Monday, March 13, 2023

When J. Crew Catalogs Were the Biggest Deal in Fashion

If International Male was hardcore porn for the burgeoning gay back in the day, J. Crew was definitely the source of some softcore fantasies. Long before the Abercrombie & Fitch quarterly, we had to get our kicks where we could -- and not every thrill involved a mesh tank top. 

Now a new book looks back at the publication that apparently got straight people (and actual fashion seekers) pretty excited too.


Eric Spitznagel writes:

Thirty-five years ago, print media was having a renaissance.

And the uncontested leader of the medium, with more cultural relevance than most magazines or books, was a clothing catalog, delivered free of charge to every home in America, 14 times a year.

During the ’80s and early ’90s, J.Crew was more than just a clothing mail-order business.

Their catalogs embodied “the delicate brine of a clambake wafting in the air; the particular romance of a misty morning at a rustic lakehouse,” writes Maggie Bullock, author of “The Kingdom of Prep: The Inside Story of the Rise and (Near) Fall of J.Crew” (Dey Street Books).

In other words, they offered a fantasy, something that customers weren’t getting from conventional retail. 

Kelly Hill, a future catalog stylist for J. Crew, told Bullock that during her college years in the late ’80s, the “arrival of a new J.Crew catalogue was an event.” Hill’s roommates would “pour over each glossy page, beer in hand, shrieking over their favorite characters.”

It was a ritual that had little to do with shopping. This wasn’t something college students did “with Lands’ End or L.L.Bean,” Bullock writes. “You didn’t do it with Glamour or Vogue, either.”

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Spitznagel continues:

Nobody could have predicted that J. Crew would become such a cultural phenomenon. It was the second act for Popular Merchandise Inc., a New Jersey-based company founded in 1947 as a men's haberdashery before transitioning into discounted women’s clothing.

By the early ’80s, owners Arthur Cinader (the founder’s son) and daughter Emily Cinader decided to reinvent the business as a catalog-only retailer, to stay competitive in a market where catalogs increasingly looked like the future.

Although catalogs had been around for a century -- during the Cold War, Bullock notes that Soviet spies were required to study the Sears catalog to learn how to “look, act, and think American” -- they were experiencing a resurgence in the ’80s, thanks to the rise of career women.

“Having it all” left precious little time for browsing at department stores, but a catalog… “now that a woman could peruse anytime, anywhere,” writes Bullock.

Before settling on J. Crew, the new brand’s fictional “surname” was almost Sir Edward Coke, an obscure English magistrate.

But Emily convinced her dad that “coke,” at least in America, was more closely associated with either soda or illegal drugs.

They settled on J. Crew, an amalgam of the initial J -- borrowed from J. Press, the storied Ivy League clothier -- and crew, the rowing sport.

“Polo was a colonial sport played by princes,” writes Bullock, “but crew conjured crisp fall days, term papers, canoodling in the stacks.” 

But their reputation was built on more than a name.

Their catalogs found a middle ground between the out-of-reach priciness of Ralph Lauren and the “folksy” charm of Lands’ End, with “models who looked like your next-door neighbors,” writes Bullock. J.Crew sold the dream of becoming something better, but “at a price that was in step with reality.”

They were also, for better or worse, the clothing of choice for the preppy generation. Though “The Official Preppy Handbook,” a humor book that became a huge bestseller in the early ’80s, certainly helped J.Crew’s image -- it “reset the style goals of popular kids at lunch tables across America,” writes Bullock -- “preppy” was not a word that Emily or the J.Crew writers ever used.

“Emily associated the P-word with all of the cutesy stuff that came along after Miles Davis–era cool,” Bullock writes. “Under her auspices, anything deemed ‘too Connecticut’ was axed.”

Tierney Horne, J.Crew’s creative director during the ’80s, recoiled at the idea that their clothes were preppy. “We were cool,” she told Bullock. “Preppy wasn’t cool.”

What was cool, at least according to Emily and her art team, was creating a clothing catalog that didn’t feel forced or inauthentic.

