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Growing Up With — and Away From — J.Crew

I’ve watched its evolution as both an employee and a devoted fan.

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J.Crew and I are the same age. I wasn’t aware of this fact about us until 2010, but it feels like I should have always known. In my sillier, more fanciful moments, I think that our shared age is more than a coincidence.

In the late ’90s, I interviewed at my local J.Crew store the summer before my junior year of high school. I spent most of the group interview wondering if my Birkenstock knock-offs were the right choice and staring at my feet, the latter likely part of the reason I wasn’t asked back. But in the late fall of 2009, when I sat down for another interview at the same location, my footwear choice was the only thing that I was sure about. I was over a year into full unemployment, a state which had sent me crawling back to Boston from New York City and now found me outlining the long history that J.Crew and I shared to a stranger. I turned my interview charm up to full blast to distract from the desperation wafting off of me and was rewarded at the end of it all with a holiday sales associate position.

J.Crew has been in the news a fair amount for most of this century. At first, it was for positive reasons. There was the turnaround from near-bankruptcy, headed by the entrance of one Millard "Mickey" Drexler. And near the previous decade’s end came the unofficial endorsement of the now-former first lady Michelle Obama. J.Crew wasn't the only American brand to benefit from the visibility of being worn by Obama — Jason Wu instantly comes to mind — but it was the most easily accessible. From the mall locations to the website to the catalog to, for a time, the price point, J.Crew was in a unique position that allowed it to spin this publicity into almost-instant gold.

It would be too simple, and a disservice to the brand, to place all of the credit for J.Crew's highest highs at the former first lady’s feet, but for me, that Pembridge-dot pencil skirt marked the beginning of its moment. But moments pass, and in fashion they often disappear quickly and violently.

On the bench that day, I ran through the highlights of our shared history. The button-front corduroy mini skirt that I bought for the first day of my last year of high school from that very location. The camel crewneck sweater belonging to my mother that was likely purchased when the company was still catalog-based; I borrowed it at the age of 16 and never returned it to her. The tweed peacoat that became drenched in cheap champagne during a collegiate rite of passage and froze on my walk back to my dorm room. The pale pink sundress that I wore under my gown when I graduated two years later.

The thread, although I failed to realize it at the time of my storytelling, was the classic nature of those garments. The sundress still lives in my closet. The sweater, which was so soft that a classmate once pet my wool-covered forearm admiringly, would still be mine if it hadn't had an unfortunate meeting with a dryer.

Although I would have been loath to admit it at the time for fear of being marked frivolous, a fair amount of my adolescent growing pains had do with discovering my personal style. It was through that discovery that I was hoping to find a level of comfort in my own skin. And while I made my way through all of the mall brands of the ’90s — Abercrombie & Fitch and its casual sensuality, Gap and its easy classics — there was no denying what I was, and still am, at my core. No matter how uncomfortable some of the centerpieces of my youth might leave me feeling, I am a New England-raised girls' school graduate. There will always be a part of me that is a bit prissy and fairly staid, that favors cable-knit sweaters and nautical stripes.

It was this preppy-without-trying-too-hard feel that made me love J.Crew. It was why we briefly parted ways during that period in the 2000s when the brand put embroidered critters everywhere and tipped over into a comical version of that style. And it was why, as that age ended and I stumbled around looking for an opportunity, that I returned.

It was a good time to make my return. People had slowly started to spend again after the shock of the financial crisis. After I learned that I would be staying on past the holiday season, I filled my wardrobe with blazers and ballet flats. I started wearing more jewelry. My co-workers and I began hanging out outside of the store, sitting in Boston-area bars covered in triple-strand pearl necklaces and tie bars, walking ambassadors for this brand that we all loved in spite of the occasional indignities of working in retail. On a day off, a woman who frequented the store ran into me at an Au Bon Pain and referred to me as “J.Crew Girl” before asking about when we’d be getting our usual shipment of party dresses for the holiday season.

I sighed, then smiled. This was who I was now. In fact, it was who I had been for years, even if I had been slow to accept this truth. I answered her question based on when we’d received the dresses the year prior. I often worked overnights when new collections came in and had begun to take note of when certain types of items were due to arrive, like the first of the bathing suits or the switch from linen to wool and back again. Because as it was with all things that I love, I had made it a point to learn as much as I could about J.Crew.

We didn’t get the usual shipment of party dresses for the holiday season that year. You don’t know something is a turning point when it happens, so it is only looking back that I can mark it as one. This shift wasn’t like the critters, a style choice that I simply didn’t care for and was relatively quick to disappear, as is the way of trends in apparel retail. This was the beginning of an apparent change to the heart of the company.

The temptation is always strong when one is in the midst of a moment to capitalize on it. The issue, in my opinion, is how to grow without trampling over your loyal customer base. Or, more importantly, how to do so without changing what you are at your core. Loyalty is hard-won but easily lost, and too often both of these facts are taken for granted.

And so J.Crew went about the work of taking its golden moment and turning it into growth. New stores opened, international expansion occurred online and off, and on the ground, in our store, we saw the changes in waves. Some of the classic pieces were shifted out of store and moved online-only as more trend-based pieces worked their way into our stockroom. They were the kind of pieces that impressed editors and street-style stars at New York Fashion Week but got confused glances from the regular customers I had come to recognize. The classics that stayed in store climbed in price season after season. The famed catalog became the “Style Guide,” a name which never felt right when coming out my mouth and which I never saw fit to use when not in the store.

Mere weeks before it was announced that he would be stepping down as CEO, Drexler admitted to some of the mistakes made when speaking of the company's woes. I've been watching all of this turmoil, Drexler's departure preceded by the departures of Jenna Lyons and Frank Muytjens, the creative head on the menswear side, with a resigned and somewhat detached sadness. My excitement for new collections began to wane far before I left the company in the spring of 2014 to pursue an unexpected job offer. It was time to finally leave the uncertainty of my 20s behind with a move clear across the country.

J.Crew and I continued to drift apart, but it was impossible for me to let go completely. Earlier this year, I went on a search for a dress for my 34th birthday party. Something about birthdays leads me back to the defining parts of myself. And while it's not often the place where I end up spending anymore, J.Crew is always one of the first places where I begin looking in the hope that I'll rediscover some of what made me love it before. I thought I had found it, this time in a chambray shirtdress. I tried the dress on twice, first at a too-quiet-for-a-Saturday-afternoon Los Angeles-area location, and finally in my bedroom after my online purchase of a size smaller arrived.

I was hopeful the second time. I had already picked out shoes, a pair of candy apple-red heels, to wear with it, but it was a Goldilocks-like endeavor without the satisfying conclusion. Nothing was just right.


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