J.Crew is heading in a new direction, literally and figuratively. This week, the company will relocate from its longtime HQ at 770 Broadway down to Battery Park’s Brookfield Place. To meet with Chris Benz, J.Crew’s newly installed head of women’s design, on the brand’s very last day at 770—still surrounded by his floor-to-ceiling moodboards pinned with photos, vintage pieces from the archives, fabric swatches, and bits of embroidery—was serendipitous, in a way.
His first job out of Parsons School of Design in 2005 was in this very building as a J.Crew assistant. He spent two years working for Jenna Lyons, who later became president and creative director and famously shaped the brand’s late-aughts and early 2010s aesthetic (though her influence still lingers). Benz was feeling nostalgic, but he spent little time talking about the past. “Being back here is like a bookend,” he said. “We’re literally moving into a new view.”
J.Crew’s loyal customers are certainly ready for something new. Since Lyons left the company in 2016, the general feeling has been that things haven’t been quite the same: Designs often feel watered down, and the quality of fabric and construction isn’t always as rich as it once was. The directional, higher-priced J.Crew Collection pieces we saw in the brand’s New York Fashion Week presentations—e.g., a rainbow-sequined skirt or wide-leg taffeta pants—have mostly disappeared. Given the company’s recent financial struggles (its debt has reportedly climbed to $2 billion), it appears the strategy has been to introduce more middle-of-the-road pieces to entice new customers, with somewhat meager results. What J.Crew needs right now is someone with serious grit and a distinct point of view. Fashion types have been waiting to hear if a big-name designer would snag the job.
Benz isn’t necessarily that designer. Many J.Crew girls won’t know his name. But he was there in J.Crew’s heyday, and that may be the secret to rekindling its spark: “When I started, it was all about experimentation,” he explains. Benz was a believer in the “J.Crew dream” and still is; aren’t the best employees the ones who sort of drink the Kool-Aid? Perhaps history will repeat itself, too: Lyons also began her J.Crew career as an assistant, clocking 26 years at the brand, and her successor Somsack Sikhounmuong was there for more than 15 years. Benz’s two-year stint feels tiny in comparison, but he’s been shopping the brand and says he stayed in touch with his former colleagues. He’s got more to go on than Johanna Uurasjarvi anyways, who joined J.Crew in 2018 following creative director positions at West Elm and Anthropologie, but lasted for less than a year.
Perhaps because he’s an OG J.Crew kid, Benz isn’t planning to overhaul the creative. Another designer might have been tempted to scrap everything and start over, but Benz seems confident that women still want that “slouchy attitude” and “classics with a twist” J.Crew is so known for. If you look closely at the current selection (as this shopper has), the J.Crew spirit is still there, sort of: The pattern mash-ups, the artful layering, the bold colors, the coral-lipsticked models. Benz’s missive is pretty simple: to refine the offering, edit out the clutter, and get back to the brand’s roots.
Just as importantly, he’s been working with J.Crew’s entire team—from designers to factories to merchants—to figure out precisely who their customer is. “That was a challenge I quickly identified and addressed, so between all of our departments and stores and vendors, we all understand who the customer is and can visualize if she’s wearing a certain thing or not,” he said. “To create that dialogue is important when you’re trying to introduce newness into the market.”
You won’t really see Benz’s hand in the designs until next year, when his first collection for Spring 2020 arrives in stores. But he’s overseen two collaborations launching on J.Crew’s site today: a mini-basket by Poolside Bags and a La Ligne marinière T-shirt. “I suggested we take La Ligne’s classic shirt that everyone loves and tie-dye it,” he says. “I’ve tried to do as many little things as possible [so far].”
Below, we’ve outlined everything else you can expect from Benz’s J.Crew tenure.
He’s re-embracing J.Crew’s high-low, eclectic signatures.
Even before Benz was a J.Crew assistant, he was a devoted customer. “Growing up in Seattle, there wasn’t a lot of access to fashion the way there is here in New York,” he says. “I grew up shopping at vintage stores and was into the grunge look [of the ’90s], but the one resource I was dedicated to was J.Crew. I loved the styling and attitude of the clothes [and how] they felt sort of lived-in. I still remember this mint-green pique polo shirt I begged my mom to order from the catalogue for me.”
By the time he was on the payroll in 2005, the catalogue model had largely moved online. “It was an interesting and eye-opening time to be a part of a brand that was educating a customer on how to wear, like, a sequined cardigan for day, and that it was okay to wear pink chinos year-round,” he continues. “That sense of freedom with style was really my takeaway, even when I left in 2006 to launch my own brand. As we look forward, I’m working towards [reviving] that experience. The idea of [our customer] finding surprising new ways to wear something, or showing her that you don’t just have to wear your cargo jacket to the grocery store, you can wear it with a lace dress.”
