J.Crew Gets Its Man

This story originally appeared in the ACL Newsletter. Subscribe here.

The news this week that Noah’s Brendon Babenzien has been named the men’s creative director has generated a lot of press. This is a pretty big get for J.Crew at this point and I think it checks a lot of boxes for the vertical retailer. There are also a lot of unknowns that will take some time to play out.

I should say that Brendon is talented and I like him a lot. While Noah is not necessarily something I personally wear, I appreciate the brand’s point of view and generally like the product. The brand partnerships Brendon has done at Noah and while at Supreme are obviously great so the expectations are high with that going forward, but J.Crew will need to do a lot to win back the trust of customers.

The company has execute first with design, but also when it comes to product quality. The sheer size of the brand makes it difficult for any one person to effectively revive. That’s something I learned while working with Club Monaco. When you run ideas through a brand’s bureaucracy things get diluted at every step and when they come out the other side everything is vastly different than originally imagined. That being said, the best time to work for a brand is when it acknowledges that it needs help. Those are the moments when real change can happen. This is an exciting opportunity for someone like Brendon who we know has a proven point-of-view and taste level. 

Generally speaking I’m not really into “hype” brands or streetwear person on even the most basic level. Noah is more mainstream than other streetwear brands, but there are probably a lot of people like me who have a hard time connecting with streetwear culture generally. If that’s where J.Crew is headed it doesn’t seem like it will work. Personally, my preferences typically center on crusty old brands that are bad marketers and exhibit obliviousness whenever possible. Young consumers seem very interested in streetwear and being marketed to, so maybe J.Crew is betting on those people being the future of the brand? The thinking could be that Brendon’s appreciation for classic menswear will gel with the existing customers like me and there will be something for everyone.

Theres an obvious benefit of Brendon understanding what moves the culture of today. Hopefully J.Crew will also still be committed (to some degree) to the classic design from the past that many of us are still looking for.

Another factor here is the fact that Noah has never been afraid to take a position on social or environmental issues which is something younger consumers expect (for better or worse depending on what you think about brands speaking out like that). Just thinking from a sustainability standpoint if Brendon furthers what J.Crew has begun doing on that front it would undoubtedly be important for the brand’s future. To me this seems like a key factor for the brand long term. So that’s another box to check for Brendon.

Is it time for J.Crew to move on from traditional prep culture? In ancient times when I started this newsletter one of the first things I wrote about was J.Crew’s need to shed the old concept of aspirational American preppy lifestyle and focus on evolving the brand. Most people don’t find that idea of that aspirational prep lifestyle actually aspirational anymore. A shift by Brendon towards “classic American style” that is more diverse and less literal would help the brand shed a lot of baggage. At this point prep isn’t a lifestyle it’s just an aesthetic. It’s time to move on from old prep forever. The Official Preppy Handbook author Lisa Birnbach and I spoke about this as well

Ultimately these values matter and Brendon’s place in the industry and connection with the fashion media is important. My big question is can this be relevant to the people beyond the coasts? It seems like Noah does have some degree of following throughout America and not just in NYC. Streetwear brands are seemingly adored everywhere thanks to Instagram, YouTube and other internet culture so there’s definitely a case for Brendon knowing what a new generation of J.Crew customers would want. Supreme certainly figured out how to make almost everyone like it. If this is going to work it has to extend more broadly beyond the endemic fashion community and the streetwear world to reach a much broader market. J.Crew is a big brand that does a lot of volume. It needs more than just one segment of consumers to be successful. 

As for what kind of guy wears or will wear J. Crew, he responded, “I don’t think it’s as simple as picking a type. The world is evolving. People will surprise you all day, every day. We’ll embrace this reality and focus on giving all guys the best-quality and -designed product we can create. From there, we will focus on encouraging people to be creative with their choices and focus on their individual style.”via WWD

The values are important, but the product has to really be great. That’s what had us shopping at J.Crew in 2010. To me J.Crew is about the things you need for your everyday life. In the Mickey/Todd/Frank era there was an emphasis on materials, the fit, how it was all styled and then right 3rd party collaborations. All of those guys are product people and not just brand people. At the end of the day, we all are just looking for good chinos and the other basics that make up the majority of our closet. We need something between Uniqlo (with no personality) and Ralph Lauren (with perhaps slightly too much personality). J.Crew is perfectly positioned to be that brand if there’s a focus on product and quality. It also needs to evolve as a brand to be more modern. That seems like something Brendon can do in his sleep. The challenge will be to make stuff we are excited about and want to buy. I think he can do it, but it’s not going to be easy.

Brendon’s good instincts and taste will certainly crank up the cool factor at J.Crew, but I think ultimately the product needs to be the reason we all love the brand. We won’t see Brendon’s first product until the second half of 2022 so change isn’t going to happen quickly, but I’m optimistic about the future. Seems like everyone on LinkedIn is too

Comments on “J.Crew Gets Its Man

    Brent Mackintosh on May 19, 2021 1:00 PM:

    I enjoyed J Crew for basics, like v neck merino sweaters that won’t pill, shorts that I can wear until they become threads, and special Alden/JCrew collaboration wingtips. There was a period when all of the Crew’s shirts, pants etc were suddenly fitting way too tight to appeal to the younger crowd, though still maintaining their Ivy roots. I am glad they veered off that path but don’t want them to jump into a street style mode. Dudes over 50 also enjoy clothing and need style without looking like they are going through a mid-life crisis. Crew, Press, Drake’s and others fill that need…Noah not so much.

    Timothy M. Rush on May 19, 2021 1:22 PM:

    Noah is…fine. I have never bought anything from supreme because I’m not a label hypebeast. I used to love Crew but quality has dived. The only collab i really loved was Filson and Harris Tweed – so just a random series of collabs aren’t that interesting now. Now I buy Engineered Garments (better quality, cooler design, but much more $$) and Alex Mill. lets wait and see.

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