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Why J.Crew Stole Madewell's Head Designer

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J.Crew

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J.Crew announced a major shakeup of its design team yesterday. As part of a 175-job layoff, the massive retailer said goodbye to head women's designer Tom Mora, replacing him with Somsack Sikhounmuong, who comes internally from the lead design role at sister brand Madewell.

This is something of a coming home for Sikhounmuong, who designed accessories and then apparel for 12 years at J.Crew before being shifted to head design for Madewell. His first collection for the significantly smaller, millennial-focused brand hit stores spring 2014. In that fiscal year, Madewell posted a 35% sales increase, while J.Crew grew just 4%.

During his time with the brand, Sikhounmuong fine-tuned what Madewell looked like in relation to J.Crew. Before he came on board, the brand resembled a freshman-year version of J.Crew; with skater skirts subbed for midi styles and shrunken field jackets for jean jackets, but the formulaic stripe/polka dot/floral print mixes kept intact.

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Madewell spring 2013 and fall 2013, before Sikhoumong. Photos: Madewell

Sikhoumuong gave the Madewell girl edge, showing her slouchier jeans, boxier coats, and more than one way to wear a jumpsuit. The sophisticated look was easy to identify in campaigns, too: fall 2014 was shot on 38-year-old model Malgosia Bela, photographed in Paris. Silhouettes juxtaposed oversize tops with skinny bottoms, sometimes with heels and sometimes with sneakers. The designer explained the brand's evolution at a walkthrough of the spring 2015 collection, saying, "We had a loyal fanbase, and it's about maintaining that, not having them outgrow us. We're making things less trendy, more classics-based. The kinds of things you'd save and wear as you got older—less fussy."

Madewell fall 2014, under Sikhoumong's direction. Photo: Driely S. for Racked

Denim has been a huge focus for both Madewell and J.Crew in recent years, with the later launching its own premium, made-in-America jeans label, Point Sur. Pieces from that offshoot, which retail for nearly double what J.Crew Denim asks, have worked their way into the brand's well-covered New York Fashion Week presentations.

Meanwhile, Madewell relocated its denim designers to LA ("the world capital for jeans," J.Crew Group CEO Mickey Drexler declared) in mid-2013, adding 47 styles to the line a year later. Earlier this year, Sikhoumoung told us that flares were surpassing sales expectations, especially in light washes, as were overalls (so, naturally, he married the two into a pair of flared overalls for fall 2015). Drexler says he wants Madewell to be "the Levi's of its generation."

The success in the profitable world of denim, and the overall growth of the company at large, couldn't have been missed by Drexler, who has a soft spot for Madewell (he famously purchased the 1937-founded brand himself, leasing it to J.Crew Group for $1 per year before it was absorbed into the company). In a recent New York Times feature, it was revealed that as soon as J.Crew's sales are back up, Drexler will be allowed to hone in on Madewell. He clearly sees what Sikhoumoung's savvy has done for Madewell and entrusts him to do the same for J.Crew.

At Madewell, Sikhoumoung brought boyish-cool to a formerly twee brand, and it worked. J.Crew's audience is a lot broader, in all terms: age, geography, and sheer numbers (J.Crew still raked in $2 billion last year, while Madewell ended at $245 million). We don't expect a duplication of his Madewell aesthetic at J.Crew, but wouldn't be surprised if some of the feathers, sequins, and super-saturated colors dissipate in favor of menswear fabrics, weighty knits, and, of course, great jeans.


A look at Madewell's evolution under Somsack: