J. Crew Tinkers With Its All-American Look

By Duncan Goodwin

J. Crew has been synonymous with traditional American style since the company was founded in 1983 but is now changing its men’s line with “vintage” and “utilitarian” as a basis for design.

Starting off as a catalogue-only company, J. Crew opened its first store, at South Street Seaport in New York City, in 1989. That store remains open, though the company now calls its Fifth Avenue location the “Flagship Store”. These days, J. Crew has 242 retail stores (including nine Crewcuts and 17 Madewell, 78 factory stores and three clearance stores, according to its latest financial statements.) Even amid the recession, the company added stores, which provide about 70 percent of J. Crew’s revenue.

So why has this traditional American retailer decided to take a new approach?

Changes accelerated at J. Crew in 2003 when Millard Drexler, the former chief executive of The Gap, was named chief executive of the company. He then named Frank Muytjens, who was born in the Netherlands and had worked for Ralph Lauren and other American giants, as vice president of men’s design.

“Fashion is fashion,” says Tremaine Romeo, store director of J. Crew’s first Men’s Shop. “Just because it is Americana does not mean that it has to be designed by Americans. Italians are known for making great suits, but nobody wonders why people buy suits that aren’t Italian.”

Muytjens himself discussed the creation of the Men’s Shop on a New York Times blog, saying that he helped by “curating our line and by adding interesting one-off vintage pieces, as well as working on all the collaborations with third-party brands. Also finding vintage collections like pencil sharpeners, staplers and fans from the ’50s. In general, it’s making sure that our design philosophy is carried out all the way to the end.”

The Men’s Shop, at 484 Broadway just below Broome Street, sits between the newly opened Top Shop and Madewell, another J. Crew company geared solely toward women, close to the company’s headquarters in Greenwich Village. That makes it easy for Drexler and Muytjens to stop by and check on how the store is doing.

If the changes worry J. Crew loyalists, they will find the old J. Crew remains. Despite its new vintage feel, the retailer has not turned its back on tradition and still offers such classics as pique polos and button-ups. Romeo says the store is simply keeping up with trends, now selling such must-haves as Red Wing Boots and Belstaff jackets. Other items include Alden shoes, reissued Timex watches and vintage Rolexes.

Is J. Crew worried that these new, pricier items will drive some loyal consumers to competitors such as Ralph Lauren? No, says Romeo, because J. Crew basics are less expensive than those of major competitors like Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch.

J. Crew does not disclose earnings of individual stores, but the Fifth Avenue store seems busy, and many customers seem pleased to find $400 Quoddy boots and cashmere sweaters priced around $188 in one place. J. Crew has opened a similar men’s store at the Garden State Plaza, in New Jersey, and there is talk of more to come.

If J. Crew can grow during a recession, as many other retailers are struggling, it has reason to optimistic.

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