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At first glance, J. Crew is akin to the American phenomenon of preppy style: polo shirts, cashmere cardigans, and pleated skirts. It’s a look that was first spotted across the Ivy League universities and country clubs. Later on, brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger took the style and adopted it as their backbone. Noticing the attention this quintessentially modest look was gaining, Arthur Cinader founded J. Crew in 1983 and decided to lay its design foundation on just that. Till now, it strongly emphasizes its American identity as the First Family attends national gatherings clad in the brand’s pieces. Cue the entrance of the million-dollar question: will J. Crew find an embracing, loving, accepting home in the arms of the British whose style has often been described as eclectic, independent, and insouciant? Even with a long-standing tradition of monarch rulers and tea parties, the British have deviated from that as they have pinned down their style in cool mishmash and have proudly placed themselves on the opposite side of “preppy”. Over the years, not known to many, J. Crew has done exactly the same.
It would be quite surprising to find out that J. Crew started as an ugly duckling. Although the idea was there, it didn’t seem to translate very well into their merchandise. There were knitted cardigans and kitschy chinos all over the place. The clutter seemed to reflect the company’s waning spirit. Once strongly founded, now completely lost in the tricky scheme of business. The employees felt like waifs in a slump, the all-American vigor disappearing into thin air. On a day in January 2003, everything changed. The legend goes like this: Mickey Drexler, dismissed from GAP due to the plummeting stocks under his tenure, entered J. Crew and asked Jenna Lyons, who was then a designer’s assistant, to prune the entire clothing line. After doing so, nothing was left except a pair of skinny jeans. And then it began.
All that J. Crew needed was permission and that’s what Drexler gave them. After Lyons snipped away at all the clothing that didn’t feel right, Drexler passed the baton on to her and told her to design guided by intuition. What succeeded that request was a fashion fireball that had waited to be sparked; a flood hinging on an unlocked gate. Lyons head has been brimming with creative ideas that were bounded by corporate strategies for too long a time. All it required was someone to say, “Go ahead and do it.” Ever since then, fashion has never seen a tandem more perfect. They’re one of those rare sightings who know how to balance the two goals of fashion companies – “No financial decision weighs heavier than a creative decision. They are equal,” says Lyons. Now, J. Crew is at the height of its success with an annual revenue which has tripled to $2.2 billion since 2003.
But its transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan is wholly seen in the style it has propagated for legions of fashion aficionados to follow. Lyons wouldn’t call it preppy (trivia: she hates that word). In a beautiful stream of words, she encapsulates the brand’s aesthetic: “We love colorblocking and pattern mixing. We think it’s better to clash than to match. We like to break the rules and appreciate a good surprise. We temper tomboy with heels, high with low. We don’t believe there’s just one way to wear an outfit. For us, the magic is in the mix.” In her quirky signature, Lyons, along with Tom Mora and Frank Muytjens, has managed to evolve J. Crew’s identity by sewing a spirit of chic nonchalance in sophisticated classics. For them, it has never been about being uptight snobs in stiff clothing. The look lies in the intended, slightly undone imperfection that allured to people all over. Think navy tuxedo jackets paired with flat-front chinos, pink schoolboy blazers, Fair Isle sweaters tucked into python pencil skirts. It’s a winning formula that takes you by surprise.
Although doesn’t it all sound oddly familiar? The mix of high and low, boy and girl? Just look around you and everyone is living in it. The British have been known the world all over for being the ambassadors of rumbled perfection. Starting at the top of the style chain, Kate Moss has been dubbed as an icon for her look that is almost perfect but not quite which, by the way, is totally okay. She can exude sartorial knowledge in a classy emerald gown paired with, not a blush-dipped silk scarf, but a black leather jacket. Or take Alexa Chung and her kooky style that sculpted her staple presence in the fashion industry. She exudes individuality with a little white dress and a pair of oxford flats. Even the lay people of the style chain possess this eclectic gene. Only in the streets of Britain can you find such pairings: a divine camel coat with a punk-inspired scarf, a turquoise netted dress with lived-in Chuck Taylors, printed palazzo pants with a peplum top. The possibilities are endless.
Dare I say it: Beneath that American heritage, the seams of British inspiration pull J. Crew together, albeit unintentionally. It just happened naturally. After all, Jenna Lyons, the name that has become synonymous with J. Crew, finds her roots here. “My father is British and I spent all my summers in Surrey and London,” she reveals. The brand further reconnected with the inimitable British aesthetic in their 2012 campaign, “We Know You’re Out There”, where they highlighted individuals who hold a strong grasp on their personal style. Among the roster are two British leading stylemakers, according to J. Crew: Tank magazine’s Caroline Issa and Wonderland’s Julia Sarr-Jamois. For the Fall 2013 collection, Frank Muytjens looked to Cool Britannia for inspiration as he peppered the show with rusty denim jackets and patched gray sweatpants.
So when the company was looking into international expansion, it didn’t require any second thoughts. “London was an easy decision - it’s a place where people understand and respect the integrity of great style and great design,” said Drexler. With that goal in the bucket, J. Crew slowly seeped into the British consciousness. It started when they launched online in the U.K. last August 2011. And then came the Summer 2013 catalogs in May, being distributed in underground entrances all over. A few weeks later, J. Crew became more than just an elusive idea in our heads as it opened a pop-up store across Central Saint Martins, which offered a preview of their Moroccan-inspired Fall 2013 collection. It has been a process done step by step but in two months, its doors on 165 Regent Street will finally open to the fashion-hungry public. Their opening will be accompanied by a scholarship collaboration with Central Saint Martins to “underscore the brand’s commitment to nurture up-and-coming design talent.” Part of J. Crew’s success can be ascribed to their curator strategy, discovering designers who have a stylish aesthetic. Tapping into British potential marks the company’s belief in what the country can offer.
But is the love between the two reciprocal? The financial proof can only come once the Regent Street store begins its operations but as far as style inspiration is concerned, it was a match made in Fashion Heaven. Lyons says, “In our New York stores, we’ve had a lot of visitors coming from London wishing they had a J. Crew in London.” The attachment to the brand was always inevitable for the British. J. Crew fills that gaping hole between the excess of high-street stores and the unattainable price tag of luxury brands. More than that, J. Crew’s clothing understands the eclecticism of British style. When you find a brand that does that, cling on to it and hold it tight. A bit more patience, Londoners, the wait is almost over.