Bankruptcy gives J.Crew a chance to reinvent itself (again)

May 4, 2020, 4:54 PM UTC

The year 2020 started out promisingly enough for J.Crew, the apparel retailer that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Monday.

J.Crew Group finally found a new CEO in January in Jan Singer, a former executive at Nike and Victoria’s Secret, filling a corner office that had been empty for 14 months. Its namesake brand, once enormously successful but in decline for years, seemed to finally be stabilizing if not quite thriving. And there was appetite for the planned spin-off of Madewell, its smaller but booming sister brand, that would improve its finances.

But the mass store closings that the pandemic imposed on mall-based chains like J.Crew and Madewell pushed the highly indebted private-equity owned company over the edge financially.

The Chapter 11 filing, which calls for J.Crew to continue to operate as before, will remove the debt albatross from J.Crew Group’s neck by turning it into equity, and give the troubled but still beloved company something it really needs: a clean slate to reinvent itself after years of turmoil.

But that will be no small task. J.Crew the brand spent the last decade—long before the coronavirus showed up and eroded the brick-and-mortar retail industry—confusing shoppers with a grab-bag of aesthetics, garments of inconsistent quality, and a stale store experience.

J. Crew won hordes of loyal shoppers well into the 2010s by offering well-made staples like coats, pencil skirts, dresses, and suit jackets with just enough style, quirk, and flair to stand out from The Gap and other competitive chains. Jenna Lyons, J.Crew’s former creative director, helped turned the brand into one of the most popular fashion chains and became a style icon herself. It became a go-to brand for First Lady Michelle Obama during the previous White House administration. In 2011, J. Crew became the first mass brand to present at New York Fashion Week.

But that led J.Crew too far down the fashion road, with many items becoming seen as exorbitant, particularly in women’s wear: too pricey for its core customer, but not really high fashion, leaving J.Crew in the hazy space in between. One example: odd appliqués like real suede elbow patches on a cotton long-sleeved t-shirt or other touches that forced wearers to send a simple t-shirt out for dry cleaning.

By 2014, those cracks were starting to show in J.Crew’s business, and sales began to fall. J.Crew also missed big new trends like the rise of athleisure, the term for casual athletic clothing popularized by Lululemon Athletica. J.Crew was hit by many of the same pressures that buffeted rivals like Abercrombie & Fitch and The Gap, such as reduced shopper visits to malls, an abundance of choice in the market, and a shopper addiction to discounts. The rise of e-commerce, which requires a new approach to logistics, came on top of it all.

Reacting to the onslaught, J.Crew fell deep into the discounting trap and lost its Midas touch for knowing what customers wanted. Lyons departed in 2017. Mickey Drexler, the retail icon and “King of Cool” who was J.Crew CEO from 2003 to 2017, departed the company’s board last year. Meanwhile the brand continued to confuse customers by expanding its lower-price factory outlets and drumming up plans to sell merchandise on Amazon, which it later dropped. (The J.Crew band operates 170 outlet stores—almost as many as its regular stores, which total 182. There are 140 Madewell locations.)

Through it all, J.Crew has never resolved its key contradiction: positioning itself as quasi-luxury (it started selling some J.Crew and Madewell items at Nordstrom in 2016, but even those products are often on sale) while resorting to discounting tactics. Look no further than its men’s suit business for a case in point: Its high-quality Ludlow suits, some made in Italy and costing $1,000, for years were never discounted. Over the last year, the suits were frequently on sale or otherwise presented in a less thoughtful manner in stores.

Post-bankruptcy, J.Crew has an opportunity to clarify the chain’s point of view and underscore what the brand stands for in a sea of alternatives. The current economic environment will make that task exceedingly difficult. Consumers have stopped waiting to see what J.Crew will offer next; it must first stir the customer emotions that led the brand to its once-great heights.

“J.Crew’s products are not terrible in either quality or design. However, ranges are same-y and lack the embellishments and twists of more contemporary brands that would allow them to stand out,” says Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “The consequence of this is that a growing number of shoppers see J. Crew as both boring and bad value for money and refuse to pay full price for garments.”

With J.Crew no longer the cultural touchstone it was only a few years ago, that perception will be ever harder to overcome. But at least it won’t be drowning in debt anymore.

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