Think about your local mall when you were a teenager. There was the Claire’s, where you could buy ten items for $10, the Auntie Anne’s, where you could refuel with pretzel bites after spending your hard-earned babysitting money and, of course, there was the J.Crew which, depending on your parents’ tax bracket, was either where you shopped for clothes or where you window-shopped for clothes.
The company’s fascinating history is documented in The Kingdom of Prep: The Inside Story of the Rise (and Near Fall) of J.Crew, a new book by fashion journalist Maggie Bullock (Vogue, Elle).
J.Crew was established in 1983 by Arthur Cinader as a mail-order retailer. Cinader sought to sell products that were more stylish than L.L.Bean but more reasonable than Ralph Lauren. To do so, he played to his would-be customers’ penchant for legacy—even if it was a lie—writing in the first catalogue that, “The heritage of J. Crew weekend clothes is 100 years of outfitting rugby, lacrosse and crew.” In reality, Cinader had no experience as a clothier and J.Crew was run out of an unglamorous warehouse in New Jersey.
Nevertheless, it became a massive success. But Cinader (and his daughter, Emily Scott, who joined the company fresh out of college and was largely responsible for molding its image for years) were insistent on growing slowly, even as similar brands like Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy launched into rapid brick-and-mortar expansion. By the ‘90s, J.Crew was lagging behind, and Cinader and his family sold almost 90 percent of the company to a private equity firm. Said firm brought in a string of CEOs who did usher in expansion but didn’t seem particularly interested in honoring or maintaining the brand’s DNA.
Enter Mickey Drexler and Jenna Lyons, whose partnership as CEO and womenswear director, respectively, helped J.Crew reach new heights in the 2000s—including in 2009 when, at Barack Obama’s inauguration, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama all wore pieces from the brand. (J.Crew’s website crashed the following day from all the traffic.)
The Kingdom of Prep is equal parts fashion history, business book and cultural commentary, with Bullock’s personal ties to the brand adding a nice touch. (She writes specifically about borrowing a friend’s J.Crew sweater at prep school and feeling, for the first time, like she belonged.) Even if you wouldn’t be caught dead in chinos embroidered with lobsters or a button-down shirt with feathers pluming from the sleeves and hem, it’s a compelling read about the intersection of fashion, business and identity.
As for where J.Crew is headed next? Bullock argues that it will never be the same as it was in its heyday, largely because consumers will never be the same as they were in the ‘80s, ‘90s and even 2000s. She writes that she can’t imagine how any single retailer could ever be the American brand again, because “there is no one idea of what it is to look ‘American’ anymore. Nor is there one way to look cool, or It. Thank goodness.”