By  on May 23, 2007

J. Crew is breaking out of its mold.

The company is rolling out smaller stores, each with a look, assortment and nameplate customized to fit the tone and tastes of affluent locations and resort towns.

"The point on all these stores is that we tailor-make the store to fit the specialness of the communities," Millard "Mickey" Drexler, chairman and chief executive officer of J. Crew Group, told WWD. "We are designing stores to have the same feel as the community, and the way they would want it to feel. It's not a cookie-cutter store."

It's a strategy that J. Crew has kept quiet, but actually tested three years ago with the "J. Crew at-the-beach" shop in East Hampton, N.Y. A handful of units have opened since, including J. Crew at-the-beach shops in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Naples, Fla., and another in Carmel, Calif., called J. Crew by-the-sea.

In Santa Fe, a unit was downsized to become more of a resort store.

On Friday, J. Crew will open J. Crew-on-Elm in New Canaan, Conn. It's a 4,668-square-foot location at 24 Elm Street, in the heart of the village, featuring what the company considers the best of the J. Crew Women's and Men's collection including shoes and accessories. "It's just a very affluent town. We consider it J. Crew country," Drexler said.

J. Crew at-the-beach will open in Southampton, N.Y., at the end of July at 86 Main Street, and the company is in talks to open additional locally flavored shops in Aspen, Colo., and Wilmington, N.C. "There are a few others that we are negotiating on," Drexler noted. "We are not after every marketplace. There's not a big list of locations."

Still, the strategy does reflect the brand's appetite for expansion, but to orchestrate it in a more creative way that could be more appealing to communities that have tired of the usual retail chains descending on their neighborhoods, eliminating the mom-and-pop stores and the small town flavor along the way. It also reflects efforts at J. Crew, as Drexler said, to become less East and West Coast centric, and adaptable to wider territory."We want to create something special that includes the charm and sophistication of each community we open in," Drexler said. "There's a personality that comes through that's more emotional, and elevated in a sense."

To some degree, these shops, Drexler said, are inspired by stores in Capri, and do establish a different approach to weekend dressing in more intimate settings. Drexler said the units will generally range from about 1,500 to 3,500 square feet, though there's flexibility, as evidenced by the relatively larger store in New Canaan. "When the right spot on the right street comes up, we will figure out how to run a business there," Drexler said.

The typical J. Crew shop averages 7,000 square feet.

"We put into these stores special assortments of our collection, limited edition clothes, our best cashmere, Irish linen shirts, and we surround it with some products that J. Crew is famous for," Drexler said. J. Crew-on-Elm will sell Italian cashmere, Italian-made shoes and bags, signature broken-in chinos, the new jewelry collection, items from the J. Crew Collection and a new suiting collection.

Months prior to any opening "our creative and design team visits the community and gets the feel of the community. The design team does its best to preserve the existing building. Our goal is to enhance and not change the feeling of the streets we are on."

In New Canaan, Drexler said J. Crew took over an 80-year-old women's store and kept the footprint. It's designed with hardwood boards and wainscoting and decorated with vintage lamps and old maps of Connecticut. "Frankly, it's a lot of fun for our creative team to not just spin out stores that are all the same," Drexler said. "It would be a little more expensive, and the stores are smaller, and we skew the merchandise at a higher average price point. The economics are different but in fact, we would not open these stores without getting the right returns.

"We have always had a vision about this, but it's evolved out of the East Hampton opening. We wanted to have a resort type strategy for those who are more affluent, like to spend money on clothes, have a lot of style and are very selective.""The New Canaan store is located in the backyard of our customers' homes, surrounded by charming stores and stylish shoppers, so we wanted to create something special," added Jeff Pfeifle, president of J. Crew. "After the success of our J. Crew at-the-beach store in East Hampton, as well as our J. Crew by-the-sea store in Carmel, we thought New Canaan would be the perfect next location for something new."

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