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Over the last few years, the narrative surrounding sister brands Madewell and J.Crew has been a lot like A Tale of Two Cities: While the former thrives, the latter is seeing the worst of times. J.Crew is struggling to reinvent itself amid slumping sales, while Madewell quietly enjoys a dedicated fanbase — and the two companies have been operating as such for several years.
Now, J.Crew and Madewell are leaning on each other in the hopes of coming out ahead.
The brands will join together in stores, Madewell confirmed to Racked, starting with six Madewell shops-in-shops that will open in existing J.Crew stores. The locations — New York City (Columbus Circle), Florida (Tampa and Aventura), Iowa (West Des Moines), New Hampshire (Hanover), and Connecticut (New Haven) — are what Madewell says it’s focused on for now, but it could put more Madewells into other J.Crew locations, too. At these new Madewell shops-in-shops, the company says it will roll out some of Madewell’s branding, such as denim bars. It also says the Madewells will stock clothing that complement the assortment at J.Crew.
Up until now, J.Crew and Madewell have existed as entirely different retail experiences, but the move seems like a good play for both brands. J.Crew, the portfolio’s more visible company, is a household name to the average American shopper. But saddled with debt and waning customer interest, J.Crew has struggled to keep up in the face of threats like fast fashion. Last year the brand took several swings at obtaining a fresh identity. It had mass layoffs and price cuts, and even said goodbye to iconic and beloved executives Jenna Lyons and Mickey Drexler. But attempts haven’t blossomed into fruition just yet: In November, the company reported its sales had dropped 12 percent, and that it had to close twice as many stores as it had initially shared in order to weather the storm.
At Madewell, on the other hand, sales are up 22 percent. And where J.Crew is struggling with reinvention and customer interest, Madewell enjoys a cult following for its popular denim offering and “tomboyish, Francoise Hardy-feeling closet staples,” as its style has been endearingly described. (J.Crew even snatched Madewell’s head designer at one point.) It makes cool and casual attire, which former head designer Somsack Sikhounmuong told Racked in 2015 are the “kinds of things you’d save and wear as you got older,” whereas J.Crew leans much harder into color and trends.
Perhaps most importantly, Madewell, which Drexler launched in 2006, understands its shopper’s style and price point — a problem J.Crew has faced for several years now. Drexler even admitted to the The Wall Street Journal last year that “we became a little too elitist in our attitude. We gave a perception of being a higher-priced company than we were — in our catalog, online, and in our general presentation... Very big mistake.”
A loyal shopper is quite the commodity in today’s shopping landscape, and something a company certainly can’t squander during the “retail apocalypse,” so it’s clear J.Crew needs to lean on Madewell’s cool factor. And even with its dedicated fanbase, Madewell still has half the stores (121, as compared to J.Crew’s 237) and much less name recognition with the average shopper. It’s arguably the more successful brand, but its small representation means it can’t really help the J.Crew company with its current losses. Bottom line is, Madewell needs more visibility and J.Crew is hoping more retail space will help get it in front of shoppers.
Can Madewell maintain its beloved status while growing as robust as J.Crew once was? It’s what the company is gambling on.