Has the great fashion experiment at J. Crew come to an end?
On Monday, the downward spiral of the company that catapulted to trend-setting prominence on the back of Michelle Obama claimed its highest-profile head with the news that Jenna Lyons, officially president and executive creative director of the brand, and unofficially its public face, would be leaving.
The parting was a mutual decision by Ms. Lyons and Millard S. Drexler, the J. Crew chairman and chief executive. She will continue as a creative adviser to the company until her contract runs out in December, but will not be officially replaced.
Instead, Somsack Sikhounmuong, head of women’s design, will become chief design officer, with responsibility for women’s wear, men’s wear and children’s wear (Crewcuts). Unlike Ms. Lyons, however, he will not oversee brand image, store design or marketing. He and other creative teams will report directly to Mr. Drexler.
In other words, there isn’t going to be one primary design vision in charge of all the aesthetic aspects of the brand. Mr. Drexler has talked about a return to core principles at J. Crew, which may include a return to a more anonymous design team as Mr. Sikhounmuong has so far remained resolutely in the background. That doesn’t really sound like a big deal, until you start thinking about its implications — especially when it comes to the accessible, mass-market end of the spectrum.
After all, many would say it’s about time that Ms. Lyons left. J. Crew has been battling a two-year sales slump and is carrying a debt load of $2 billion, some of which will become current in 2018, prompting heightened speculation from investment analysts and news outlets of a possible bankruptcy filing. Same-store sales (purchases in stores that have been open more than a year, a gauge that eliminates the effect of new store openings on sales tallies) have fallen in 11 of the past 12 quarters. Last year, J. Crew shut its bridal business. And last month, the company, which is backed by the private equity firms TPG Capital and Leonard Green & Partners, reported that revenue fell 2 percent, to $695 million, during the three months to Jan. 28. Something isn’t working.
Whispers about the need for design change at the brand began in 2015, when Tom Mora, head of women’s design, was fired and Mr. Sikhounmuong was moved up from his design role at Madewell, the hipper, younger (and growing) brand under the J. Crew umbrella. Yet for most consumer brands, of which J. Crew is one, the designer is almost beside the point; a leader whose name most consumers never know. (Does the Gap have a creative face? L.L. Bean? Target? Ann Taylor? Theory?) Rather, it’s the merchant who matters.
But J. Crew was different.
The company achieved its initial turnaround in part by taking the tools of high fashion and applying them to the mass market. Including — especially — making the designer the embodiment of the brand as a shortcut to authenticity and attitude.
When Mr. Drexler joined J. Crew in 2003, it was effectively a catalog company with some stores that sold preppy staples. He found, buried in the creative team, a young woman named Jenna Lyons. And he had the brilliant idea — because that’s what it was — of transforming her from a cog in the company wheel into its avatar, à la Phoebe Philo at Céline or Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.
Ms. Lyons — tall, gangly, with a broad grin and thick-framed nerd glasses — put the human factor into generally faceless, accessible fashion. Her geek-chic quirkiness, which mixed camouflage and sequins for day, and denim and taffeta for evening, all of it layered with big costume jewelry, was a model not just for those she worked with, but also for her customers: “Jenna’s picks” were publicized in the catalog and on the website; she was photographed at home in Park Slope, Brooklyn (and later, post-divorce, at home in SoHo); she once appeared in a catalog shoot painting her young son’s toenails pink.
She went where no similar brand had gone before: not just to the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was widely photographed on the red carpet mixing feathered ball gowns and crew-neck sweaters (and, last year, with Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner of “Girls” both channeling Ms. Lyons’s look), but also into the pages of Vogue, and finally to New York Fashion Week itself, as J. Crew held presentations in the official collection venues. She was an accessible personality whose lifestyle J. Crew customers could, and did, aspire to buy into.
It all culminated in the White House, after Mrs. Obama’s callout to J. Crew on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” during the 2008 presidential campaign, a moment orchestrated by Ikram Goldman, proprietor of the high-fashion Chicago boutique Ikram, who at that time was working with Mrs. Obama on her wardrobe. After that election, Malia and Sasha Obama also wore custom-made J. Crew to their father’s swearing-in, while the first lady added J. Crew gloves to her Isabel Toledo coat and dress. Mrs. Obama wore J. Crew on her first state visit, to Britain (an embellished cardigan and mint-green gingham pencil skirt), as well as to the second inauguration (gloves and belt with a Thom Browne coat). Among other appearances.
J. Crew’s woes can to a certain extent be attributed to the same malaise that has hit many of its peers, including Gap Inc., which is also suffering because of growing competition from even-cheaper fast-fashion competitors and an excess of brick-and-mortar stores. But those problems can also be traced to the great fashion experiment.
The trendsetting style element, exciting as it could be, created added confusion: How fashion-forward could a mass-market retailer be? How quirky was too quirky? What happened when people had enough sequins and needed to get serious? Could they look beyond the buzz? Was it expensive or affordable? Where did J. Crew belong?
In the end, consumers couldn’t be bothered with the answers. They just went elsewhere. And the face of the brand became the symbol of its fall.
It’s hard to ignore the lesson.