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A customer walks into a clothing retailer J.Crew store in Manhattan, New York, March 3, 2014. An acquisition of the preppy J.Crew by Fast Retailing could fit snugly between its Uniqlo basics and more upmarket Theory brands, but the Japanese clothing firm is likely to balk at the $5 billion price tag J.Crew is said to be asking for. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SOCIETY) - GM1EA340A0F01
Reuters/Mike Segar
J.Crew is getting a new look.
GREEN SHOOTS

Hey look, a sign of new life at J.Crew

By Marc Bain

Last June, J.Crew marked the end of an era. The company announced the departure of Mickey Drexler, the longtime CEO who guided the American brand through its stunning rise in the mid-2000s and recent fall.

The new CEO, Jim Brett, entered with a daunting challenge. He had to engineer a revival at a brand that seemed chronically unable to get it together. Quarter after quarter saw more bad news and falling sales. A year on, as the changes take hold and J.Crew gears up for a brand relaunch in September, it’s showing the first tiny signs of new life.

In its recent quarter, J.Crew reported that sales at stores open a year or more rose 1%. It’s not a staggering increase, but it is the first growth in the important measure for the J.Crew brand in four years. Brett called it a “watershed moment” in a statement.

The company’s turnaround plan includes expanding its work-appropriate fashion, ditching seasonally inspired collections, expanding the sizes it offers, and lowering prices. The Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) that Brett’s efforts dropped the starting cost of J.Crew’s classic t-shirts to $14.50, down from $29.50 last year, for instance.

It’s not entirely clear yet whether the return to growth owes more to these early efforts or to external factors. A strong US economy and surging consumer confidence (paywall) have been driving record results at a number of retailers. Urban Outfitters, for example, just saw its highest growth in eight years at stores open a year or more. J.Crew’s 1% rise is a positive sign, but the company had a very strong tailwind helping it along.

The upcoming Sept. 10 relaunch will see a more substantial transformation of the brand while it pulls back from the higher priced, more adventurous fashion it veered toward years back. On a call with investors yesterday (Aug. 28), Brett talked about how the J.Crew label is going, in a sense, from one to many, as it tries to do a better job of differentiating its products and targeting different customers.

J.Crew will still have the New England prep it was founded on, but it will also have a collection, called Point Sur, with a bohemian California feel in muted colors. The Mercantile line, once only to be found in its outlet stores, will enter J.Crew stores generally as a low-cost option. There will also be new J.Crew sub-brands for tailored clothes, such as suiting, and even a fashion-forward label. As Business of Fashion points out in a story on the relaunch (paywall), Brett spent years at Urban Outfitters, where the brands are designed around customer archetypes rather than seasons.

“We must reflect the America of today, which is significantly more diverse than the America of 20 years ago,” Brett told the Journal. “You can’t be one price. You can’t be one aesthetic. You can’t be one fit.”