The news that J.Crew filed for bankruptcy has reverberated through the fashion and retail industries since it was announced on Monday. There has been lots of debate on the brand’s decline, which has been evident for several years.
There are also threads of nostalgia for J Crew’s heyday, from a small following that remains loyal, even if only in a passive way. The bankruptcy news has brought forth memories of better days, like how the brand’s color-saturated sweaters and skirts lit up a room when Michelle Obama wore them as First Lady, or how former creative director Jenna Lyons showed multiple generations of women that they could wear a denim jacket with an evening gown (a game changer for wedding attendees around the world).
But the retailer cannot dwell in the past, and its massive debt load is something it must contend with quickly if it wants to move forward. That will certainly mean store closures of a portion of its 181 namesake stores (plus its outlet doors and Madewell stores), just one part of the restructuring plans it aims to finalize in the next four months.
If that plan is approved in bankruptcy negotiations and J.Crew is allowed to move forward, it will then face the task of how to, once again, reinvent itself. Here are seven strategic ways that the American brand could position itself for the future.
1. Lean into lounge and activewear right now
In recent years, the brand has seemed conspicuously averse to the new vernacular of lounge, street and activewear — but the realities of the pandemic have put a bigger spotlight on this misstep. In merchandising, a refocus on these categories (plus a retooling of its once-popular pajama category) could help to more immediately resonate with dormant clients whose at-home lifestyles aren’t likely to change in the near future. Competition in the category is fierce, but it is the new reality.
2. Retrain customers on pricing
Any J.Crew customer who still gets the brand’s e-mails have come to expect markdowns. Retraining customers to expect steady prices is not an easy task, but less promotions-driven marketing, timelier drops and and more limited-edition items could help to move the needle.
3. More quality control
A renewed commitment on the quality of pieces across the board — from suiting to sweatshirts and everything in between — would further help to reactivate its customers, who have recently taken to reviews to complain about the diminishing quality of staple items (like its women’s chino short or men’s button downs).
4. Hire a diverse group of creatives with a new point of view on “preppy”
Just as other brands have had to reckon with their lack of diversity, so, too, must J.Crew. While the retailer has consistently featured models of color in its catalogs and campaigns, the effort has been limited to that superficial gesture. The brand could become more inclusive by hiring a creative director of color and/or tapping minority creatives as guest designers and stylists to work with the brand’s head of women’s design Chris Benz and others at the company reimagine just what “preppy” (a term that comes with historical connotations of whiteness) means in 2020 and how inclusive it could be.
5. Find new faces — and yes, influencers — to take the brand further into the digital world
Sure, J.Crew has worked with influencers, but not in a major way that’s felt fresh or meaningful. As more consumers look for a real-world, gloss-less view during the pandemic, the brand could explore an aesthetic that feels less catalog-photo-focused, working with new partners to give a different point of view. Exploring new digital spaces like virtual events could also help (as it has for competitors like Levi’s). It must also recreate the Michele Obama effect of the Could Meghan Markle’s Markle Sparkle be the answer? The Duchess of Sussex, having recently relocated back to Los Angeles, is currently looking for new projects.
6. Dive back into collaborations
Back in the 2010s, J.Crew had an ongoing series of collaborations called In Good Company that was successful in introducing its customers to different brands. It did especially well in the footwear category, giving a new audience to brands from Red Wing to Sophia Webster and solidifying a long-term partnership with New Balance. It’s been unclear lately if the collaborations project still exists, but a relaunch — with relevant, digital-savvy brands — could help to inject some excitement into its image. A rotation of brands with limited-edition items could also keep things feeling fresh.
7. Develop sustainable basics
This seems like a no-brainer given fashion’s gradual move into more sustainable practices. Some would argue that it may resonate less in the short term, as eco-friendly initiatives have taken a backseat during the pandemic. Still others would argue that the brand is already too late to the sustainability and customers might see new efforts as less than genuine. But fashion’s climate crisis is not going anywhere, and for J.Crew to establish its bread-and-butter basics like t-shirts and shorts as eco-friendly categories (recycled cotton is an easy start) could establish more respect in the long term. And in the sustainability game, something is always better than nothing.