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Has America fallen out of love with J. Crew?

By Don-Alvin Adegeest

Jun 18, 2015

It has been a turbulent few weeks for American fashion, with two if its best-loved brands citing trading difficulties. Firstly there is J. Crew - America's answer to mass market preppy chic, albeit with a subversive edge of cool, citing declining sales figures for the second quarter in a row. Secondly there is Band of Outsiders - an upmarket version of J. Crew's preppy chic, also with a subversive edge of cool, which announced would part ways with its founder, and in all likelihood will be a brand no more.

Unable to Connect with its Core Customer

So how can two of America's most popular brands find themselves in the same sinking ship? Has America fallen out of love with preppy chic, the casual luxe wardrobe that defines the cool American spirit, or is there something else brewing? Two of its most successful companies, one at the high end, the other at mass market, seem unable to connect with their core customer as they once did.

Perhaps the customer is the key to solving the problem. Of the two, J. Crew is stealing the headlines, with naysayers quick to note the demise of the brand, and a long list in google shows plenty of opinions where it all went wrong. One article cites a particular garment (a sweater named Tilly) as responsible for its downfall, and another headline, 'J. Screwed', is a Forbes article publicly criticising the brand for not making its customers happy.

Band of Outsiders, a California-based company that started selling shirting and polos for men, has fared a similar tough time. Last month the ailing business cancelled all of its autumn orders and this week its founder Scott Sternberg, who in 2009 won CFDA Designer of the Year for his brand, took to Instagram to bid his farewell to the company he started in 2004.

As a once loyal customer of both brands, the fact that neither's product is resonating with consumers, is poignant. In the past two seasons J. Crew sidestepped the basics it is known for, and especially in womenswear, got it all wrong. Beaded cardigans and summery clothes without personality, proved to be unsuccessful. Customers took to social media with the hashtag #revivejcrew. Its menswear offered the same staple of chinos and checked shirts that has been around forever, and while for 95 euros they are affordable, it's the mix with its preppy high-end tailoring - a tailored suit jacket costing over 500 euros - that you are alienating one of your customer groups.

Fashion's popularity, like its decline, comes in cycles

But like other American corporate companies, be it the Gap or Abercrombie and Fitch, fashion popularity and its decline comes in cycles. J. Crew suffered its last downturn a decade ago, so perhaps this is a time when things need to be shaken up and addressed. A re-shuffling of its design team was announced this week, and with a company of this size they can afford to take a hit, closing a few stores here and there and subsequently doing a huge pr push during September fashion week.

With a smaller company, like Band of Outsiders, it has probably had its heyday. Once sold in over 30 countries with a revenue of 12 million dollars, it's womenswear never catapulted to the heights of its men's business, even though it was presented during New York fashion week. Some things can't be emulated, and in the end the customer is always right.

It looks as if we'll have to get our chino's and polo's elsewhere this summer.

Images: J. Crew, Scott Sternber