J.Crew CEO Libby Wadle, who took over for Jan Singer in November of 2020, hasn’t done many interviews since taking up her new position. She and her team have been heads-down, trying to clarify her new vision for the brand.
Wadle said she has been “resetting” her team and figuring out how to reengage the customers that J.Crew has lost over the years.
“It’s not so much about awareness as engagement,” Wadle said. “Everybody knows J.Crew. The question is, ‘How do we get them back into J.Crew?’”
Two years ago, J.Crew filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing pressures from the pandemic but also pre-existing problems including a lack of cohesive identity and raised prices. But while J.Crew was struggling, Madewell, which Wadle was CEO of at the time, thrived. According to Wadle, the way to get customers back on board with J.Crew is to lead with design and affordability, by bringing in fresh creative talent and keeping prices low.
“I came in with a fresh perspective, without a lot of baggage around what J.Crew had been before. And I worked with my team to reset who we are,” Wadle said. “For me, it starts with the creative. I wanted to bring in great creative talent who really understood the brand, let them take the lead and push us forward with a more modern lens.”
Two key people who are helping to fulfill Wadle’s vision are Brendon Babenzien, the sneaker designer who founded Noah and serves as J.Crew’s chief menswear designer, as of May 2021. There’s also Olympia Gayot, evp of women’s design, who joined around the same time as Wadle.
Gayot’s first collection, released in September of 2021, garnered high praise. While Babenzien hasn’t yet officially designed a collection for J.Crew — his debut is set for the fall — a collection he styled in January prompted GQ to publish the headline “It’s Official, J.Crew Is Good Again.” It praised Babenzien’s fresh eye and creation of more daring looks than J. Crew is usually known for, including loose pleated pants for men.
Wadle said it’s good to hear praise like that, but it also means added pressure. Re-engaging lapsed J.Crew customers means convincing them that these changes are positive and permanent.
To do that, Wadle said the company is investing heavily in marketing. Though she couldn’t disclose any exact financials, she said around 90% of the brand’s marketing spend has been in digital. Its spring campaign, revealed in early February and featuring celebrities Florence Pugh and Leslie Odom Jr., was released across social, out-of-home and print channels.
“The biggest change in how we’re marketing is that we’re letting the design take the lead,” Wadle said. “The story starts with design, with the product, and all the marketing and messaging should follow from that.”
In regard to J.Crew’s much-maligned price increase in 2015, Wadle said she has no plans to tinker with the prices the company has set. Instead, she said, the focus will be on improving the “price-quality connection” by using higher-quality materials while keeping prices the same. That will be offset by a decreased emphasis on discounts.