The New J.Crew

Fashion
At its peak, J.Crew might have been the most important menswear retailer in America. Then it went bankrupt and tasked downtown New York designer Brendon Babenzien with bringing it back. In a world that’s gone crazy for streetwear and high fashion, can he make oxford shirts and khaki pants cool again?

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Sweater, $168, and pants, $90, by J.Crew. Jacket, his own.

The designer Brendon Babenzien has spent nearly all his professional life—first as an early and longtime employee at Supreme, and then as the founder and designer of the menswear brand Noah—in a narrowly circumscribed portion of Lower Manhattan. (One friend described him to me as the “mayor of SoHo.”) In his new job, as the men’s creative director for J.Crew, he spends two days a week working out of the company’s Financial District offices, which, though only a few subway stops away, effectively represent a different world. That’s to say: Brendon Babenzien is very much not a corporate person. When we met for lunch one day this spring, he realized, to his embarrassment, that he’d misplaced his office entry badge for the second time in 24 hours. “My strengths lie in design, and branding, and marketing ideas and things, and not management,” he said. “I mean, I can barely answer an email.” Indeed, he uses his personal email address to conduct business for both J.Crew and Noah. His employees know that the best way to reach their boss is to text him directly.

It was precisely this lack of familiarity with corporate fashion that made Babenzien appealing to J.Crew in the first place. In May 2020, the company filed for bankruptcy. This was due in part to the pandemic, which cratered sales, but also to a yearslong period of mounting losses during which the gap between what J.Crew made and what men wanted to wear seemed to grow larger and larger. When it finally came, the bankruptcy filing felt more perfunctory than unexpected. For a generation of men who had once used its casual-but-polished uniform as a stepping stone into the rapidly expanding world of menswear, J.Crew had been dead for years. Babenzien’s job is to help bring the company back from the grave.

One morning not long ago, I watched as Babenzien (pronounced ba-bin-zeen) and a few members of his design team discussed ideas for rugby shirts, a staple J.Crew offering. In recent years, the quality of J.Crew’s clothing seemed to track its financial decline: Everything from T-shirts to the brand’s once-reliable Ludlow suit began to feel disconcertingly flimsy. Babenzien has busied himself overhauling the brand’s fabric assortment; the rugby shirt—thick, hardy cotton in bold primary colors—is an ideal representation of his goals. As the company’s CEO, Libby Wadle, put it to me in an email, “Brendon has an integrity to his vision and I believe that to be a rarity in this time of superfast, disposable fashion.”

The group gathered around a worktable in a low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit hallway cluttered with racks of clothing. Babenzien peered at a printout of a few options with solid-tone bodies and contrasting white collars. He opened with a question. “Should we have a black?” he asked. “A click of black would somehow give it a different feeling. A different meaning, I guess.”

A member of his team jumped in: “Like a true black? Or like a J.Crew-does-black, which is a washed color?”

This was a bigger question than it might have seemed. Like many brands that trade on nostalgia, J.Crew has an elaborate internal mythology: a painstakingly established and maintained sense of what is and what is not J.Crew. Black—punk rock; high fashion; Paris—is not J.Crew. J.Crew-does-black—soft; warm; weathered from years spent near the sea—is. Babenzien, though reverential of the brand and its history, is nonetheless set on finding new ways to express time-tested values.

“No, like a true black,” he responded, authoritatively. “Because I feel like these, by themselves, it’s exclusively prep to me. And I’m into it, I would wear all these colors. But if you put a black in, it all of a sudden becomes…to one person it’s prep, to somebody else it’s a weird fashion choice. It’s almost like a Marni choice or something,” he said, referring to the playful Italian luxury brand. “Which I like. I think that’s kind of cool.”

A decade ago, J.Crew was the go-to work uniform. So we asked the GQ staff—with the help of visionary stylist Miyako Bellizzi—to wear the new fall collection around the office. From Left: On Frazier Tharpe: Vest, $178, sweater, $148, pants, $90, by J.Crew. On Luke Leifeste: Jacket, $158, shirt, $80, and pants, $80, by J.Crew. On Willa Bennett: Blazer, $498, by J.Crew. All other clothing, accessories, and jewelry, subjects’ own.