The rule was “no fakery” at all costs.

One former J.Crew catalog editor recalled how the entire staff would review new art together and look for signs of artifice.

“We’d all call out: Fake smile! Too model-y!” he told Bullock. 

If a model was giving a cliché, hand-over-mouth giggle, it was immediately trashed. J.Crew girls don’t tee-hee, they laughed

“The litmus test of a great J.Crew picture was: Could it pass for a snapshot?” Bullock writes.

Their other secret: the J.Crew models (or “characters”) were always in motion.

“For every shoot, there was a destination, and for every destination there were activities,” writes Bullock. This could be anything from ice-skating in the Adirondacks to beach picnicking in the Hamptons. 

“If a model looks stiff, throw her on a bike,” Bullock writes.

“Hand her a picnic basket. Assign her a boyfriend with whom to play an endlessly thrilling game of tag. Give the boyfriend some shaving cream and a razor. This guy is shaving… on the beach? In his swim trunks? Just go with it.”

Tierney Gearon, a J.Crew photographer from the era, says she approached the shoots like they were films, with huge crews and big productions.

“I create a lot of chaos, so the models aren’t really paying attention to the camera,” she told Bullock. 

The effort to make things appear like these were actual people you could encounter out in the real world involved more than just making sure the actors weren’t playing to the camera.

Every detail was meticulously curated so they never seemed like props.

“Other catalogs might drag a sailboat onto the beach so everybody could pose in front of it,” Eve Combemale, a J.Crew stylist from the late ’80s, told the author.

“J.Crew would take three boats out on the water and really be sailing.”

Just as important, at least to Arthur Cinader, was the text.

Although he hired the best copywriters, he “policed their words until, in the end, he might as well have written every syllable himself,” writes Bullock.

He favored sharp, staccato pacing -- “two get away with one bag,” read the cover of a resortwear issue -- and his way with words could sometimes be nonsensical.

He once described sweaters as having “great strains of crumhorn, hautbois, and sackbut.” Nobody on the J. Crew writing staff “had the first clue what a hautbois was,” Bullock writes. When they finally learned that it was an obscure Renaissance-era instrument, “we all thought it the funniest thing we had ever read,” a former catalog editor told Bullock.

“Like, tears were running down our faces. But for him, it was real.” 

Cinader was, in many ways, the original J. Peterman -- Elaine Benes's future employer -- who didn’t introduce his first catalog until 1987.

But while the Peterman catalog “always seemed to be trying to evoke an invented persona, Arthur was just being himself -- esoteric, academic, exacting -- assuming that the right people would understand where he was going with this, and get on board,” writes Bullock.

The end result was a catalog that didn’t feel like a marketing tool.

Although it certainly helped move merchandise -- between 1983 and 1989, J.Crew’s sales jumped from $3 million to a reported $160 million -- it connected with teens and young adults in ways few clothing brands managed in the past.

“It arrived more frequently than any magazine, for free, and everybody read it,” Bullock writes.

“And it spoke their language, beckoning to an early adulthood that was just out of reach but could conceivably be theirs soon.”

The models returned week after week, and readers became invested in them, like they were characters from their favorite soap operas.

“What was up with Mark and Bob, who seemed to gallivant off with a different girl in every issue?” Bullock writes.

“How come no one ever wore a wedding ring? Was the silver fox in this month’s issue Mary Ann’s boyfriend . . . or her dad? Sometimes random kids popped up: Who did they belong to?”

They became so recognizable that fans would seek them out. Once, during a 1989 shoot in Oxford, Miss., word spread around the local college that Matthew Barney, a recurring J.Crew character for years -- he was still an anonymous art student doing modeling on the side, and years away from being Björk’s husband -- would be in town.

“A gaggle of coeds appeared out of nowhere and chased Barney all over campus,” writes Bullock.

But by the early ’90s, even as J. Crew seemed like the uncontested king of retail, trouble was on the horizon.

