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J.Crew has been going through a revamp since emerging from bankruptcy in 2021. That includes bringing in exciting new designers Brendon Babenzien and Olympia Gayot. But J.Crew CMO Derek Yarbrough said 2023 is all about leaning into the brand’s past.
On Tuesday, the brand launched the first campaign of a year-long 40th-anniversary effort highlighting the four decades of J.Crew’s history. The first campaign is purely digital, but Yarbrough said more activations are planned for the year. They’ll include out-of-home advertisements, in-store events, and partnerships with both celebrity influencers and micro-influencers.
Yarbrough said one of the main themes J.Crew’s marketing will lean on this year is “timelessness.”
“If you look back, our product and our design have remained pretty consistent,” he said. A pair of men’s chinos the brand sells today, for example, is made with materials and construction that are similar to chinos it sold in the 1990s. “But obviously, we try to keep things current. Our chinos now are a bit baggier because that’s what men are wearing — we even [offer] Giant Fit Chinos. And in a few years, I’m sure it will swing back to slimmer chinos. But the core of the style remains consistent.”
Yarbrough said the focus on trends and a product catalog that changes quickly has become the hallmark of cheap fast fashion brands. It’s an association that J.Crew is trying to distance itself from in its new campaigns, which emphasize J.Crew’s constant American prep style. Marketing copy emphasizes the longevity of products, saying, “As we look forward, our mission remains the same: to create clothes of quality that you’ll wear and love for decades, and maybe even pass down one day.”
But Yabrough said it’s important for the brand to stay fresh. For that, it’s been leaning on Babenzien and Gayot, both of whom are well-known for their previous work at Supreme and Victoria’s Secret, respectively. The brand has posted videos to its social accounts of Gayot walking through her moodboard for a collection, for instance. It’s also run an Instagram series of “Design Try-On” videos, featuring Gayot and other members of the design team trying on different pieces from upcoming collections. Gayot herself has over 125,000 followers on Instagram and often posts looks and styling inspiration from the brand, along with behind-the-scenes images from shoots and fittings.
“We try to use the designers very organically,” Yarbrough said. “It’s part of our heritage to have great design and these really talented people. I love that Olympia used to work under [former J.Crew designer] Jenna Lyons. So it’s natural for us to use that connection in the storytelling.”
Since 2010, Gayot had worked as design director under Lyons, who had worked at J.Crew since the late ’80s. In 2017, Lyons and J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler both left the company after several years of declining sales and the perception that J.Crew had lost its way. When Lyons left, Gayot left the company, as well, to work at Victoria’s Secret. She was rehired by J.Crew as its evp of women’s design in 2020.
Lyons’ era at the brand was criticized after she left for skewing too far toward trend-chasing and moving away from the core identity of the brand. The direction for the brand’s 40th anniversary year seems to be looking back to J.Crew’s simpler earlier catalog days.
For the rest of the year, Yarbrough said he’s focusing J.Crew’s customer acquisition strategy on quality over quantity of new customers. In preparation, the brand rebranded its loyalty program to J.Crew Passport last year, adding more perks to the lower membership tiers to encourage return shopping. In addition, the brand launched a resale program in January, which not only brings in revenue but also acts as a marketing tool, Yarbrough said. It offers a lower price point for entry into the brand and showcases the longevity of its product.
“I bought a vintage J.Crew rugby shirt that’s 35 years old and still looks and feels great,” Yarbrough said. “That tells customers that the shirt they buy now will last them another 35 years.”
After going bankrupt in 2020 due to the pandemic, J.Crew has experienced a comeback. Business of Fashion compared J.Crew’s post-bankruptcy comeback strategy favorably last year, crediting the hiring of Gayot and Babenzien with bringing customers back. The brand still discounts regularly — current employees have even advised shoppers to only ever buy on sale, due to the frequency of promotions. But its revenue in 2022 was 30% higher than pre-pandemic.
Still, J.Crew is among the many retailers facing ongoing challenges from the lingering effects of the pandemic and macroeconomic factors. The S&P revised its rating of J.Crew’s parent company earlier this week to a “B,” saying the brand was “vulnerable to adverse business, financial and economic conditions.”