The designers continued working through their presentation, with Babenzien mostly making his points by asking mellow but specific questions, often contextualizing a suggestion by referring to something he’s done at Noah, or in his decade-plus run heading design for Supreme. His method felt charmingly deferential for a fashion designer. Babenzien is the rare brand head best described as bashful—quick to credit his success to his team, or the intelligence of his customer, or simply good timing. But he also has the bearing, both emotional and physical, of a seasoned athlete (he runs most days, and is comfortable on both surf and skateboards), plus the pinched, raspy voice of either a kindly mobster or a streetwise cartoon mouse. Taken alongside his personal style—when we met for lunch he wore wide-leg khakis, a fitted white T-shirt, and a sleeveless ivory cardigan—these qualities broadcast a deep, easy confidence.

From the outside, everything about Babenzien’s hire suggests radical change. (“We need to disrupt the business,” Wadle told The Wall Street Journal.) The headlines seemed to write themselves: “Struggling Mass Retailer Hires Streetwear Legend to Shake Things Up.” And, indeed, it seems clear that J.Crew—a once-proud brand years removed from both relevance and profitability—must change to survive.

But as I spent time with Babenzien, I was struck by the matter-of-factness of his approach. His first collection for J.Crew is thick with straightforward, well-constructed menswear classics, pushed perhaps five degrees off-center and styled in an unfussy, personal sort of way. This, he explained, was the point. “This isn’t my show,” he told me. “This is J.Crew. I have to be respectful of the brand. It’s not a house where a new designer comes in and goes, ‘I have a whole new vision for what’s happening here.’ That’s not what’s happening here. We’re trying to refine this down to the best version of itself, basically.”

Varsity Sweater, $118, by J.crew.

The new J.Crew will be full of iconic pieces you’d expect—roll-neck sweaters, cord shorts, barn jackets—all done with Babenzien’s subtle twists.

Corduroy Shorts, $80, by J.crew.

Barn Jacket, $498, By J.crew. 

All: Courtesy Of J.crew.

Of course, making good clothes is only half the battle. The tectonic plates of the fashion business have rumbled and shifted dramatically since J.Crew was last omnipresent. Menswear has gone from niche concern to industry driver. Fast fashion is dominant. Direct-to-consumer brands have competed for the J.Crew customer using the venture-capital-money cannon. Maggie Bullock, the author of Kingdom of Prep, a forthcoming book about the company, suggested that returning J.Crew to the heights it once reached might be an impossible feat. “I don’t know if J.Crew or any brand of J.Crew’s ilk can capture the zeitgeist and be a big deal anymore,” she told me. “There are so many brands coming at us from so many different directions, and none of those are at the mall.”

So Babenzien has designed his J.Crew to do something else. His philosophy is so direct, and his ambitions so seemingly modest, that you’d be forgiven for thinking that his vision for the brand is simple. Because, when you hear it, his plan—making affordable, accessible, and high-quality clothing available to the largest possible audience—can sound facile. Not up to the monumental scale of J.Crew’s issues. Disruptive only on the margins.

But then you look around and realize that nobody else is doing it.


You’d think it would have taken me longer, figuring out what to wear to interview for a job at GQ. But at the time, nearly a decade ago, there was really only one answer to the question: I wore J.Crew (white oxford shirt, black knit tie, light-wash jeans). It was what I could afford, but it was also, in some sense, what I knew I was supposed to wear. In cities all across the country, folks in jobs without a formal dress code—marketers and architects, chefs and low-key lawyers—had, seemingly overnight, adopted the J.Crew uniform. My new colleagues were in part responsible for this shift, having endorsed the brand’s casual-but-easily-dressed-up look in the pages of this magazine. But they seemed to walk the walk too: After I got the job I saw that many of my twenty-something coworkers wore J.Crew, as did our forty-something supervisors. Occasionally, it was whispered, the editor in chief did too.

J.Crew began as a catalog business in 1983, and quickly became a rival to heritage brands like L.L. Bean and Lands’ End. But even by the early 2000s, when Todd Snyder started as the men’s designer, “men’s was always an afterthought,” Snyder told me. “The business wasn’t very big, and it was always in the basement.” That changed under CEO Mickey Drexler, who joined from Gap in 2003—and, Snyder recalled, encouraged experimentation. Along with the marketing whiz Andy Spade, they converted a Tribeca liquor store into an advanced-for-J.Crew shop, surrounding the brand’s new designs for men with high-end third-party goods, like Red Wing boots. The most successful of those designs—like the instantly omnipresent Ludlow suit, a slim-cut silhouette suitable for weddings, board meetings, and first dates—went on sale less than a mile away, at the company’s first men’s-only shop (after the Liquor Store) in SoHo. “It took off, and then it kept going and kept going,” Snyder said. (Drexler declined to speak on the record.)

