To stay relevant and solvent, the preppy clothing brand J. Crew has tried on some looks over the past several years, dabbling in studded tartan prints, daytime sequins, faux fur, and radically proportioned wide-legged pants you’d sooner expect from a fast-fashion house.
But it has never completely abandoned the core of its brand: innocuous business-casual attire, including suits one could wear daily without anyone noticing, and job-interview basics. There’s even a perennial sheath named “Résumé.” (It’s dull, but possibly cute with the right accessories?)
Now, responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, J. Crew has embraced its purest essence, turning out pinstriped reusable face masks in “banker blue hydrangea.” (Apparently, there had been a gingham version too, and it has since sold out.)
The website, as of May 1, offers a mix of striped and basic pale blue at the democratic price of $18 for a pack of three, with a shipping date six weeks away. Purchases are limited to two packs per person.
The company announced the mask sales on Instagram earlier this week.
Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times recently asserted that coronavirus face masks should be symbols of solidarity, not markers of identity or status. However, as she also acknowledged, we can’t seem to help ourselves: tell us that we must wear masks to play our role in controlling a pandemic, and we see an opportunity to promote a narrative. “The mask becomes the first signifier of the individual. And that means it will also become a sign of aspiration, achievement—and inequality,” she writes.
Arguably, the masks from J. Crew manage to slip this debate. They’re anti-statement in their un-fussiness, while clearly appealing to quarantined men and women who miss disappearing into tribes of midtown professionals pouring out office towers at lunch, looking for the nearest salad bar. (In other words, they’re dull, but possibly cute with the right outfit?) They have arrived in time to coincide with more serious conversations about what it would take to get would-be cubicle dwellers back to work.
Fashion retail sales have plunged over the past two months, ever since stay-at-home orders were issued across North America and Europe. Plenty of clothing retailers have retooled their factories to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, including Gap, along with J. Crew’s even preppier, more expensive competitor Brooks Brothers.
The few labels that have sold masks to the public have been careful to link the transaction to a social mission. J. Crew stated on on its website that it has also donated 75,000 single-use masks to Montefiore Health System hospitals in New York.
However, masks sales can’t rescue a brand, especially one that had already been struggling before the virus changed the way we lived. That includes J. Crew—which is reportedly on the verge of filing for bankruptcy.