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J.Crew Failed to Adapt and Become a Lifestyle Brand. But It Could Catch Up

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A model wears large costume jewelry earrings.
A model at a J.Crew presentation.
Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

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The rise, fall, and reckoning of J.Crew — an arc that resulted in the departures of creative director Jenna Lyons in April and CEO Mickey Drexler on Monday — comes down to its clothes. Why shouldn’t it? Though the fashion-forward look that Lyons introduced was a big hit for a while, loyal customers eventually cooled on the quirky styles and complained that the brand’s quality had dropped. Sales plummeted. On calls with investors, Drexler vowed to return J.Crew to a more classic style. He discussed product in more depth than most executives do, calling out missteps with specific items, like the infamous Tilly sweater.

J.Crew is nothing without good clothes, but as it works to fix its look, it has largely steered clear of the conversation that other struggling chains have had in the hopes of luring customers into their stores: What, besides apparel, a clothing brand can offer in 2017.

In recent years, Urban Outfitters has revitalized itself by introducing hair salons and dining options within its stores. Anthropologie’s growing fleet of outsize locations include furniture design shops and attached restaurants. Lululemon offers exercise classes, and Outdoor Voices organizes group runs. Boutiques from Venice Beach to Berlin install hip coffee bars on their premises, giving patrons a reason to hang out for hours.

“Experiential retail” is a well-established concept at this point, fueled by concern over shoppers spending more on travel and music festivals than on material goods. Today every brand is a lifestyle brand, because clothes just don’t cut it anymore. But not J.Crew, which has instead hewed ever closer to its core business. The home and gifts section on its website is shallow, featuring little more than water bottles, nail polish, a yoga mat, and laundry detergent.

Looking through its new CEO’s resume, though, you have to wonder if J.Crew might start making moves in that direction.

Jim Brett, who was announced as Drexler’s successor on Monday, comes from the furniture chain West Elm. It was struggling when he arrived there in 2010, but thanks to smart merchandising and the launch of West Elm Market, a home goods concept that also serves La Colombe coffee, Brett turned it into parent company Williams-Sonoma’s fastest-growing brand. Before that, he was the chief merchandising officer of Urban Outfitters and scouted products around the world for Anthropologie’s home department.

More than anything, Brett’s experience points to a keen understanding of how to transform a brand into a lifestyle brand, which makes you wonder what that could look like for J.Crew. Striped settees? Pineapple-print wallpaper? It’s easy to imagine.

That said, the clothes do still need help.