But the trick about aligning your brand with fashion is that the fashion world’s attention is fleeting. And less than a decade after the introduction of the Ludlow, signs of change were everywhere. The office dress code was beginning to slacken. Sneaker culture was ascendant. Fast fashion began copying trends from the European runways at a quicker rate, and Kanye West traded in his tweed blazer for a $265 Rottweiler T-shirt from Givenchy. The casual polish of J.Crew—the just-so cuffed jeans tapering to bare ankles and beat-up dress shoes—felt almost instantly dated.

It wasn’t just that Americana was losing steam, though. The retail model that J.Crew had ridden to prominence began to look outmoded, and the company was slow to develop an e-commerce strategy. This state of affairs was magnified by the fact that, in 2011, Drexler arranged a leveraged buyout that made J.Crew a private company and saddled it with an enormous debt load. “The company put itself in a position where it could not afford to take a hit,” Maggie Bullock said. In 2014, the company reported a loss of more than half a billion dollars. Drexler left in 2019. The next year the company filed for bankruptcy.

When the brand was riding high on the Ludlow, Brendon Babenzien, I was surprised to learn, was a happy customer. Born in 1971 and raised on Long Island, he came of age in the same part of the world where J.Crew was growing dominant, and he’d shopped at J.Crew all his life. Even when he was working at Supreme, he was still a fan: The year the Ludlow was introduced, he said, he bought three. Eventually, though, “there came a point where I stopped buying.”

The multiyear decline felt like a real loss—for Babenzien, but also for anyone interested in looking stylish without worrying about being fashionable. “This is what I’ve been hearing from people,” Babenzien said. “It’s like, ‘I just want to be able to go get some good stuff without having to think about: Is it the coolest thing?’ People just want to get good stuff. And we lost this. Let’s be honest. And for those of us who love clothing, and how it relates to culture, if we couldn’t shop with J.Crew, that’s a big deal.”

From Left: On Gerald Ortiz: Vest, $178, sweater, $118, pants, $80, boots, $298, and sunglasses, $70, by J.Crew. On Avidan Grossman: Jacket, $698, sweater, $118, and jeans, $128, by J.Crew. On Kyle Hodge: Jacket, $798, pants, $398, scarf, $98, and hat, $65, by J.Crew. all other clothing, accessories, and jewelry, subjects’ own.

A funny thing about Babenzien’s appointment is that he played a rather large part in building the culture that supplanted J.Crew’s denim-and-slim-suits regime. This, he assured me, was basically an accident. “I was just born at the right time,” he told me. He grew up around the same time as the simultaneous advent of hip-hop and skateboarding, which—under the umbrella of streetwear—would in short order take over the world. “Everything I was into, I knew would be big one day,” he said. Clothing, he realized, was the sort of connective tissue binding his seemingly disparate interests, though he mostly understood his early jobs—at a local surf shop, and then at Pervert, a friend’s influential Miami brand—less as design than simply knowing what was cool and what was not.

Even today, Babenzien is shy about his talents as a designer. “Anyone who’s ever asked me about design, I’ve always clarified: At best I feel like a glorified stylist. There’s not a lot of Yohjis in the world,” he said, referring to the legendary Japanese conceptualist Yohji Yamamoto. “There’s a lot of people, I think, like me, who kind of have a good sense of things, maybe see things a little earlier than others.”

Around 1996, Babenzien began working at Supreme—at the time a local skate shop in Lower Manhattan— and found himself, more or less by accident, at what quickly became the unlikely epicenter of the American fashion industry. He was tasked with expanding the brand’s house line—tasked, in other words, with helping to invent Supreme as we know it today. Eventually, in 2020, the company would be acquired for more than $2 billion. But when Babenzien started, the brand didn’t have an office—he spent his days in midtown Manhattan, working with factories and suppliers. “Eventually, there was an office and a warehouse,” he said. But for a bit, “I was still the only person in it.” When he began, Supreme didn’t have a website.

Eager to try his own thing, Babenzien left Supreme around 2003 to launch Noah for the first time. Short on funding, he shuttered the brand and returned to Supreme in 2006, just as streetwear was asserting itself as the dominant force in menswear, and as Supreme was turning into a full-on fashion-killing rocket ship. These were good years, though not without conflict for Babenzien, who found making great products more meaningful than riding the hype roller coaster. “It was a really fun time. And it stayed fun for most of the time. And then it just wasn’t as fun,” he said. “Things change and people change and companies change. I was changing. What I thought about product and what kind of products should be in the world…. It became this huge, massive weight on my shoulders of, what am I doing? And as much as I love Supreme, as much respect as I have for [founder] James [Jebbia] and the brand, I couldn’t change what it was going to be going forward.” He left for the second and final time in 2014.

At Supreme, and then at Noah, Babenzien mastered a half-restrained, half-provocative design approach that became his signature. “Brendon’s really good at taking a classic piece and twisting it just enough so that it’s different,” his friend Chris Gibbs, who runs the influential menswear shop Union, told me. At Supreme, that might have meant constructing New Era fitted caps from high-end Loro Piana wool. At Noah, where he has sold corduroy suits and camel-hair hoodies alongside logo tees, his philosophy is: “Let’s just make the best product we can make, and tell people to keep it for a long time.”

It’s long been a fashion-industry truism that Supreme’s most compelling products are not its hypebeast-courting goods but the sturdy icons of American sportswear (oxford shirts, chinos, blue jeans) it quietly releases each season. This, more than the insane resale prices, is Babenzien’s legacy at Supreme, and one he’s furthered at Noah. Paradoxically, it seems to make him a perfect fit for J.Crew, whose decline coincided more or less exactly with the rise of streetwear. “I feel like the things that he does at Noah could translate to that customer,” Todd Snyder told me. “Noah has all the trappings of what J.Crew is—American, quirky, smart.” When he heard about Babenzien’s hire, Snyder’s response was immediate: “If there’s anybody that can do it, it’s him.”

From Left: On Samuel Hine: Vest, $398, shirt, $168, and pants, $348, by J.Crew. On Yang-Yi Goh: Coat, $748, sweater, $118, shorts, $80, hat, $65, sunglasses, $70, and bag, $68, by J.Crew. Socks, stylist’s own. All other clothing, accessories, and jewelry, subjects’ own.

Before taking the job at J.Crew, Babenzien suspected that something essential was in need of repair. “For a long time I made a whole bunch of assumptions,” he said. “Like, ‘They don’t have the right designers.’ That’s the immediate go-to. Blame the designers. Always.” But Babenzien was pleased to learn that J.Crew’s design team was in his estimation quite strong; the problem had been a leadership less interested in design than in sales. “We had a really talented team,” he said, “just waiting for the opportunity and the permission to get back to making great product.”

Which they seem to have done, pretty much immediately. One day, Babenzien walked me through his fall and holiday collections in a pleasantly stage-set showroom at the J.Crew office. There, maybe 20 percent of the hundreds of individual items Babenzien had overseen were thoughtfully styled on mannequins. It didn’t look like the J.Crew I remembered, exactly. But the clothing felt earnest and well-made. More than that, the collection looked cool—not Supreme cool, but cool nonetheless, in the way that J.Crew’s chambray work shirt was cool before it was omnipresent.

A few items—a bubble-gum pink shetland wool sweater, a roomily cut “giant chino” pulled from the archives, a brown corduroy Harrington jacket—seemed like obvious hits. I’ve spent the last few post-Ludlow years unsure of where to find a reliable, affordable suit; I’ve got my eyes on at least two of Babenzien’s. (The Ludlow will stay, but J.Crew has also introduced a looser, more modern cut called the Kenmare that Babenzien now gets to play with.) The shapeless, tasteless, dustily colored goods I’ve associated with the company of late were nowhere to be found.

A major part of Babenzien’s vision for J.Crew has to do with his sense, honed over years working with fabric mills and textile developers, of the way clothing is supposed to feel. “We focused a lot on making sure that the products we’re making feel legitimately like the products they are,” he told me, “as opposed to an impostor.”

Suede Vest, $398, by J.crew.

Babenzien’s quirky ’90s-inflected fashion obsessions will shine bright at J.Crew: vintage Americana, vivid knits, giant chinos, and rugby shirts galore.

Crewneck Sweater, $138, by J.crew.

Chinos, $90, by J.crew

Rugby Shirt, $98, By J.crew.

All: Courtesy Of J.crew.

That meant looking rigorously at J.Crew’s assortment. Early on, he determined that the brand’s “price point sweater”—basic cotton, available in many colors, enormously popular—wasn’t well-made enough to satisfy him. “It wasn’t a disaster or anything, and clearly enough people agreed with the quality to buy it at very, very high volumes,” he said. “It just didn’t qualify as a sweater to me.” He prepared to make his case to the merchandising team, expecting a “drag-out, knockdown kind of brawl.” Wary, perhaps, of where cheap sweaters had gotten them, the team didn’t put up a fight. “They fully understand,” he said. “They get it.” Eventually, it will be replaced with something that qualifies as a sweater.

