Is J.Crew abandoning its core brand?

CEO Mickey Drexler has touched off a fight over the clothing company's future

Jenna Lyons
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Old school J. Crew is picking a little fight with new school J.Crew, and it sounds like CEO Mickey Drexler is taking sides.

On Wednesday, Forbes contributor Chris DeRose relayed a personal anecdote about a conversation between his wife, an old school devotee, and Drexler.

After viewing J. Crew's Fall 2013 collection, DeRose's wife wrote a disgruntled email to the company's anonymous "J.Crew 24-7" address. "I am so disheartened and disappointed that you are leaving your core values and styling and abandoning your loyal customers," she wrote. "I would have thought you had learned your lesson at the Gap!! Why mess with these iconic brands and change them into something they're not?"

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That might have touched a sore spot: Drexler was fired from Gap in 2002, after four straight quarters of declining profits and a fast-slipping share price. Gap's well-publicized travails have been a case study in brand destruction.

Within a day, Drexler had DeRose's wife on the phone, along with the heads of marketing and personal shopping. After hearing her out, Drexler gave a rare peek inside some of the company's thinking. From the article:

Drexler also stood his ground on the need to continue evolving the company's style as competitors attempt to copy its success. He went on to say, however, that in the company's desire to embrace change, the team also shared the view that some of the styling had perhaps strayed too far from the classics and brand messaging for which J.Crew had become known. Drexler's views had been shaped, in part, by his recent trip to stores with [J.Crew president Libby] Wadle so he could hear firsthand from customers and frontline sales associates. "We are on it for sure," he later emailed my wife. "I hope you see a difference this fall." [Forbes]

J.Crew's choice to "stray" can be traced back to 2008 when Jenna Lyons took over as creative director. Lyons transformed J.Crew's style from preppy-casual basics to "a force in fashion," says Danielle Sacks at Fast Company. Lyons "has created a high-low look that reflects her own boy-girl style — androgyny with some sequins and a dash of nerdy glasses."

And it seems like Lyons' look has been paying the bills. "Along with annual revenue that has more than tripled to $2.2 billion since 2003, the cult of J.Crew has blossomed like a CMO's fantasy, with fashion blogs wholly devoted to the brand," and high-profile fans like Michelle Obama and Anna Wintour, says Sacks.

In response to Drexler's claim, plenty of new school J. Crew devotees are speaking up. Lyons' fans credit her with revitalizing the style, and hope Drexler's promise isn't too literal. Allison P. Davis from New York:

Sure, maybe people are tiring of wearing giant necklaces over collared shirts, or mixing stripes with florals. Or maybe they never wore them in the first place, but it gave them something to aspire to. If Mickey intends to take J.Crew back to "core values," we hope it's not to return to some sartorial safety net of conservative chinos and twinsets. That is what Banana Republic is for. [New York]

Others argue that J. Crew still offers the same basics DeRose's wife misses — they're just styled to reach a different audience now. Refinery 29's Lexi Nisita:

J.Crew has positioned itself not only as a retailer but as a purveyor of a specific stylistic vision, and in this era of online shopping, with its endless pages and pages of merchandise of indeterminable quality, that's not only a smart move but a necessary one. Lyons and Drexler should keep their core consumer in mind, but their core consumers, we hope, should also realize that what they love hasn't disappeared. Rather, it's now being presented in a way that is both challenging and accessible — a thoroughly democratic strategy that, for our part, is right in line with the future of fashion as an increasingly relevant and widespread creative medium. [Refinery 29]

To whit:

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Carmel Lobello is the business editor at Previously, she was an editor at