J.Crew Deserved Better Than Its Swift, Unremarkable Death
Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan
By Charles Mcfarlane / May 12, 2020 9:52 am

In 2012, I was 18 and had gone through some questionable fashion phases, including a real problem with clothes from Penguin and a period of dressing like I was living in the ‘30s or ‘50s, all in the name of finding my look.

By 18 I had mellowed out a bit. I was reading A Continous Lean, a bit of Four Pins and the young Jacob Gallagher blog “Wax Wane.” It was already the twilight of the heritage menswear movement that sprung up out of the 2009 recession and saw a new emphasis on heritage brands, hardwearing fabrics and vintage Americana influenced by Mad Men and midcentury design. For me, Oxford cloth button-downs were king, along with chambray shirts, raw denim and Red Wing boots. I was really falling into the classic heritage-guy look, but it wasn’t my own. As a teen with a limited budget and a penchant for vintage, there was one brand that served as an entry point for my growing sartorial obsession: J.Crew. While it may now be the butt of deserving internet mockery for its brazen price-cutting model and quality-control issues (which, in aggregate, have led to a potential Chapter 11 deathbed), there was a time when it was my cultural lifeline.  

On the southwest corner of  E 79th St. and Madison Avenue in Manhattan is the third J.Crew Men’s Shop. Located in a former art gallery and prior to that a bank, the blonde wood-paneled shop was my clubhouse. Just around the corner from my high school, I would go there on free periods to see what new pieces had come in, ogle the Alden chukka boots and Drake’s ties, and chat up the staff that to me seemed cool, stylish and as obsessed with clothing as I was. This was the men’s J.Crew of Frank Muytjens; Barbour jackets hung next to J.Crew cotton sweaters and Swaine Adeney Brigg umbrellas mingled with sleek Ludlow Suits that nearly cost the same amount. Everything seemed elevated, a little rough and tumble, practical yet sophisticated at the same time. There was no talk of prep or pastels and chinos. This was something else. 

There weren’t many other peers in my small Upper East Side hippie-chic school that caught the sartorial bug like I did. We were a studious bunch and save for a few exceptions, what we wore seemed more like a means to an end — you have to get dressed. I wanted to be like the guys who worked at the J.Crew on 79th St.: put together but not stuffy, walking the floor amongst stacked copies of Interview magazine, with the Smiths, David Bowie and The Stranglers blaring over the speaker system. As soon as I turned 18, I walked into the shop and applied for a job as a “sales associate.” I knew many of the guys who worked there already and hit it off with the Store Director, a tall lovable man who was always a little ruffled, shared my love for vintage militaria and had attended the same style of alternative school that I did. I think I even wore a tie to the interview –– naturally, I had bought it there. 

To my surprise, I got the gig. I still remember what I wore for my first shift: an Engineered Garments wool chore coat that was my most prized possession (next to the Barbour that I was able to get from J.Crew after cobbling together gift cards from birthdays and Christmas), a chambray workshirt and a pair of ‘90s Peter Elliot wide wale green corduroys I swiped from my father. Working on my free afternoons and weekends, I learned the drudgery of retail (folding, lots of folding). Throughout the summer before I went off to college, on breaks from school and for a few stints after I graduated college in 2016, I would periodically work at the shop to help me get by. 

Besides the pay, working at J.Crew opened up some choice discounts. I built my adult wardrobe working there, things I still wear to this day. Sure, a lot of the pieces were J.Crew, but a whole lot were third-party brands that I was being exposed to for the first time. J.Crew was a shop that seemed to have an eye for not exactly rare or hard-to-find pieces, but rather, brands that just made sense alongside it. For me this was eye-opening. I never thought of New Balance as cool or heard of Billykirk before, but both were carried under the same roof at J.Crew. The store also stocked magazines that opened up my eyes; I remember flipping through copies of Free & Easy and Popeye and discovering a thick black magazine called Monocle that I became obsessed with and would eventually work for. 

It wasn’t all about the third-party brands, though. The in-house men’s collections in those years were also re-teaching men the basics of dressing well and dressing smart. Suddenly it was all about how layering could both keep you warm and upgrade your look, how you could match workwear staples like chambray with your suits, how you could mix a mall brand like J.Crew with more refined pieces and not look out of place –– the point was to mix high and low.  There was something not quite vintage-y about seeing a mustard jean jacket under a patch pocketed wool work jacket. Tweed didn’t seem stuffy anymore, it was cool and casual. The venerated knitted tie made a comeback. Fair Isle sweaters were being paired suiting and raw denim. I could go on and on. It can be hard to remember now, when style is more diffuse than ever, that J.Crew styling things like workboots with fine cashmere suits, or hunting jackets with tennis shoes, truly carried weight and meant something to the average guy.  

The group that worked at the J.Crew on 79th St. and Madison in those years also taught me a hell of a lot. For the first time in my life, I was hanging out with mostly older (by only a couple years) folks who didn’t grow up in New York City and came to the city with a purpose. They were able to point out prominent New Yorkers who would pop into the shop that I had never heard of before, like Andy Spade or George Condo. This wasn’t a shopping-center J.Crew; this was in the heart of the well-heeled old New York establishment, and in those years it didn’t seem strange for a J.Crew to be there. Many of the staff had tailoring backgrounds and taught me the basics of fitting and pinning suits, while others showed me things like Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party and told me what art galleries to check out. But of course, a lot revolved around clothes. Everyone had some kind of sense of style, and they got dressed not for J.Crew but for themselves. They encouraged me to evoke not the store-bought looks of some catalogue or magazine spread, but my own personal sense of style.

In 2012 — even the kind of elevated store the Men’s Shop on Madison Ave. was in those days — there was already a sense that maybe the brand’s star was beginning to fade. The quality was slipping (I remember a season where nearly all the buttons cracked on the shirting) and the high-mindedness of the Men’s Shop was waning, with bright thin cashmere pushing out the more exclusive pieces. As I continually returned to work at the shop, you could see the pieces seeming less inspired, and in turn, so were the people who worked there. For years the only things worth considering at J.Crew –– for me at least –– have been the line of vintage-inspired “Wallace & Barnes” pieces, but now even that is slipping. I will always have incredibly fond memories of working at the shop, and many of my closest friends today are people I met there eight years ago. Most likely, I will never retire many of the clothes I bought while I worked there, now mended, repaired, re-dyed and falling apart, because, at the end of the day, J.Crew used to sell some damn good clothes. They really did.