Can J.Crew’s New Designer Bring Back The Brand’s Sparkle?

Under Jenna Lyons, J.Crew became a cultural phenomenon. So, can Chris Benz – the new creative director – restore the brand’s allure?

j crew new designer

by Hannah Banks-Walker |

There’s a reason Jenna Lyons became famous. It’s not just because of her own, seemingly inimitable and utterly distinctive personal style (those square black glasses are to Lyons what the bob haircut is to Anna Wintour). Nor is it because she was already a household name as a designer when she went to J.Crew. It’s because she transformed a mid-tier, preppy retailer into an indomitable force that even the upper echelons of the fashion industry couldn’t – and certainly didn’t want to – ignore.

Through a mix of clever styling and a fusion of punchy pieces (sequin cardigans, jazzy earrings and bright colours, for example) with the preppy staples (Breton tops, khaki trousers) for which it was known, J.Crew became one of the most exciting brands on the fashion landscape. But when Lyons left the brand in 2017, she took that irresistible allure with her and since then, J.Crew has been plagued with empty shops and reports of mounting debt. Could Chris Benz, the brand new creative director who has just taken the reins at the label, be the answer to its problems?

chris benz j crew
Chris Benz, J.Crew's new creative director

Multiple reports about Benz refer to that great American adage of ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’, largely based on the fact that he was at J.Crew straight out of the prestigious Parsons School of Design in NYC – during Lyons’ tenure – and is now back, proclaiming his passion for J.Crew and its very American identity. But it feels very genuine, as Benz returns with his hard-earned experience of running his own label. “J.Crew was my first job and I guess you always feel something for that,” Benz says. “I’m excited that I now have the ability and authority to reimagine the brand in a very specific and personal way. The thing I have always loved about the brand, and I think many others share my view of this, is that there’s this really great American irreverence to everything that we do, meaning there’s a preppy aesthetic with a twist, there’s a dressed-up, party outfit but with a little bit of wit around it and I think that’s something that is really baked into the brand in an authentic way.”

While the media frenzy that used to accompany J.Crew and anything it did (editors employed all the superlatives they could think of) has certainly quietened since Lyons departed, the pizazz she brought to the brand still lingers in the ruffle on a cotton sundress or the wide array of bright gobstopper jewels seen on earrings, for example. There’s also royal fans in Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, arguably two of the world’s most effective “influencers” – however indirectly – at the moment.

meghan markle j crew coat
The Duchess of Sussex in a J.Crew coat in 2018

Indeed, Markle’s coat sold out at rapid speed when she wore it on a visit to Birmingham last year. But in this current, saturated market in which Instagram is playing king-maker to so many new brands, all keen to carve out their own identity in a sea of influencers and #spon posts, is J.Crew pursuing a social media-led strategy in a bid to compete? “Any new platform where we can reach our existing customers or new customers is obviously to everyone’s benefit,” says Benz. “I think that adapting to whatever is the most modern platform to connect with our customers is definitely the way to go. J.Crew was one of the first brands to sell online, actually.We launched in the late 90s, which I think is very forward-thinking. I think there’s definitely a version of that forward-thinking we can use now.”

Benz has designed two pieces as part of collaborations that were in place before he joined. One is a tie-dye Breton tee (already sold out), the other a basket bag. While they are available to order from the US site, Benz’s first full collection won’t appear until Spring 2020. He’s remaining fairly tight-lipped on the specifics of what it might look like but he is sure that he wants to remain true to the heart of the J.Crew aesthetic. “I would love to stay as true as possible to what I see as the core values of the brand – the pillars of J.Crew, as it were – through very unique colour, great materials like cotton poplin and cashmere and all sorts of garment dyes that we can mix-and-match so that we can play around and support personal style. I think that gives us a great opportunity to maintain the look and feel of the brand in different ways but also move it ahead.”

jenna lyons j crew sequin blazer
Jenna Lyons in sequins by day – her signature look

It’s clear that the concept of personal style and how that can be manipulated, as exemplified by Lyons, has been an overwhelming influence on Benz. “When I first started in 2004 this period of experimentation with personal style was really in its infancy. It was definitely inspiring to experience that from a design standpoint when at that time, it wasn’t really customary for women to wear a sequin cardigan during the daytime, for example, and there was this push to educate and bring our customer along and introduce her to some new styling concepts. That, I think, is my biggest takeaway from that period [working under Lyons], in thinking about partnering with your customer, giving her what she wants but also challenging her from a design and styling perspective.”

One of the beautiful things about heading a company such as J.Crew – America’s answer to a heritage brand, in many ways – is that there will also be a loyal customer base, ready and waiting to buy all of their essentials. But, as Benz says, this may be both a blessing and a curse. “A challenge but also a benefit that I see is that each and every person who has an opinion about the brand has it because they have a personal relationship with it. People are passionate about J.Crew in a way that feels very unique compared to the way they talk about other brands – it’s so much a part of people’s story, what they’re wearing to their wedding and parties and to the office. There’s a very obvious, personal connection that they have. A challenge is keeping as many of those people happy and fulfilling expectations and needs of those customers who are very passionate about the brand.”

Kate Middleton j crew jumper
Kate Middleton wore a J.Crew jumper in March this year

Benz prioritises “style and quality over the idea of trends and fashion”, which is definitely a much-needed sentiment in the current climate, where fashion’s impact on the environment is being largely ignored by world leaders. How that translates to the actual collections remains to be seen but Benz is keen to emphasise the concept of J.Crew dressing us all for 24 hours a day. “I’m looking at the categories that are perhaps smaller but seem to be performing well and I want to build those up more, identifying places where we can respond to the way that women are dressing in actuality on the street. I’m definitely into great products that may be on trend, may be off trend but that have longevity. And some kind of emotion in them, whether it’s a pop-colour shoe that can be worn in a bunch of different ways – that’s more interesting and will resonate with shoppers more than of-the-moment trend pieces.”

Can J.Crew climb back up to its previously lofty position, presiding over fashion’s mid-market brands as once before? One difficulty may be that, since J.Crew’s heyday, many brands have targeted that sweet-spot in the market, appealing to a more accessible price point. Ganni, for example, has enjoyed stratospheric success in the last few years, amassing a huge following of cool girls all over the world. But Benz sees J.Crew entering a “new era”, and he seems confident in his own plans for the brand. “I have a pretty clear picture of what I anticipate the look and feel of this new era to be. To me it seems like a logical trajectory to get from where we are to where I want us to be but now it’s just about making all the pieces that fit into that road map.”

Come Spring next year, there’s a chance we’ll all be a part of J.Crew’s new era.

SHOP: 5 J.Crew Dresses You'll Wear All Summer

Gallery

5 J.Crew Dresses You'll Wear All Summer

Velvet Trimmed Dress, £100
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Embellished Midi Dress, £190
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Printed Voile Midi Dress, £110
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Tiered Gingham Cotton Poplin Dress, £210
4 of 5

Floral Print Wrap Dress, £110
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