When the news that J. Crew would be filing for bankruptcy began circulating earlier this week, I had a sudden, surprising realization.
I wasn’t surprised that the company may be shutting down — there are undoubtedly many retailers edging closer to the financial abyss amid COVID-19.
I was surprised to realize that, after doing a mental inventory of my wardrobe, that I don’t own a single item of their clothing.
And let’s be clear about one thing: J. Crew was created for guys like me.
‘Suits and sneakers, that chino life, classic button-downs . . . we’ll always be true to the things are just #sojcrew,” the company’s most recent menswear campaign read, sounding almost wistful with nostalgia for the days when it was a staple for men of almost every age but only those with a certain kind of taste.
This quasi-eulogy for the brand in the Washington Post summed up the brand’s aesthetic quite nicely:
The company struck a happy medium: less staid than Brooks Brothers, with more flavor than the Gap. It was more relatable than Dior but not a caricature like Abercrombie & Fitch. Most of all, it provided all its “elevated” basics under one roof and at affordable, mid-tier prices.Derek Guy , Put This On and Die, Workwear.
The problem is that, thanks in part to globalization, the definition of “mid-tier” prices had changed. This has affected Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic too, but perhaps J. Crew most of all.
Whenever I shopped at J. Crew, for example — and I visited its stores semi-regularly — I always felt I was seeing something I could get for just a little cheaper (and roughly the same quality) at Winners or Marshalls.
Even if you have certain preppy leanings (and I do), meanwhile, there are elements of it available across so many other brands. Want a more European take on preppiness? You can go to Zara. Want an argyle sweater that will look good with sweatpants? You’d probably find it at H&M. Want something a little more polished and snooty? There’s always Club Monaco.
J. Crew’s challenges may also reflect that men, in general, have gotten more selective about fashion and want to feel they are making deliberate choices rather than putting on a uniform. Back in 2017, an article in the New Yorker was already seeing the signs that may have led the brand to its troubles today:
“The most striking thing about the store was, for lack of a better term, its pervasive, all-encompassing J. Crewness. Every item—critter shorts, pocket squares, the Frankie sunglasses—represented a facet of a familiar, imagined life,” the article said. “The names of the products—the Ludlow and Crosby jackets for men; the Rhodes and Maddie pants and Campbell and Regent blazers for women—fixed J. Crew in a certain place and milieu. Once, this was comforting. Now it felt odd to be told by a company that I was, or wanted to be, a certain kind of person. I didn’t want to be a member of the J. Crew Crew, or any crew.”
In that sense, the J. Crew sensibility had been perfected to such an extent that it seemed almost frozen in time — a set of costumes rather than clothing that could reflect individual self-expression. It was just all . . . #sojcrew.
Though some have suggested J. Crew and similar retailers may find life after bankruptcy, its spirit has been disseminated so widely that the preppy look is now standardized.
What I think most men would look for instead is a variation on J. Crew attire — a Ludlow suit made of better materials, a J. Crew-style rep tie in colors J. Crew would never have produced, or chinos that recall J. Crew’s roots but fit in a way that reimagines them for the slouchier, athleisure-driven modality of the year 2020.
Instead of shrugging off J. Crew’s news as just another fashion industry casualty, therefore, this is a brand that deserves a heartfelt salute. This Instagram post does it better than I could, so I’ll end it here: