J. Crew drops anchor in Hong Kong

J. Crew has dropped anchor in Asia. Divia Harilela charts its crossing from humble catalogue to fashion empire

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 6:25pm

Sequins are all the rage at J. Crew's headquarters in downtown New York. It's 9am and the company's well-dressed staffers are buzzing about in glittering tops, jackets and skirts accessorised with neon cashmere, men's button downs, striped tees and chunky crystal jewellery.

Wearing so much bling at this time of the morning would be considered poor taste anywhere else in the world, but taking fashion risks has made J. Crew one of America's most successful brands.

It wasn't always an arbiter of style. The company began as a humble fashion catalogue in the 1980s, offering preppy American classics. Sales took a nosedive in the '90s, but changed course when turnaround king Millard "Mickey" Drexler - of Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and The Gap - took over as CEO in 2003.

Today 40 million copies of the catalogue go out every year. It could easily rival a copy of Vogue, thanks to its glossy fashion editorials and styled merchandise that is more luxurious than its democratic price points suggest. Colour-blocked Italian cashmere sweaters, Italian-made leather ballet flats and eye-catching prints from old fashion houses are among the offerings.

As a result, those who wear J. Crew are fiercely devoted. The Obamas wear it, Oprah buys its cashmere in bulk and there's a loyal online following. The latest total revenue figures from the company stand at a healthy US$525.5 million.

Now J. Crew is spreading its wings globally. It's set to expand into Asia with the official opening of its first outpost at Lane Crawford next Thursday, to be followed by standalone stores in 2014.

Drexler, creative director Jenna Lyons, Tom Mora (head of womenswear design), and Frank Muytjens (head of menswear design) will all be in Hong Kong for the launch.

"J. Crew is a brand that has a great deal of fashion credibility while speaking to a large audience," says Sarah Rutson, fashion director of Lane Crawford. "We had long been fans of Mickey Drexler and Jenna Lyons - her taste level and ability to mix it up and have irony and quirkiness, that we really relate to."

Lyons has played a huge part in putting the cool back into the brand. Her hip personal look has caused "style crushes" declared on countless fashion blogs, and the media has compared her to doyennes such as Anna Wintour and, most recently, Miuccia Prada.

She's a bundle of energy. She bounds out of her office in a light pink T-shirt, a navy and white sequinned skirt and neon jewels. Her dark hair is coiled into a low bun while her black spectacles complete a look that is emulated on every page of the catalogue.

During meetings with her colleagues, her sentences are punctuated with utterances of "shut up", "no way", and plenty of laughs (mostly at herself). And like a true girls' girl, she loves fashion.

"I was super tall and pretty gawky, and I thought I was a size 14 because nothing fitted me. I took a home economics class and started to make things to wear myself. I made this skirt with watermelons on it, wore it to school and everyone loved it. That winter my grandmother gave me a sewing machine and a subscription to Vogue," she says.

"As a teenager growing up in the sleepy town of Palos Verdes [in California] I had no access to fashion so it became my bible - I memorised every price, every make-up and hair stylist, every model."

She started taking art classes, learning to mimic the style of fashion illustrators such as Antonio Lopez. When she graduated from Parsons New School of Design New York in the early '90s, she was offered a job at Donna Karan but turned it down.

"I remember the first day I walked into Donna Karan and thinking it was everything I wanted. But I didn't come from money, and here I was looking at jackets that were US$2,500. They were beautiful and I was in awe of the product, but I felt out of place."

What did appeal to her was the J. Crew catalogue, which featured editorials with the likes of Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista.

They were looking for a men's knitwear designer, so she took a chance and sent in her portfolio. She was offered the job of an assistant, which she accepted without asking what her starting salary was.

"I love beautiful and expensive clothes. But part of why I started designing was the experience of touching people and having a connection with someone," she says. "When I got my job, all my friends wanted to shop at J. Crew. I could share something with them."

The next 10 years saw plenty of highs and lows, including the coming and going of several CEOs.

Things didn't seem to be getting better until Drexler stepped in, armed with a bold micromanaging style (he still addresses the entire office through a centralised PA system) and a passion for quality.

He fired all the senior staff except two - one of them being Lyons. After two years, the company turned a profit.

"Mickey changed everything. It was invigorating - he wanted to talk about the product. We used to talk about the needs of the business, but there's no real way to form a passionate experience around need. He changed the process. He told us, 'Don't talk about price. Design and present to us your final dream'."

Lyons started to add more fashion forward and tailored menswear designs. They included styles made at Italian or Japanese mills, using luxe fabrics like Super Wools and Loro Piana cashmere. Sub-brands were launched, like Crewcuts for children, and The Collection for women, which is now on show at New York Fashion Week.

In 2008, they transformed an old liquor shop in Tribeca into a men's lifestyle store free of branding and stocked it with a selection of limited editions and vintage finds. The Ludlow, a space dedicated to men's suiting followed. They began a series of collaborations with hip designers (most recently New York darling Joseph Altuzarra); established heritage brands such as Barbour, Belstaff, British shirt makers Thomas Mason and Alden; and more edgy offerings from the likes of Comme des Garçons and leather goods maker Billykirk. Beauty is next.

"Mickey does these open office hours and all the men would come in wearing Red Wing boots. We didn't want to create our own - it's a classic brand - so we decided to sell them. We had an incredible response. It was an opportunity for us to be generous about other brands and talk about companies that are smaller and interesting.

"Everyone is looking for some level of intimacy, trust and integrity. There's a lot going on in the world. We are not interested in making throwaway clothes - the clothes we make are inherently classic.

"There are not many ways to stand out today. So we've been trying to explain to people what it is we do by letting them know about the brands we work with, and where we get our fabrics. That way, they feel confident shopping with us. I hope it's meaningful, because I love clothes," she says throwing her hands up in the air.

As the company rose to success, Lyons became involved in styling the catalogues, overseeing the photo shoots, and working with collaborators. "I am the curator, and I am in charge of the road signs. I tell our customers, 'Stop. Go over here. This way everyone'," she says. "Because the clothes are simple, the styling becomes important."

Lyons insists that the brand's success is a team effort. By her side are long-serving colleagues, such as Mora, Muytjens and head stylist Gayle Spannaus.

"My idea may not be the best. I will make mistakes. So together we will look at what we did last season and talk about how to do it differently. The trick is looking at what's happening in the market and responding to that. It is a social experience and that fearless element is incredibly important," she says.

"Ten years ago, I would never have imagined I would be where I am today. The trajectory the company has taken has been incredible. But I always say you are only as good as what you did a minute ago. You can't rest on your laurels."