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Fashion Briefing: Amid a brand refresh, J.Crew is prioritizing collaborations

The lead image shows a collage of J.Crew marketing materials.

This week, a look at how experienced collaborators J.Crew and Revolve are updating their strategies.

J.Crew is embarking on a fresh start, but it’s keeping a key component of its old playbook: Product collaborations remain a core focus.

On Wednesday, the 38-year-old retailer debuted the first collection by its new vp of women’s design, Olympia Gayot. Gayot rejoined the company in September 2020, after spending three years at Victoria’s Secret. As she aims to right-track the retailer’s merchandising — which has teetered between too fashion-forward and too basic over the years — she’s making partnerships a key component. 

After filing and exiting bankruptcy, in May 2020 and September 2020, respectively, J.Crew has undergone many changes. They’ve included enlisting Madewell CEO Libby Wadle to also head up its J.Crew and J.Crew Factory businesses. In May, it appointed streetwear veteran Brendon Babenzien as its creative director of menswear. His premiere collection for the brand is set to launch in fall 2022. 

At the same time, according to Gayot, J.Crew is hellbent on retaining its existing customers. Doing what’s familiar will no doubt help.  

Securing ample inspiration is what’s driving Gayot’s collaboration strategy: “I did multiple collaborations while I was at J.Crew before [as design director from 2010-2017], and it was a chance for the designers to step away from what they were normally doing, think outside the box and bring a fresh perspective to the brand,” she said. To reintroduce the concept to J.Crew, she’s leading with what inspires her — namely, fine art. She went to the School of Visual Arts in New York and has close relationships with many artists. 

The first collab Gayot will introduce will be with St. Louis-based artist Katherine Bernhardt, on September 14. Known for her vibrant paintings, Bernhardt created two original works for the brand centered on back-to-school (with a motif of school supplies) and New York (via a depiction of the Statue of Liberty). They’ll be featured on a variety of products, from pencil cases to T-shirts, which will be sold online and in three J.Crew stores, including a St. Louis store. For every item sold, 50% of the retail price will be donated to DonorsChoose to support education across American communities in need.

Gayot said she doesn’t have a set plan for collaborations, but could see doing an artist partnership per quarter, supplemented by select designer collaborations in various product categories. And, she said, she and Babenzien are in talks to work together on a unisex collab in the future. 

The next artist collab is set for spring of 2022, timed with International Women’s Day. Like the others, it will be “based on what the artist stands for” and benefit “the community they want to support,” she said.

Todd Snyder is another alum who learned the value of collaborations at the school of J.Crew. Last week, while discussing his collab-heavy 10th-anniversary capsule collection, the designer owed his collaboration prowess to his experience at the retailer. Snyder spent four years as the company’s head of menswear, until 2008. Today, sales of collabs represent 20-25% of his namesake brand’s total business.

“When I was working at J.Crew, I started doing collaborations purely because it was hard to get the attention of the associates and the customer,” he said. “I thought, ‘How do I build brand awareness?’” As he tells it, he borrowed the idea from Japanese designers, including Junya Watanabe and Commes des Garcons, who were early to the collaborations game. “[J.Crew’s] first collaboration was with Red Wing Boots, and then we did one with Timex — and then it was off to the races.”

Snyder said he still uses collaborations for brand awareness, but also to remain motivated and inspired.

Of course, collabs are a dime a dozen these days. This New York Fashion Week alone, brands have rolled out or announced collabs like Iris Apfel x H&M, Gloria Vanderbilt x Christian Siriano, and Target x four designers, including Nili Lotan. Last month, Jing Daily, a publication focused on the business of luxury in China, launched a monthly newsletter exclusively dedicated to product collabs and drops. And the strategy is a signature of Virgil Abloh, whose influence on the industry continues to grow. 

“They keep people excited,” said Gayot, of collaborations. She called them “the icing on the cake,” in terms of how they round out J.Crew’s product assortment. 

In keeping with J.Crew’s reputation, under Gayot’s direction, the core women’s line will focus on reinventing classic styles, like the trench coat, that fit into today’s multifaceted woman’s life. She aims to offer products that appeal to the existing customer while offering “newness” to attract shoppers, she said. She’ll create collections on a seasonal basis, though they’ll go on sale bi-weekly. 

Tracee Ellis Ross is the face of Gayot’s first seasonal campaign that launched this week. Gayot said that Ellis Ross chose what she wanted to wear in the campaign, to ensure it felt organic. 

Gayot’s overall strategy of putting the power in collaborators’ hands calls to mind brands’ current go-to TikTok strategy of enlisting influencers to represent them.

On the same note, Derek Yarbrough, CMO of J.Crew and Madewell, said he and his team are “really doing the research” to tap into what J.Crew’s customers are saying and asking for, to ensure the brand is delivering. “Customers want to be in the driver’s seat now,” he said.

The campaign featuring Ellis Ross is J.Crew’s largest to date, in terms of investment, said Yarbrough. It’s also the first film-first marketing concept the company has tackled. It’s running across digital platforms, including Instagram, Facebook YouTube and Snapchat, plus — also firsts for the company — Hulu and TikTok. The corresponding TikTok sound is the song “Say Something” by Mj Rodriguez, star of the FX show “Pose.” Paid and unpaid influencers are helping to spread the word. 

The overall idea of the campaign is to tap into the “inspiration, optimism and joy” that J.Crew represents, and to encourage others to “make a scene” and be “positive disruptors,” Yarbrough said. It was produced in-house.

Yarbrough stressed that the way forward for J.Crew is to “lead with creativity and design”  — lest anyone worry that the retailer will return to its old ways if flip-flopping direction.

The evolution of Revolve’s collaboration strategy

On Wednesday afternoon, via an outdoor runway show at NYC’s Casa Cipriani, e-tailer Revolve debuted its first product collaboration with Norwegian designer Peter Dundas. Dundas was once the creative director of brands including Roberto Cavalli, Pucci and Emanuel Ungaro, but has been focused on his namesake label since 2017. 

The collaboration is the latest of many for Revolve, which has formerly teamed with influencer Aimee Song and now-controversial model Chrissy Teigen, among others. Regarding collaborations, Revolve co-CEO Michael Karanikolas said on a February 2021 earnings call that the company “will invest in further strengthening [its] … portfolio through the launch of exciting new brands, collaborations and styles within [its] existing portfolio of brands.”

Dundas x Revolve is a one-year partnership. The first, fall collection centers on statement styles including capes, blazer-dresses and skin-baring gowns.

As Alexis Ren, Danielle Bernstein and Ciara walked in, Revolve co-CEOs Michael Mente and Karanikolas talked with Glossy prior to the show about the company’s overall product collaboration strategy and latest iteration with Dundas.

Revolve’s balance of influencer and designer collabs
Mente: “We’ve always done a little bit of both [types of collaborations]. The influencer component has been so dominant for the past couple of years, both in what we’ve been doing and in the [industry-wide] conversation. But, since our inception 18 years ago, we’ve been [focused on] being a platform for emerging designers. Giving access to these really talented people [with brands] that aren’t necessarily [available] everywhere has always been important to who we are and will continue to be important. This is a perfect example of the next version of that — in an elevated, expanded way.”

On teaming with Dundas
Mente: “It was a natural [fit]. The [Revolve and Dundas] teams have been trying to plan this for over two years, just exploring different ways to collaborate. We’ve carried Peter’s line on our luxury site, FWRD, for years, and the line kills it at FWRD. [Plus] it’s always been in perfect alignment with our aesthetic and our ethos. So we’re proud to bring it to the Revolve customer.”

What the Revolve customer is wearing now
Mente: “She wants to feel good after sweatpants and Zoom life, and she’s craving going out. We’re seeing that [in sales] across the board, in styles from casual dresses to event dresses. She’s going to dinners with friends and to all those big events that have been on pause, like weddings. And that’s what Peter [makes clothes for], at the best of the best [level].” 

Making NYFW the collection’s launchpad
Karanikolas: “Obviously, we’re based out of L.A., but New York is also important to us. California and New York are by far our biggest geographies — NYC and Los Angeles, in particular. And we haven’t been out here [in NYC] as much as we’d like.”

Marketing the collaboration
Karanikolas: “We’re using social media, wild postings, [media] interviews. We haven’t done tons to promote the collection, but the level of excitement around it — including [via] RSVPs [to the show] — has been incredible. It’s already far surpassed our expectations, and we had high expectations.” 

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