Is there any hope for J.Crew?
"America's brand" just hired an ex-Supreme designer to lead their menswear business. Will it be enough to bring them back to life?
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There’s an old rugby shirt for sale on Grailed.
Not just any rugby shirt, though. This one is a limited-edition J.Crew x Rowing Blazers rugby shirt from their iconic (and only) collab in 2018.
They made 200 shirts.
The front looks like a plain rugby shirt. No patches. No logo. But the back of the shirt reads something different:
“With a fine disregard for the rules.”
What a curious statement.
Three years after that collab—and their pivotal parting of ways with esteemed designers Jenna Lyons and Franke Muytjens—and little has changed for J.Crew. The company has restructured, fired people, hired designers, seen them quit, restructured some more, and filed for bankruptcy, all in the span of a few years. Oh, and they’re deep in debt.
But today, there’s a possible “light at the end of the tunnel,” as the company announced they’re appointing Brendon Babenzien to lead menswear design for the business.
Who in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks is Brendon Babenzien? The name might not exactly ring a bell.
Let’s try this: ever heard of Supreme?
Yeah, Brendon played a massive role in building the Supreme brand. He’s part of the reason why Supreme carries the level of clout and hype that it does.
After his tenure as Supreme’s design director, Brendon decided to part ways and relaunch his own brand, Noah, in 2015, and that’s where he’s remained ever since.
Until today. Now, he takes another step forward in his design career, debuting his first collection for J.Crew next year.
I like Brendon in this role at J.Crew, and here are 5 reasons why:
1/ He understands the youth. Working as the design director at Supreme for 14 years allowed him to witness (and invent) some of the most important hype cycles, partnerships, and cultural moments we’ve seen in the history of fashion and streetwear. Brendon knows what the youth are drawn to, something J.Crew does not.
2/ He believes in sustainability. Brendon originally launched Noah in 2002, tabled it for years, and relaunched it in 2015 with a focus on being an environmentally sustainable brand. Brendon wants to make his products in the best factories and even pushes to manufacture in the USA where he can. This is something J.Crew could learn from.
3/ He knows American style. I don’t mean “prep” (although that's part of it). I’m referring to the ever-evolving skate culture, surfwear, streetwear, punk style, and other subcultures that have defined American pop culture over the last 40 years. He’s bringing all that knowledge to the table, a wealth of cultural nuance that J.Crew’s leadership lacks.
4/ He’s got plugs. When you’ve worked at the helm for one of the most influential brands (across fashion and culture) over the past decade, you’re likely to have built some important relationships. Brendon knows all the right designers, brands, and collaborations that could both resuscitate and breathe life back into J.Crew’s decaying body.
5/ He has “a fine disregard for the rules.”
…which brings us back to the rugby shirt.
Here’s the thing about rules: sometimes they’re meant to be broken.
And perhaps that’s both J.Crew’s problem and its solution.
There was a brief period where it felt like J.Crew was on its game. You know, when Mickey Drexler and Todd Snyder (circa 2008-2011) were both at the helm, curating the best indie brands and partnerships at the famous Liquor Store in Tribeca.
J.Crew felt fun back then. It was a rare moment when dudes from different backgrounds gravitated towards a single aesthetic in search of limited-run products with timeless brands like Champion, Red Wing Boots, New Balance, Timex, and so on.
That era, as we know, didn’t last long. Todd left to start his own brand, Mickey later stepped down as CEO, and while the world changed, J.Crew didn’t.
Instead of acknowledging that the establishment, the old guard, this all-American aesthetic that brought J.Crew this far was evolving, J.Crew couldn’t trust themselves enough to evolve with the times. They lost their way.
But maybe that’s the whole point: that the only way forward is by learning to disrespect the very establishment that got you here in the first place.
So, sure, hiring an experienced and culturally-dialed-in designer like Brendon Babenzien is all fine and dandy.
But I have one question, and none of this matters if J.Crew can’t answer it:
Will they trust Brendon?