During much of the ‘80s, the mail order industry has grown by at least 12% every year. By 1988, it hit 12.5 billion catalogs a year, or fifty catalogs for every man, woman, and child. But in the coming years, sales would begin to slow, barely hitting a 1% annual increase, and demand for catalogs -- not just from J.Crew, but mail-order catalogs in general -- began to wane.

There were many reasons: rising paper costs and postal rates didn’t help, nor did new sales taxes being imposed on mail order businesses.

But the main cause could be summed up in one word: Malls.

Malls were nothing new in 1990. Americans were making approximately seven billion trips to the mall every year by the mid-'80s.

“Clothing (had) became increasingly tribal, a public declaration of your taste in music, your side of the aisle, your place in the crowd,” writes Bullock.

“Youth culture really was a little like a John Hughes movie, subdivided into punks, nerds, and sportos. All of that sorting and classification took a lot of shopping.”

And malls offered a shopping experience that catalogs couldn’t.

“Why drop a check in the mail and wait weeks for something to arrive?” Bullock writes.

At a mall, they could find exactly what they wanted in an afternoon, and enjoy a snack at Orange Julius, to boot.

To compete in this climate, J.Crew needed stores. Brick and mortar stores and lots of them.

“While Arthur and Emily were catalog savants, neither had a whit of experience in stores,” Bullock writes. And would a J. Crew mall store even work? Without the carefully constructed fantasies of the catalog — the touch football games, the bobbing sailboats —and “viewed for the first time under dressing room fluorescents, on the lumpen bods of regular folk, would these chinos and tank tops suffer a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes effect?” Bullock writes.

“Would people see they weren’t so magical after all? 

The very first J.Crew storefront opened in 1989 on New York’s Lower East Side, just a short walk from the financial district. It was a less than ideal setting, “a long way from anything that could be considered fashion,” Bullock writes. 

But almost instantly, they were a huge hit. “After work, a surge of suits from nearby Wall Street swept over the area like a human wave,” Bullock writes.

They had so many visitors on opening day, the fire marshal threatened to shut them down. If a $100 sweater sold out, they’d replace it with a $150 sweater, which would sell out just as quickly.

“They had worried J.Crew’s je ne sais quoi would be lost in translation,” Bullock writes. But they found the opposite was true. “The store offered something the catalog could not: instant gratification.”

J. Crew stores flourished in the ’90s and into the ‘aughts, thanks in no small part to A-list fans like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, Meghan Markle, and Michelle Obama.

But during the spring of 2020, just weeks into the pandemic, J.Crew filed for bankruptcy, burdened with more than $1 billion in debt.

They closed 67 locations that year, and several more last year, including once-popular stores in New York and Washington, DC.

What caused the once golden brand that changed the way clothing was sold, and whose catalogs were arguably as famous in the ’80s as MTV and “Cheers” to fall so hard from grace? There were the usual culprits — crushing debt, failed execs, a dip in quality in their products — but more than any of that, something in J. Crew’s magic disappeared when the catalogs stopped feeling special.

The catalogs are still available to this day, but they’re no longer required reading in college campuses across the country.

They no longer have the power to influence everyone from small town dreamers to big city fashionistas.

There will never again be a moment like in the late ’80s, when Simon Doonan, a window dresser at Barneys New York, noted that his more fashion-y colleagues would be “shrieking about the J.Crew catalog,” as he told Bullock.

“They would have their boxes of plain-looking pants and shirts shipped to our office.” 

Doonan couldn’t understand why anybody with a Barneys discount cart, who could easily be buying the latest designs by Jean Paul Gaultier or Commes des Garçons, would spend their hard-earned money on “bland preppy duds from some mail order catalog.”

As anyone who remembers the ’80s could tell you, it’s hard to explain why nothing was quite as exciting in the pre-internet age as the arrival of a new J.Crew catalog in your mailbox.

You kinda had to be there.

Follow Eric Spitznagel on Twitter HERE.

1 comment:

Jaradon said...

The J Crew guys are now hanging out at Corbin Fisher