When Jenna Lyons stepped down as creative director of J.Crew last week, the fashion industry was left with mixed feelings. Many who worked with her, and several who watched from the sidelines as she transformed J.Crew into an American fashion staple, touted her tenure. Others speculated why she hadn’t left or been ousted from the beleaguered brand sooner.
Regardless, her departure was not shocking. J.Crew has been struggling for several years now, experiencing the same decreasing sales and diminishing foot traffic as many of its retail peers. As a result, the company has been encumbered with overstocked inventory that has done little to entice consumers. Attempts at style overhauls that read more “high-fashion” floundered, and partnerships with companies like New Balance haven’t moved the dial enough to reinvigorate the brand.
As a result, sales have continued to drop in ten consecutive quarters, and total revenue across all J.Crew brands decreased by 3 percent to $2.43 billion in 2016, according to a report shared last month. Now J.Crew will have to reforge its identity, amid the loss of its very public leader, a particularly difficult task for a retailer that has seemingly lost its way. Here’s a look at how it got there.
Stale styles, stale marketing
A former employee of J.Crew, who asked to remain anonymous, said the first inkling of trouble began in 2015, following a series of layoffs that left employees on edge. While he said cutting jobs helped buoy slumping sales, little was being done to solve the more salient problem: People weren’t buying J.Crew’s clothing anymore.
“It became very clear that the company was going to get what it needed by [cutting jobs] instead of understanding its revenue problem,” he said. “Internally, I observed a lot of the same design mistakes continuing, and a lot of the same product that customers didn’t want continued to [stock] the shelves.”
The crux of J.Crew’s design issues is that over the years it stopped adhering to the unified vision that originally brought it success, said Gesina Gudehus-Wittern, engagement manager at digital agency Vivaldi.
“J.Crew’s mistake has been to react to a changing market by trying to be everything to everyone, instead of committing to one customer and one clear point of view – when originally, clarity of vision was their strong suit,” she said. “They were on to something with their unique brand personality, but in a quest to serve everyone, their quality and creative vision suffered. Never a winning combination.”
Though Gudehus-Wittern said a new creative director may, to some extent, help breathe life back into the struggling designs, it’s not a definitive fix. Ryan Berger, senior partner at influencer marketing company HYPR, echoed Gudehus-Wittern and reiterated that the company’s retail woes won’t be solved by simply supplanting its design director.
“It’s going to be much more important to figure out distribution and a new way to market, than to just bring a new figurehead in,” Berger said. “Those are the core problems — it’s not just Jenna Lyons, but how product is distributed and how they [evolve] to stay ahead of the curve.”
Another key issue, he said, is the lack of enthusiasm for J.Crew’s styles, which has led to pervasive discounting. Though he praised the company for innovative partnerships, like its athleisure line with New Balance, he said they haven’t been enough to appeal to customers who feel the company is beginning to lose touch.
In order to revitalize, Berger said J.Crew will need to focus on appealing to its core consumer base and loyalists, while also evolving to be more digitally focused. He said J.Crew should look to the models of companies like Vince and Rag & Bone, which have boutique aesthetics and offer limited-edition items.
“Your best customers are your biggest advocates, and people out there are big fans of the brand. Nobody wants to hear anymore from brands saying how great they are,” he said. “The company needs to go back to its roots and identify its biggest fans, and allow them to spread the message.
Leaning on Lyons
While Lyons was beloved by many both within the company and beyond, the employee attributed her longevity to becoming an indefatigable public face of the brand. Over the years, Lyons blossomed into a fashion and media darling, serving as the success story of an unconventional fashion leader who started at the bottom and worked her way to the top.
“I am so not an insider, and that is OK,” Lyons told The New York Times in 2013. “I might feel like one in very particular moments, but I don’t feel the same pressure I did when I was young to be part of the club. I’m not one of the cool kids, and that is totally fine.”
After starting at J.Crew as an assistant menswear designer, she quickly hit it off with CEO Mickey Drexler and, within a few years, became head of design. Between 2003 and 2011, Lyons and Drexler tripled revenue and expanded stores across the U.S. For a while, J.Crew was thriving, and Lyons’s celebrity led to gigs including a guest-starring role on the popular HBO show “Girls,” further solidifying her roles as designer and brand ambassador.
“It’s very clear that she’s a core person associated with the brand,” the former employee said. “I think the brand really valued having her associated with it. At the end of the day, that PR is really worth something and certainly adds value to the company, and that’s hard to let go of.”
Jenna Lyons guest starring on “Girls.” (Photo courtesy of HBO)
Lyons’s celebrity status made her more or less synonymous with the brand, which may make it challenging for J.Crew to evolve, Gudehus-Wittern said.
“Essentially, Lyons has been to J.Crew what Karl Lagerfeld is to Chanel — not the brand’s founder, but the personification of everything the brand stands for in the mind of its loyal customers,” Gudehus-Wittern said. “It’s hard for a loyal J.Crew customer to imagine the brand without her, and dangerously, for those loyal to the brand, that loyalty is closely tied to Lyons.”