Customers Continue to Shun J. Crew's Overpriced, Low-Quality, Ill-Fitting Clothes

In light of all of the many recent reports to the tune of "Millennials Killed J. Crew" or the various iterations thereof, it is worth looking back at an article from December 2016, which shed light on what it was that J. Crew was actually doing wrong ... because, at the end of the day, it was not consumers that killed J. Crew. It was J. Crew - and its rising prices, worsening fits, and overuse of Jenna Lyons-approved sequins - that killed J. Crew. 

J. Crew is heading into 2017 on a mission that gets more critical with each passing day: turn around a two-year sales slump or slam head-on into a wall of debt. Some of the company’s $2 billion in debt becomes current in 2018, and J. Crew needs to revive its flagging business to stave off rising odds of default. 

To do that, the retailer is focusing on its preppy heritage, expanding its discount business and fueling the growth of its small but successful Madewell brand geared toward millennials. For some analysts, it may already be too late. “I don’t think they know how to fix J. Crew,” said Carla Casella, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co. “They were just living on the past strength of their brand.”

J. Crew has fallen sharply out of favor since first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters wore the brand at the 2013 inauguration, casting a halo over the company with a wave of publicity that money couldn’t buy. That glow lasted into early 2014, when the retailer was interviewing banks as it considered an initial public offering.

But over the past two years, the retailer has lost customers who complained of high prices on low-quality and ill-fitting clothes, and its same-store sales have fallen in 10 of the past 11 quarters. To move goods, the retailer has offered deep discounts and expanded its off-price factory and Mercantile chains.

Drexler, the former Gap Inc. CEO, is working with creditors to restructure the company’s debt. One of his proposals, a plan to shift the J. Crew brand name to an entity in the Cayman Islands, has riled lenders. They say the change could prevent them from demanding the intellectual property as collateral or lower the value of their holdings in any restructuring.

The company’s most immediate debt concern is centered on $543 million of pay-in-kind notes due in 2019 that become current in 2018. The securities traded at less than 42 cents on the dollar on Dec. 15 to yield 51 percent, according to Trace, the bond-price reporting system of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Margot Fooshee, a spokeswoman for J. Crew, declined to comment.

J. Crew, which began as a popular catalog company and expanded into brick-and-mortar stores in the 1990s, has fallen a long way from its peak. At one time, its creative director and president, Jenna Lyons, would appear in fashion magazines and on red carpets. The company cultivated its image of an aspirational lifestyle brand by opening a two-level wedding salon on New York’s Madison Avenue in 2010, and almost doubled its store base from 2009 to 2016.

Now, much of that image is unraveling. The company said this year it will shutter its 12-year-old bridal business, and it’s entered into an agreement to wholesale the iconic J. Crew brand through Nordstrom -- the first time the company’s signature apparel will be sold outside its carefully curated stores.

It is also aiming to return to its roots. Last year, Drexler said J. Crew would focus on its classic, basic styles and produce less of the flashy, high-style items it had recently introduced. “They’re trying to return to the core of what the business is,” Hebert said. “The question that I can’t answer -- and I don’t know if anyone can -- is what’s the appeal of that core J. Crew business, and how big does that get to be?”