Amazon Fashion is taking a page out of the J.Crew Style Guide.

Like a number of mainstream retailers, the marketplace has relied heavily on photography that looks plucked from the floundering retailer’s archives. Despite its troubled state, J.Crew’s influence is holding strong.

On Amazon Fashion’s landing page, longtime J.Crew models including Lais Oliveira are featured, each working perfectly imperfect hair and fuss-free makeup, and posing casually, as though they just happened to be snapped on set. Classic pieces have been made modern with subtle styling tweaks: The sleeves of a wool trench are pushed up, and a fur jacket hangs off a model’s shoulder.

The look calls mind J.Crew’s Style Guide, a seasonal print catalog that’s served as a style bible for the retailer’s loyal shoppers. (In June, its circulation was cut in favor of a new, digital-focused marketing strategy.) Former executive creative director Jenna Lyons has long personified the style.

“J.Crew has always been about celebrating independent, confident style,” said Gayle Spannaus, J.Crew’s head stylist, who has been with the company for more than 20 years. “There’s a mix of effortlessness, optimism and bravery in the way we pull together looks. Whether it’s the particular slouch in a pair of pants, a sweater worn oversized because it feels right even though the fit is ‘wrong’ or a half-tucked shirt in styling, it’s intentional but never prescriptive or forced.”

Refinery29 features writer Connie Wang called the look “the stateside equivalent of French-girl style, … our stars-and-stripes version of can’t-give-a-fuck glamour.”

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 6.36.29 AMAn image featured on Amazon Fashion’s women’s page

For Amazon Fashion, the newly adopted creative direction is part of a larger plan to become a desirable destination for fashion brands and shoppers. Elevating its photography is a clear priority: Last month, it announced it will open its fourth fashion photography studio — its largest to date — in Tokyo in spring 2018.

J.Crew would make an interesting point of reference for Amazon. Last week, during the New York Times’ DealBook conference in New York, former J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler revealed he had approached Amazon earlier this year about acquiring J.Crew. The retail giant didn’t bite. (Of course, Amazon has never needed an agreement to run with another brand’s ideas. It’s angered a number of its fashion wholesale partners by using their sales data for its own gain, going so far as to hook up with their suppliers to produce its private-label styles.)

What’s more, due in part to its identity crisis of sorts — flitting too often between “preppy” and “high fashion” — J.Crew is far from its prime. J.Crew Group, Inc.’s latest earnings report, for the second quarter of fiscal 2017, revealed a decline in comparable sales for the J.Crew brand of 8 percent year over year. Group-wide, net loss for the quarter was $20.7 million, compared to $8.6 million in the same period last year. In April, Jenna Lyons, the face of brand, was ousted. Two months later, CEO Mickey Drexler stepped down.

Along with Amazon Fashion, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor and Anthropologie have all seemed to mimic the retailer’s style in recent seasons. Here are some reasons why.

Falling back on what’s worked
According to Francois Grouiller, founder and chief strategy officer of brand consulting firm Joja, J.Crew isn’t completely responsible for the look it’s known for: Photographer David Sims was the first to “bring life” into the studio with movement and a “fun” feel. But, he said, “J.Crew was the the first big engine to bring visibility to that style. As a result, they’ve been copied a lot.”

He said Amazon Fashion’s imagery “looks like a copy” of J.Crew’s, but called it “about 5 percent worse.” It lacks the “freshness” J.Crew is known for, he said, likely because Amazon’s had less time to perfect the style.

And Amazon’s imagery may never stack up, according to Shilpa Shah, co-founder of direct-to-consumer fashion brand Cuyana, which produces its own seasonal catalog.

“For Amazon, it’s very much a sales vehicle — and they do things for efficiency,” she said. “For others, it’s a branding play. Decisions are made because they’re better for design, not always because they’ll drive sales.”

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 6.37.45 AMAn image featured on Amazon Fashion’s women’s page

“The overall appeal is its accessibility and attainability,” said Melissa Nelson, a former retail executive . “J.Crew was very successful five years ago, and people like to replicate what worked in the past.”

And, thanks to the rise of the casual workplace and the athleisure trend, the retailer’s signature effortless styling feels current. “Effortless is really the keyword of the decade in fashion,” said Grouiller.

Compensating for boring clothes
Amazon Fashion has yet to crack the luxury market, and it’s current inventory is composed primarily of mass brands. It could learn a lot from J.Crew, which has proven photography is key to making everyday styles desirable.

“J. Crew created this cool, offbeat and highly stylized ‘American dream’ world using creative direction, which isn’t easy to do,” said Leja Kress, CEO and founding partner of digital agency Sweden Unlimited. “It was really smart, because they were basically selling the same stuff year after year.”

Grouiller echoed Kress, pointing to J.Crew’s one-time ability to shine, despite its awkward placement in the industry. “J.Crew is a brand in the middle that became a brand in the center. They were sandwiched between edgy and cheap clothes, and they made themselves stand out by riding on a unique, standout style.’”

Lose that, and the retailer’s got nothing, said Kress.

“Without Jenna Lyons’ vision, and the [retailer’s] amazing art direction, styling, copy and photography, J.Crew would be exposed for what it really is: overpriced, dull, preppy basics.”

jcrew4An image featured in the December 2013 J.Crew Style guide

Democratizing selection
Amazon has been vocal about the fact that fashion is its key growth driver. To build its apparel business in the same way it’s built other categories, it will need to appeal to, well, everyone.

To some extent, J.Crew has set an example, said Grouiller. “Their look, as a whole, is non-sexual, non-’fashion,’ non-threatening. And they’re shooting in a studio without too much setup and context, so they’re not imposing where looks should be worn.”

It’s intentional, said Spannaus. “J.Crew’s style is something we can all emulate and incorporate into our own style. We don’t seek to create a singular J.Crew look – there’s a timelessness to our pieces that we use as a springboard to serving up a wide spectrum of looks.”

It’s an attractive place for an Amazon Fashion, said Grouiller: “When you’re a mass fashion brand, the key to crafting a voice and a look is to not upset anyone.”

Making the most of marketing dollars
Today, more dollars are being spent on influencer marketing, which takes away budget for in-house production. Often short large teams and creative directors with fresh ideas, retailers are making do. 

“Nowadays, a brand is a total brand; it’s not just the picture you take and put in your lookbook,” said Grouiller.

Kress owed the evolution to Instagram: “J.Crew’s early Style Guides were like the Instagram of that time — a great example of style and marketing creating brand appeal.”

Today, influencers are the arbiters of style, not retailers.

“Consumers have more options and tools to create their own content feeds and curate their style,” said Kress. “They are not going to a single brand for inspiration. The retailers that will survive are the ones that understand this.”

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