J.Crew Vice president of women’s design Marissa Webb talks about J. Crew’s evolution.
J. Crew is like the cool kid in school that everyone envies, then starts to dress like. Having opened its first store in just 1983, the former niche catalog-retailer has shown consistent year-over-year increases after vastly expanding its fashion point of view. A current darling of Wall Street, the company operates 246 retail stores (including 220 J.Crew retail stores, 9 kid crewcuts and 17 Madewell stores). It continues to operate its catalog business, its jcrew.com and madewell.com divisions, plus 81 factory outlet stores in the United States. First quarter 2010 revenues increased 20% to $413.9 million, while store sales increased 20% to $290 million, with comparable store sales increasing 15% over the same period.
J.Crew’s forte is its ability to recognize an opportunity and run with it. The company stumbled into the bridal business (when phone operators told CEO Mickey Drexler that women were ordering dresses in multiples for bridesmaids) and recently opened its first J.Crew bridal boutique in Manhattan, complete with exclusive accessories. J.Crew has boosted its fashion and accessories reputation in recent years, making it the go-to destination for girly-edgy crystal/chain/ribbon jewelry, not to mention sequins for day. Lately, J. Crew has thrown branded collaborations into the mix.
J.Crew used to be an adjective: like she’s sooo J.Crew. Is “prep” a four-letter word now that J.Crew is so much more?
Well, we prefer classic. And sophisticated. It’s always important to have that balance of the classic and the fun, frilly and over the top. Our design philosophy is “nothing in one direction.” It’s the boy/girl, hard/soft, classic and modern/edgy. From the minute I came in this door eight years ago, J.Crew has always been a balance of mixing elements—and borrowing from the boys.
How did such a preppy (sorry!) retailer become so hip?
You can’t just decide one day to change everything about J.Crew. We did it organically and that’s what made us strong. J.Crew seems to be a destination for great jewelry.
When did you start doing such dramatic pieces?
Well, right now the jewelry is on everyone’s radar. We’ve had such great accessories across the board for a while, and the jewelry is a new element. We’re so excited about it. The jewelry adds shine to the “boy element;” a fun pop to the classic boy blazer. Necklaces can go from $29.50 for a simple piece and go up to $800 for a one-off, bib necklace. J.Crew accessories used to be predominantly private label, but we’re seeing more brands creating merchandise for the store.
Is this a new direction?
We’d dabbled in it, but as J.Crew evolved, so did these accessories brands and collaborations. We don’t plan out our next collaboration—it can be word of mouth, and many more designers are coming to us now to do partnerships. While some specialty chain retailers knock off designers with [private label designs], we find it better to work with them and create a collaboration. It’s about selecting the best and editing ourselves and making the right decision. The percentage of such branded collaborations fluctuates season to season.
Are some just online exclusives?
We usually try to connect the store and the website but it depends on each company’s capabilities. We do have some online exclusives, just because it can tell a story a little bit better and you don’t have to worry how it all sits in the store. We might love an item but not have room for it in the store.
Are the exclusives and collaborations higher priced?
Not necessarily. We don’t use price to determine if we can do a collaboration or not; it’s about whatever adds something to J.Crew. It could be something for $19.
What are the current collaborations?
Miriam Haskell for J.Crew has become a big part of the bridal business and is at the bridal boutique; Fenton/Fallon for J.Crew, which mixes edgy chains with pearls and ribbons (retails up to $295). In footwear, we have handmade boots with shearling linings by a tiny company in Maine called Quoddy. It’s hand-made Americana and if the sole wears out they’ll replace them. It ties in with the J.Crew heritage. Not cheap [up to $300], but made by hand and labored over. We do try to put the story into the catalog and online—we want the story told and we love having J.Crew affiliated with it. We’re also doing hats by Lola, plus a small year-round business with LemLem, a line created by supermodel Liya Kebede that’s all hand-woven in her native country Ethiopia. She gives a large percentage back to the community.
We don’t do as many collaborations in handbags. Angela Adams from Maine was a friend of a friend. She creates amazing handmade bags from boat sails. We had a bit of room to play with the artwork and we painted imagery for the design exclusives. We have a Timex watch exclusive that is a men’s watch but women are buying it as a “boyfriend watch.”
What’s new in hairgoods beyond the simple headband?
J.Crew had lots of the simple headband but now we’re having fun with it. Hair trends up and down. We have the classic items—pins, barrettes, headbands—but we try to make them more unique. Everything is designed here and is labored over. We have a woman whose only job is in-house embellishment. She hand-beads everything. We’ll give her a headband to put a tulle flower and beads and she just gets creative.
What’s a hot accessories classification now?
We put a lot of energy into legwear—colors, texture, weight. And there was a lot of emphasis on legwear in our Fall show and there’s so much creativity in how it can be worn and layered.
The J.Crew catalog has remained a company staple yet so many retailers are moving away from print.
True; many stores don’t do them anymore. But our stylists do such an amazing job and it’s an important styling tool for the consumer to have the outfits explained to them.
How do you connect with your customers?
On the website we post bridal photo albums of real customers wearing J.Crew at their wedding parties. I love J.Crew because we’re really open to new ideas and concepts and are constantly evolving. You can’t put us in a box!
The J.Crew Collection store seems to be merchandised in a non-traditional way—mixing high and low prices; accessories with apparel. Tell me about this strategy.
We set it up to feel like you’re in a closet—it’s not just a sea of shirts or pants. It’s about color, texture, what sits well with what. We try to do everything that way, so the customer can look quickly and be inspired. We want to dress the real person; no one is always wearing head-to-toe extravagant expensive items. This mix of high and low is definitely emphasized more in the Collection stores.
Where do you generally hunt for ideas?
Part of the job is always to have your radar on. We do travel a lot, but for me, inspiration comes from getting dressed every morning and to see what I’m missing from my own wardrobe. Or maybe seeing a building and loving a texture and thinking that would look great on a shirt. I once had a ticket stub stuck on my shoe and I showed it to our graphic designer. It translated great and went onto a T-shirt! You don’t have to climb mountains for inspiration.