Eliza Cohen, a 29-year-old retail and marketing specialist who now lives in Austin, has a deep connection with J. Crew. She grew up in New England and as an adult visited its stores frequently — three times per fiscal quarter — and from 2009 to 2012 spent around $150 each visit.
But that changed around 2013, when J. Crew was knee-deep in fashion with a capital “F,” and started releasing collaborative product with designers like Sophia Webster, who produced a line of shoes with the company that retailed from $320 up to $695.
By then Cohen was fed up and decided to pen “How to Fix J. Crew,” an open letter to Mickey Drexler, the company’s chairman and former chief executive officer, with a list of suggestions on how to turn around the brand. But J. Crew is currently trying to win her (and other customers) back. Drexler was succeeded by James Brett and former president and creative director Jenna Lyons is no longer involved.
Numbers are showing signs of hope. The company reported this week that adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, which it considers the best barometer of performance, in the fourth quarter increased $13.1 million, or 25 percent, to $64.6 million from $51.5 million in the year-ago fourth quarter.
But what does a longtime J. Crew customer think? WWD spoke to Cohen about how the brand is evolving.
WWD: Have you noticed any changes since you wrote the letter?
Eliza Cohen: At the end of Mickey Drexler’s tenure, they tried to go back to basics immediately and they lowered their prices. It was a somewhat one-dimensional approach. He also admitted that the brand had become elitist in their attitude. That’s changed and the approach they are taking is a lot more subtle now.
WWD: In what way?
E.C.: I think the partnership with WeWork is a fantastic way to stay relevant. In partnering with WeWork and the gig economy, J. Crew is able to suggest that they are experiencing a metamorphosis just as workplace culture and fashion is. They are being accessible to people who work at WeWork and are running their own businesses. They are making much wiser decisions, but there is still a way to go. They should probably be working with more influencers or even consider activations at South by Southwest.
WWD: What have you noticed on the product front?
E.C.: They are going back to classics with their heritage collection and being a New Englander, I’m excited about that. But going back to classics alone isn’t going to save them. Ath-leisure has staying power and J. Crew is latching onto the trend in a way that’s still in line with their brand. Working with New Balance on this line made sense. The partnerships J. Crew used to do were too expensive and not in line with its brand. You can cater to the J. Crew customer and expand who that customer is without leaning on trends too much.
WWD: What about imagery and branding?
E.C.: The web site looks fresher, less stuffy. They are probably taking some pages from Old Navy, but they still have a way to go. Before the new ceo came on I wasn’t shopping there anymore but I’m feeling that change. The J. Crew now is less severe. It’s not as sharp.
WWD: Where did you start to shop once you weren’t shopping at J. Crew?
E.C.: For a while, I wasn’t shopping. But I started shopping at Asos and Nordstrom Rack for designer brands. But I have been shopping at J. Crew a little bit more. If I were to have a day of online shopping, the tabs would be Nordstrom, Aerie, Old Navy, J. Crew and Gilt Groupe.
WWD: What about Everlane?
E.C.: I’ve never bought anything from there. But according to their ceo, they rely heavily rely on data at the product level to make decisions. And they do so while maintaining a truly versatile collection of apparel. In some ways, they took a similar approach as Lululemon did around 2009 — innovating versatile products and making tweaks along the way, which keeps the customer interested and fosters a retail environment of scarcity. While capsule wardrobes begin to increase in popularity, versatility is paramount and Everlane has become a powerhouse across Instagram and other influencer marketing platforms. Are they the next J. Crew? We’ll have to see. But they’re making good, dynamic and multidimensional decisions.
WWD: In your letter you suggested that J. Crew tread lightly with Madewell references. Now they are bringing Madewell shops inside J. Crew. What do you think of this?
E.C.: When I first wrote the letter, I suggested Drexler and his team tread lightly with Madewell influences given that the brand’s inventory was slightly more geared to Millennials on the “hip” side. While the brand certainly maintains threads of hip, it is apparent that Madewell has made efforts to make pieces that are built to last. I’ve witnessed a subset of academics who say that the incorporation of Madewell into J. Crew stores is somewhat “Drexler 101,” likening it to Gap’s relying on Old Navy’s soaring numbers to buoy the conglomerate from collapse. In some ways, J. Crew still has little to lose, given its financial performance. Therefore, by incorporating Madewell into its stores, J. Crew can subtly experiment with changing its identity in the eyes of shoppers. Additionally, having Madewell inventory within J. Crew stores allows for the company to collect interesting data. What are the correlations, if any, between Madewell inventory and J. Crew inventory that is bought simultaneously within the same store? J. Crew has an incredible opportunity here to extract actionable insight as to how they may want to tweak J. Crew inventory. If they can see that someone liked this item from Madewell, but also liked this item from J. Crew enough to buy both simultaneously within bricks-and-mortar, that is powerful data.
WWD: Do you think the brand means something to Millennials?
E.C.: It definitely means something to me. I grew up wearing that clothing. Do I think they are a brand that someone thinks of immediately when they want to shop? Not yet. But they are doing things to change that. I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s idea about marginal gains. They could work with an influencer that changes everything in an instant, but they are taking it slow. They’ve realized this is their last chance and they aren’t acting erratically.