Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Why is J Crew so Popular? Bloomberg Businessweek gets it wrong

This article came out a week ago but I've only just discovered it and it has made me grumpy. So J Crew has just opened its first store outside the US in good ol' London-town. As a lover of overpriced preppy clothing, this was pretty exciting for me. Bloomberg Businessweek's magazine covered J Crew's London opening as its cover story for this week and I think it's pretty poor.

The first paragraph describes the store's opening night party and the people seen perusing the bejewelled cashmere and velvet loafers. In describing the British shop patrons, Emma Rosenblum comments that everyone's hair "is chicly disheveled, as are their teeth." Oh, how amusing! It's a joke about British dental care! Well that's original... Once Rosenblum has got the obligatory, 'hilarious' national stereotype joke out of the way, she can move on to discuss fashion while demonstrating no understanding of the history or context of the fashion industry. 

Rosenblum goes on and on about J Crew's 'American Style' and how grateful Londoners should be now that J Crew has decided to export its 'American Style' to the fashion deprived shores of Europe. This is obviously madness. J Crew's style is so British it's utterly ridiculous to suggest that J Crew is bringing a new style of American garb to London. What typifies the J Crew style? Generally - tweed jackets, leather boat shoes, Oxford shirts, cable-knit jumpers and schoolboy satchels. Essentially, J Crew shoppers want to dress like they attend a British boarding school. So how is this an American style? Rosenblum even mentions hand-knit Fair Isle sweaters as a staple of the J Crew style; she realises that Fair Isle is in the UK right?

What also annoyed me, and which shows a worrying lack of market research from a company planning on embarking on a sizeable expansion in the UK, is the suggestion that J Crew is bringing a better shopping experience to the UK. According to the article, J Crew suffered 'staffing issues' with their new UK stores. J Crew prides itself on the 'store experience' and, apparently, it has been hard to find the right salespeople in the UK. In the Bloomberg article, Jenna Lyons (J Crew's Executive Creative Director) elaborates on these issues by saying that for a superior store experience, sales assistants need to be more proactive. Assistants can't just stand around; they need to suggest alternative items and encourage shoppers to check out stock online. Therefore the team has imported staff from America to train British employees how to be more engaging with the customer. I find this frustrating because American salespeople are unbearably irritating. It's impossible to go into a shop in the US without being immediately surrounded by pushy, chattering, grinning shop assistants. No, I don't want you to "set up a dressing room" for me. No, I don't need help with sizing. Just bugger off and let me shop in peace! And I don't know a single other British person who doesn't find American shop assistants clingy and invasive. So I'm sorry J Crew but you do not offer a superior store experience, at least not to grumpy Brits who like their personal space and strongly dislike talking to strangers.

I don't want to belittle the amazing success of J Crew. I love J Crew and it has unquestionably become incredibly successful over recent years. But this article doesn't really explore what actually makes J Crew so popular. The article suggests that J Crew's success comes from the fact that it's selling a style that is completely new and American. J Crew is actually selling a fun, modern twist on old-fashioned European classics. J Crew sells traditional European garb (British and Scandinavian knitwear, Oxford shirts, British Saville Row suit tailoring, Italian leather shoes) but with quirky, modern touches. So you have your tweed jacket that looks like you just stepped off a Norfolk farm, but it has fluorescent pink piping and jazzy buttons. You have your Oxford blouse, but it has a jewelled collar. America is currently having an Anglophile moment. The raging popularity of Downton Abbey, Benedict Cumberbatch and pretty much anything produced by the BBC shows a definite trend in American culture of idolising Britishness. The article even compares J Crew to Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren, two other labels that use an olde English aesthetic as their main selling point. I'm sure this trend will pass but for now, brands like J Crew are capitalising from America's yearning for a a whimsical interpretation of British heritage.

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