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J.Crew’s sales have suffered for years. Now it’s trying a whole new look.

The new J.Crew looks suspiciously like Madewell, its more successful little sister brand.

J.Crew’s new product photography.

J.Crew is known as one of America’s foremost preppy brands. But after four years of plummeting sales — a downward trajectory that only ended in the most recent quarter — it unveiled a new look today in the hope of fully reviving shoppers’ interest. In fashion, a total image revamp can turn a stale brand into a soaring success, and the stakes for this much-teased overhaul are high: Loaded with debt, J.Crew has recently been ranking on business outlets’ lists of brands that are on the verge of bankruptcy.

In an effort to combat this, J.Crew’s design and marketing teams are rolling out a version of the brand that’s more wide-ranging than ever before, with the explicit purpose of appealing to as many people as possible. But going broad also has made J.Crew’s identity more diffuse: It looks more like every other clothing company on the market.

J.Crew’s fall from grace

In its early days, J.Crew was a destination for classic rugby shirts, chinos, and roll-neck pullovers. Its catalog, launched in 1983, depicted couples with sweaters slung over their shoulders and around their waists, and sun-tanned men wearing white button-downs, striped ties, and rolled-up khakis on the beach. During the mid-’00s, however, J.Crew transformed into a brand that was still preppy, but increasingly fashion-forward and quirky, with sequins highly encouraged for daytime use.

That look, pioneered and embodied by former J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons, was a smash hit until it wasn’t. Its greatest strength — it was so singular and clearly defined that you could spot it a mile away — also contributed to its downfall. Longtime J.Crew shoppers ultimately wanted something less edgy and trendy. Sizing and fit issues further alienated customers. Sales slid and kept sliding.

Lyons left her post in the spring of 2017, followed by Mickey Drexler, the CEO who engineered J.Crew’s reinvention during the aughts. His replacement, Brett, came from the Williams-Sonoma-owned home goods company West Elm. In June, Brett brought in a new design chief: Johanna Uurasjarvi, who had worked with him at West Elm and Anthropologie.

The departure of Lyons was cause for mourning among many J.Crew fans, even those who saw her exit as an inevitability, because she defined the style of the early 2010s. Uurasjarvi’s welcome has been more muted: She isn’t a well-known quantity, and her first designs won’t hit stores until fall 2019.

Models wear J.Crew, holding bunches of garlic and carrots.
Staffers from City Growers, a New York-based nonprofit, appear in J.Crew’s #MyCrew campaign, which launched September 10.

J.Crew’s new look is all about going broad

Even before the official relaunch, we’ve had some sense of what to expect from the new J.Crew. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in late August, CEO Jim Brett emphasized the brand’s mission to expand beyond its New England preppy past. The J.Crew of today is meant to offer something to everyone.

“You can’t be one price. You can’t be one aesthetic. You can’t be one fit,” said Brett, who was hired as J.Crew’s chief executive in June 2017.

With its relaunch, J.Crew is offering tailored herringbone blazers and striped button-downs for the traditionalists, flowery maxi skirts for the modern bohemian, and plush leopard coats for the Kate Moss admirers. J.Crew is aiming to hook as many shoppers as possible through the use of sub-brands, which vary by price point and vibe.

J.Crew is going for breadth. It’s uptown, downtown, trendy, and as classically casual as the Gap. (Indeed, one photo of three men wearing jeans, pullovers, and denim jackets could very well be a gap ad.) And that has the effect of making much of its merchandise feel very familiar, as though it’s summoning influences from all around the fashion world.

Three women wear jeans and denim shirts.
New imagery of J.Crew’s denim collection.

At times, J.Crew taps into the city-wise, French Girl-inflected aesthetic of Madewell, J.Crew’s little sister brand. A low-cut floral blouse worn with high-waisted denim makes for very Madewellian styling, and sweaters that say “Merci Beaucoup” and “Je t’aime NYC” recall French slogan pieces from Madewell’s collaborations with the Paris-based brand Sézane. In a T-shirt product shot, a J.Crew model wears a little red bandana around her neck, a styling trick that pops up in Madewell’s advertising.

Though Madewell is younger and more casual than J.Crew, the two have always shared some DNA. (They often use the same models.) But it makes sense that J.Crew would be borrowing more heavily from Madewell right now, because it’s the best thing that their parent company, J.Crew Group, has going for it. While J.Crew’s sales have slumped (by 5 percent in the second quarter of 2018), Madewell has been rocketing upward (by 29 percent during the same period) and is about to launch a men’s line.

Upper management is well aware of the extent to which Madewell can give J.Crew a boost: In February, the company said that it was starting to open Madewell shop-in-shops within J.Crew stores.

The J.Crew of today is less distinctive than it was before, and harder to define. That’s a tough pill to swallow from a critical perspective. But then again, J.Crew isn’t courting the fashion establishment anymore — Brett made that clear when he told the Wall Street Journal, “This brand should never show at New York Fashion Week.” The only thing that matters now is what customers think.

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