I was at J. Crew yesterday, exchanging something I bought online. After finishing at the counter, I took some time to browse around the store.
Much has been written about the demise of J. Crew in recent years. The company has struggled to be profitable; they’re saddled with debt; the three major people who headed the brand during the company’s heyday — Mickey Drexler, Jenna Lyons, and Frank Muytjens — have left. When the company hired Johanna Uurasjarvi, formerly of West Elm and Anthropologie, as their Chief Design Officer a few years ago, I fretted over whether this meant the end of J. Crew’s preppy Americana days. Indeed, Uurasjarvi said she wants J. Crew to be a more forward-facing brand, instead of always looking to the past for inspiration. But when her first collection came out, I thought it was … fine.
While browsing the store, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the offerings. The Wallace & Barnes line, which has always been my favorite part of J. Crew since the subline was introduced, seems slightly lower quality than it was years ago. It’s hard to say with certainty since quality often reveals itself over time. That said, the heavyweight flannels felt a little fuzzier and more likely to pill. But you know, they’re also flannels and don’t have to look precious.
Still, the line overall seems nice. This red flannel shirt is made from a hefty 8.2 oz brushed cotton. The pattern is handsome, and the back of the collar is both lined with chambray and reinforced with stitching. The outside of the shirt has been triple-needle sewn for both durability and vintage effect (old workwear shirts used to be made this way). These t-shirts are tubular knit, which is a seamless construction that used to only be available at high-end boutiques. They have two fits in their Japanese raw selvedge denim jeans. I also love their chamois shirts, even if they’re confusingly sized (just go with your normal size in their classic fit — it’s slim enough). I wear the cream version.
I also like this snap-button fleece jacket, which is J. Crew’s take on an admittedly hot trend. Additionally, J. Crew always offers some of the best Fair Isle knitwear designs (this one has doggos). And their field mechanic jacket continues to be one of the best values in outerwear. It’s just so smartly designed. It has a cinched waist to give the jacket some shape, ample pocket space, and a hood for when it rains. The stand-up collar frames the face well, and the easy-to-maintain, wash-and-wearability means you don’t have to baby this very much. This is the sort of thing you can wear with jeans, chunky sweaters, and oxford button-downs. J. Crew has offered it every season for as long as I can remember, and I’m glad you can still find it in the store.
Everyone complains nowadays about the price of fashion — and for a good reason. Business of Fashion reports that the cost of luxury fashion products has grown at more than twice the rate of general inflation. I remember balking at the idea of paying $250 for Common Projects and $150 for APC jeans fifteen years ago. Now there are stock-market-like indices for tracking the prices of rare sneakers. And on Reddit’s Raw Denim board, $150 for jeans is considered “entry-level.”
Still, a lot of what people liked about J. Crew during the heydays of prep and Americana still seems present. The clothes are exceedingly wearable. They allow you to blend into almost any office, but still look better than average. The company skillfully rides the line between contemporary and classic. Most of all, they’re still reasonably affordable. Smart shoppers have always waited for J. Crew’s many promotions — it’s not hard to get things at 40% off. But for today, they have certain blowout deals as well. That field mechanic jacket is just $80. Eighty dollars!! Mr. Porter has socks retailing at more than double that price.
Maybe the real thing that has changed is the market. People who are into clothing nowadays yearn for something more niche, exclusive, and at times even downright odd-looking (I say this without judgment, as my closet is full of weird clothes). Those aren’t the sort of things you’ll ever find at a mass-market retailer such as J. Crew. But for clothes that will make you look a little more handsome, J. Crew is still a solid value. Just avoid the cashmere.