no exclusively-for-J Crew product – the brand is just one that Drexler, or Lyons, or one of the team thinks dovetails with the company’s ethos. “I fell in love with Globetrotter, for instance,” says Drexler. “I saw a big yellow case in the Burlington Arcade [store]. I bought a bunch for myself; I have a collection in weird colours.” Before long, Globetrotter – indeed, that yellow case – featured in the In Good Company roster. “It was totally emotional – but fashion is emotional. We carry certain things because it feels good to live with them.”

Alden for J Crew leather long-wing bluchers, £450
Alden for J Crew leather long-wing bluchers, £450

In New York City, it also feels rather good to shop for them; for this is where J Crew has a handful of what it calls “jewel-box” stores – hand-designed, rigorously curated spaces showcasing the collections and collaborations, and another crucial tool in the J Crew positioning arsenal. “The J Crew of today isn’t the same in New York as it may be in Ohio,” says Lyons. “What we have in New York is a customer who’s very savvy, who has a lot of access to everything, and they expect a wider breadth.” Its upscale womenswear and menswear are sold separately from two elegant boutiques on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, all reclaimed oak floors, Moroccan Berber rugs and Serge Mouille lighting. Wallace & Barnes and the cream of the In Good Company men’s crop are gathered at one small and unique shop called the Liquor Store, on West Broadway, in a 19th-century house that stands like a relic amid the towering brick and cast-iron façades of Tribeca. The Ludlow suit was first retailed in its anteroom; its popularity grew so fast that by 2012 it required its own space, and The Ludlow Shop was born – a Rat-Pack cool store on Hudson Street, showcasing the suit and its affiliated haberdashery. At the Liquor Store, the shelves and vintage till remain on the original bar, as do the plank floors and old signage. In its studied un-sleekness, it is the anti-high street.

Wool/silk scarf, £66
Wool/silk scarf, £66

But “it’s really a reflection of who we are,” Drexler (whose personal passion for real estate and its acquisition is well documented) says of it, and by extension of the care with which the jewel-box stores are selected and curated. “You cannot separate your real estate from the personality of your business; it says so much about you… they’re small stores, but they position us in a way that’s beyond where we were [several years ago].” Throughout the spring in London, the J Crew team generated no small amount of buzz as they shopped from east to west in search of locations on this side of the Atlantic. From fashion’s point of view, these might be a more exciting rolling-out of the brand than will occur in Regent Street; they will be the place(s) where J Crew’s alchemic powers of identity-stating and taste-making will cohere most pleasingly. No one is more aware of this than the J Crew team themselves. “What do you think of Brompton Cross?” asks Drexler over breakfast at Sant Ambroeus on Madison. “What do you think of Chiltern Street?” says Lyons the next afternoon in her vast, preposterously chic office downtown. And the Charlotte Road? And Westbourne Grove? All agree that the neighbourhood, and the space, are paramount, and that the right ones will present themselves at the right time. As I write, Drexler has signed the lease on a menswear store in Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury (where it will fit in nicely: known for its independent traders, the street is home to Folk, Oliver Spencer and Private White PV – the latter a vintage-inspired menswear line over which Drexler had a love-at-first-sight moment, and which now sells at the Liquor Store and on jcrew.com).

Mougin & Piquard for J Crew chronograph watch, £588
Mougin & Piquard for J Crew chronograph watch, £588

With the debut of the Regent Street flagship in the autumn will come challenges – and opportunities – for the brand to tweak and finesse the J Crew experience for its British audience. In early spring, Drexler mentioned wanting to revisit some of the historic English In Good Company partnerships; Lyons tells me they are in the midst of figuring out what the UK catalogue will look like – “we haven’t landed that yet” – as well as speculating about further partnerships with British mills, and even the possibility of In Good Company exclusives for the London market. Will an analogue for the storied rash guard emerge on these shores? That remains to be seen; but this team is likely already looking for it.

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