Hearing that reminded me of a very publicized e-mail J.Crew’s former CEO Jim Brett sent his senior staffers last summer, candidly disparaging that thrown-together, mismatched look that became synonymous with Lyons: “Pretty always sells. A glen plaid jacket with a graphic tee and camouflage pants is anything but pretty.” He went on to refer to Lyons’s aesthetic as “masculine, sexual, and overtly aggressive.” The hardcore J.Crew fan would likely disagree, and Benz believes she’s still interested in that artful, feminine-masculine mix—maybe just with a few 2020 tweaks. “That sense of irreverence in sportswear has always been such a part of J.Crew and my own work,” he says. “I’m trying to really push that, but also get back to really classic shapes that are comfortable and wearable and can be mixed and matched in whatever way supports a person’s style.”
Don’t expect J.Crew to be back on the Fashion Week calendar.
A common critique of Lyons’s J.Crew collections was that they were too fashion, too envelope-pushing for the average customer to wear. As the brand restructured and cycled through creative directors in the years since, it also took a break from New York Fashion Week; the last collection Vogue Runway covered was Fall 2017, a mixed bag of streamlined, pared-back staples and trendier stuff. (At the time, Maya Singer wrote: “This collection was trying to be a lot of things—a supplier for low-slung camos, a source for baroque-pleated evening skirts, a home for trim tuxedo looks, and so on. What does the J.Crew customer want from this brand?”)
Even as Benz figures that out, Fashion Week has evolved and no longer feels necessary for J.Crew. He’s also designing in a way that runs contrary to the flashy, easy-to-Instagram pieces designers put on the runway: He’s thinking about how a piece will look when you zoom in. “I’m hoping customers will discover that we’ve worked really hard to add special little details, even to the most simple styles,” he says. “On your phone, a navy sweater may look the same as a navy long-sleeved T-shirt, so we were really thoughtful about details that cause an emotional stir, like a contrast-colored thread.”
Benz points out that J.Crew’s customer “responds to style over fashion. It’s about quality and longevity and wearability, not anything that feels too trend-based,” he says. “My aspiration going forward is to keep the look and feel of ‘classics with a twist,’ always with a bit of a wink.” When it comes to those twists, finding the sweet spot between “not twisted enough” and “contrived” will be the real trick. The past five years have seen legions of basics brands encroach on J.Crew’s market share, so to bet heavily on T-shirts and plain pants would be risky. That’s where Benz’s promise of surprises will hopefully come in.
He’s got a wide range of muses who are inspiring (and wearing) his collections.
Illustrator and influencer Jenny Walton made repeat appearances on Benz’s moodboards. In one photo, she’s dressed in head-to-toe shades of blue; in another, she’s styled a bold geometric dress with a yellow trench and chocolate-brown bag. Walton was a regular J.Crew customer in the past, too; one street-style photo of her wearing giant J.Crew floral earrings became so popular, the brand tapped for a jewelry editorial that ran on its blog later that year.
“As a street-style star, I find Jenny to be very inspirational as far as how you can push the envelope with somewhat simple clothes styled in a way that feels really polished and exciting,” Benz explains. “It’s colorful, it’s mixing high and low, there’s print, and there’s a very casual, cool elegance to her spirit that is really rare. You’ll see a lot of her [influence] in Spring.” (She’ll no doubt be wearing it, too.)
Benz also name-checked Ali MacGraw and Lauren Hutton for their simpler, more classic tastes, as well as a less-referenced actress: “I’m constantly talking about Carol Channing, but some of our younger designers are like, ‘Who is that?’” he says, rolling his eyes. “I love that confident, care-free spirit, and I think so many notable women fit that description.”
He’s expanding J.Crew’s categories and reacting to current trends.
Benz’s moodboard was pinned with several images of women in suits, a reminder of J.Crew’s longstanding “wear to work” business. “Tailoring is such an important part of J.Crew, but I’m thinking about interesting ways to push it a bit further,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of crossover now in how people wear a suit—you can wear it with a hoodie underneath, or wear a tailored blazer with jeans. That latitude with categories is really exciting to me.”
This sense of reactiveness was missing at J.Crew in recent years; it failed to capitalize on tailoring when it first became a trend back in 2017, and its designers never really tried their hand at streetwear. Or the ’90s revival, or the soft, vintage-style dresses New York girls have been wearing in the summer. A brand can’t hit every trend, but as Benz pointed out, “I think there is a ‘J.Crew way’ to do anything, from a sparkly evening piece all the way down to a yoga pant.”
On that note, he’s also introducing new eveningwear, including gowns and “dress-up pieces through the J.Crew filter.” It’s a modern iteration of the brand’s now-defunct bridal line, and could be good news for women searching for low-key and affordable evening options. Bridesmaids who aren’t satisfied with other options (and are willing to purchase dresses off the rack) might also find it to be a resource. “I want the customer to be able to pop into the store or fire up the website and find something for whatever she’s doing,” Benz says. “Whether it’s a fabulous big earring to wear at night, or a tote bag she needs for the weekend; hopefully she’ll discover something she loves that she wasn’t looking for.”