Brendon Babenzien Could Make J.Crew Incredible Again
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Like nearly 30,000 other people, I follow a wonderful Instagram account called @LostJCrew. It uploads photos of decade’s-old J.Crew campaigns that hearken back to an era when the brand’s oatmeal linen sweaters, oxford blue shirts, and pleated slacks epitomized pure prep perfection.
@LostJCrew’s comment section is awash with former J.Crew creative talent nostalgic for vintage issues of J.Crew’s inimitable catalog, imagery reflective of a bygone time when the internet didn’t exist and J.Crew was still family-owned. The days of J.Crew producing easy, quality essentials have been lost to the tides of time, they fear, hence the Instagram page’s name.
But, under the guidance of J.Crew’s new menswear creative director Brendon Babenzien, the J.Crew of today is worth rediscovering.
Babenzien is a fellow @LostJCrew follower, he tells me over the phone.
“That account is pretty incredible,” he says.
“It reminds me that I was there. Like, when I see an image from those catalogs, I’m transported back immediately, so vividly. I’ve been wearing J.Crew since I was a kid; it’s been a part of my wardrobe since the mid-’80s.”
You can see a smidge of that ’80s-era J.Crew in Babenzien’s work as Supreme‘s design director, where a Supreme x Brooks Brothers collaboration was one of the last things issued before he departed in 2015.
You can also see some J.Crew in the early days of An Earnest Cut & Sew, the rugged, short-lived menswear line that Babenzien co-founded with Earnest Sewn founder Scott Morrison in 2005.
But you can really feel the J.Crew influence in NOAH, the post-streetwear label that Babenzien founded and will continue overseeing while at J.Crew.
NOAH’s neo-prep vision has manifested sell-out sneakers and tailored clothing alike, erasing the lines between skatewear and menswear with beautiful lookbooks as lush as anything ever lensed for J.Crew’s catalog.
To Babenzien, that dichotomy is organic.
“Part of my success, if you want to call it that, is that combination of the worlds I come from,” he explains. “I was this young skating, surfing kid but I was also always interested in more traditional clothes. Even when I was at Supreme, bringing those two worlds together was a big part of what we did.”
Now, we live in a world where the world’s most famous luxury labels make their own skate shoes, a cultural hybridization that only proves Babenzien’s prescience.
“Men don’t grow up the same way that they did generations ago,” says Babenzien. “Like, I’m 50 and I still skate. I go on runs. I won’t give that up for a suit and tie.”
“I think people now retain that youthful energy throughout their entire lives.”
This belief is core to Babenzien’s J.Crew, which debuts for the Fall/Winter 2022 season. The mass-market brand remains as approachable as ever, with classic cashmere sweaters, barn jackets, and rugby shirts aplenty, but the presentation is fresher, more vibrant.
Babenzien’s J.Crew is timeless, or perhaps better described as out of time. He brings together the washed-out denim jeans and deliciously chunky knitwear from pre-Y2K J.Crew and the trim, salable suiting of Mickey Drexler and Jenna Lyons’ J.Crew.
J.Crew FW22 also includes corduroy harrington jackets, suede vests, flannel shirts, paint-splattered pants, and collegiate knits that’d all hardly look out of place in a NOAH collection.
In other worse, it’s quintessential Babenzien.
Babenzien’s creative leadership comes at a moment where J.Crew is still very much present in the American conscious but is nowhere near as dominant in the menswear sphere as it once was back in, say, the early ’10s.
In the intervening decade, both cultural tastes and retail operations have shifted dramatically, not least due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Drexler, the former CEO of J.Crew Group, is shocked at the amount of discounted merchandise lining store shelves these days. J.Crew’s 2020 bankruptcy filing had analysts skeptical of anything swifter than a two-year recovery at best.
Tough times engender nostalgia for the good ol’ days when J.Crew simply sold simple stuff to great success, before J.Crew held presentations at New York Fashion Week and became just another mall brand. Babenzien gets it.
“Maybe for quite some time, we were not quite so desirable,” Babenzien says. “Time and timing is incredibly important. Things cycle.”
“We’ve got a really great opportunity right now to have a lot of fun with the J.Crew history, which I think the general public is open to. I don’t wanna say it’s safe but it’s simple, it’s fun, it’s accessible. That’s really important right now.”
But don’t get it twisted. Babenzien may be channeling the goodwill fostered by the J.Crew of yore but he isn’t interested in imitating a vibe.
“We’re not looking at the brand in a ‘recreation’ way or trying to capitalize on nostalgia,” he says.
“At that time, the J.Crew community was much smaller and universally agreed upon one look or feeling. It was a smaller group of people living a very specific kind of lifestyle. The difference now is that J.Crew is a much bigger brand and has a much more diverse audience.”
It’s true: yesterday’s J.Crew presented a pleasant façade of WASP-y, New England trad.
But J.Crew can no longer exist by exclusively marketing clothing to well-to-do folks who maintain a summer home in Cape Cod. As a mass-market brand looking to reinvent itself, it needs to invite everyone to partake.
And Babenzien is hoping that the new J.Crew will prove inviting to all.
Not that there are no lessons worth learning from J.Crew’s past, mind you.
“We look at the old stuff as a reminder of what our core is. It’s a guiding light,” Babenzien continues.
“It reminds us just how good J.Crew was. It’s inspirational, like, ‘Wow, that’s incredible. Let’s be incredible again!’”
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