By  on October 15, 2008

With an understated scripted sign on the front door, the first J. Crew Collection store stands discreetly on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 79th Street in Manhattan. Yet as low-key as the signage may be, the store is where J. Crew design and merchandising are at their most expressive and imaginative.

The assortment encourages mixing modern items with vintage pieces, uptown and downtown looks, and evening attire with a dose of the more casual in the same outfits. There’s an unexpected character, inside and out.

“People tell me, ‘How about putting up a bigger sign,’ but we don’t want to intrude on anyone,” said Millard “Mickey” Drexler, J. Crew’s chairman and chief executive during a tour of the store with Jenna Lyons Mazeau, the creative director.

“In an Upper East Side building, I don’t think big signs are very elegant,” continued Drexler. “The last thing people want to see is their neighborhood become a strip center. It’s our way not to be out there, but to be there.”

He means with something different, and that lies in the store’s eclectic array of Crew and non-Crew products and unorthodox styling, i.e. a jacket with hand-painted French sequins displayed with distressed jeans, or a brocade evening dress accessorized with a thin handmade belt and an easy cashmere scarf for a sportier twist.

Along with those items the J. Crew brand is often associated with — corduroys, T-shirts, chinos, ballet flats, jeans, cashmere and dresses — the Collection store presents some higher-end products such as calfskin jackets, priced $2,200, or patent leather jackets lined in silk twill with a Ratti print, $1,800. There are also metallic jackets and shoes in the $300 range, textured calfskin skirts priced at $495, as well as silk Japanese obi belts, Rolex watches, hand-painted Elizabeth halters, one-of-a-kind jewelry, including a vintage “mazel tov” charm bracelet, Lugano luggage, handmade silk flowers (only three per customer allowed),bleached and dyed python bags and clutches, and double-faced cashmere jackets with pick stitching on the sleeves shown with classic J. Crew cords.

At the heart of the Collection strategy, which mirrors the approach taken by the company’s recently opened Liquor Store in TriBeCa selling men’s wear, is an effort to provide a fashion alternative, and designer looks and quality at lower-than-designer prices.

“The world has become so formulaic,” Drexler said. “You go into a designer store and all you see are the designer’s clothes. The world is full of so many beautiful things. I like to go into stores where there are surprises. We are editors in addition to designers.”

The decor of the store is different from typical J. Crew units, which tend to be essentially white backdrops enabling the products to stand out more. The Collection store, on the other hand, is filled with art, and has a residential feel. It’s broken up into a few small pockets and rooms. At the entrance, there’s a short staircase down, giving the feel of a sunken living room. Stately unlacquered brass fixtures and doors are offset by contemporary elements including bright spot lighting, parchment display tables and goatskin boxes for accessories. Some whimsy seeps in, too, with a soft blush pink dressing room with a pop of neon, the charcoal gray shoes and accessories salon housing an uncharacteristically large shoe selection for J. Crew, including flats with peep toes and feathers, and a boldly striped bathroom decorated with Hugo Guinness prints.

Although Collection products are seen in the J. Crew catalogues and online, the buying public still isn’t as familiar with the higher-priced offering as the company would like.“People don’t know what we have,” said Lyons Mazeau. With J. Crew Collection, “We have never before been able to showcase what we do,” until the store debuted. “We plan to bring in a continuous flow of special items. It’s not about massing it out.”

Drexler declined to project a sales volume for the 3,200-square foot Collection prototype, preferring not to overstate a new concept before it’s passed the test of time. “Clearly, we are really pleased with the first three days” of business since the store opened Friday, though he noted that you can’t really judge a store’s performance by its opening act alone.

“I wouldn’t want to say the timing was the best,” Drexler acknowledged. “This is not a great economic environment, but we felt the neighborhood needed something more realistic,” compared with designer prices on Madison Avenue that Drexler said have soared so high as to be insulting.

“I think it’s all about character, honesty and integrity of product, along with good value,” he added.

Asked if he is considering additional J. Crew Collection stores, Drexler replied, “We’re not in a hurry to do anything, but not ruling anything out. We don’t feel any pressure to quickly determine where our path will take us.”

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