Babenzien is also introducing pieces that might be among the most expensive J.Crew has ever released. He cites a moleskin suit woven from rare Sea Island cotton—price: $1,196—as one highlight. “There’s a segment of the audience that really doesn’t have a problem paying more, because they appreciate the quality,” he explained. “And we weren’t really servicing that customer. So this just seems obvious to me. It doesn’t seem like any kind of risk. It seems like the right thing to do. And I kind of wish it had always been there.”

Both the suit and the sweater are essential to Babenzien’s strategy, which requires appealing to two distinct customers. “There’s the ‘If you know, you know’ customer,” he said, referring to the sort of guy who shops at Noah. “I need those people, because otherwise I’m embarrassed for myself. If people I know come in and touch it, and they’re like, ‘Dude, Brendon made this?’ I’ll be distraught.”

But his second customer is arguably even more important. “They might not know technically what they’re looking at,” he said, “but anyone who touches a good cloth to a bad cloth, who has feeling in their fingers, knows, if they’re side by side, one’s better than the other. They might not know why, they might not know everything that went into it, but they know.” That customer needs to walk into a mall and intuit the difference between a very cheap sweater and a slightly less cheap one—or to be trained, online or via social media, to appreciate it.

Helpfully, it seems as if the winds of fashion are once again blowing J.Crew’s way. The ’80s and ’90s American style Babenzien has long referenced is once again on the rise. (“I mean, if you’re 20 and under, you basically just look like you’re from Supreme in ’95,” he said. “Which is great. It’s an awesome look. I mean, I dressed that way.”) Gen Z shoppers seem increasingly interested in finding the intersection between sustainability and persona style. For his part, Babenzien is optimistic. “I think I’m the luckiest guy in the business right now,” he said. “Because I think I’m coming into a business whose time has come again, stylistically. It’s already happening. I’m just going to look like some kind of superstar.”

If J.Crew once mattered because it helped teach men to dress, Babenzien thinks that making it matter again requires endowing it with a different mission. “A lot of people are buying below us currently, because it’s really inexpensive and it’s really fashionable. But what happens when people shop that way is technically a disaster,” he said, alluding to the catastrophic environmental impact of fast fashion. This seemed to me a convenient stance, given J.Crew’s need to distinguish itself in the market. It also aligned Babenzien’s new job, necessarily less environmentally friendly because of its scale, with his history of speaking out against waste in fashion at Noah. (“One of the things I’ve eased up on is massive critique of large companies,” he had told me earlier. “I came out really strong, because I feel like we had to. We had to be like, This sucks! You big companies are the worst! And now it’s time to kind of step back a bit, and give organizations the opportunity and the time to turn things in a different direction. Some will, some won’t.”)

But as he continued, it seemed as if he was talking about something else too. “It’s now or never,” he said, bluntly. “Either we make better products, we encourage people to shop better, wiser, smarter, whatever you want to call it, or we’re done. It really is that simple.” He was referring to the planet. But he might just as well have been talking about J.Crew, and its efforts to return not just to profitability but to relevance. Both felt like meaningful goals.

From Left: On Charlie Johnson: Coat, $698, sweater, $118, t-shirt, $37, and pants, $90, by J.Crew. On Miles Pope: Jacket, $248, pants, $88, by J.Crew. On Natalie Petit-frere: Jacket, $498, and belt, $65, by J.Crew. On Haley Gilbreath: Cardigan, $148, shirts, $168 (striped), and $80 (solid), by J.Crew. On Tyler Austin: Vest, $178, sweater, $138, shirt, $80, pants, $88, shoes, $248, and hat, $55, by J.Crew. aAll other clothing, accessories, and jewelry, subjects’ own.HOW TO SHOP THE NEW J.CREW: Brendon Babenzien’s first collection will roll out online and in J.Crew stores as a series of drops on August 1, August 16, September 7, and September 27, with exclusive collaborations and special pieces released in between.

A few weeks after seeing Babenzien’s collection, I was still thinking about what he had shown me. Or not about the clothes so much as my response to them: a sharp, lingering sense of relief. This surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. I was one of the young men for whom J.Crew was a gateway drug into fashion. It gave me a uniform—but also a way to see style in the first place as a worthy form of self-expression. More than that, it was reliable. When I needed a suit for a wedding, or a tie for a job interview, or just had half an hour to kill before a train out of Grand Central, J.Crew was there. Until, of course, it wasn’t.

There are, today, a million ways for a young man to get dressed. But our collective need for a J.Crew—a value-driven brand that takes affordable menswear seriously—hasn’t diminished at all. Babenzien’s vision is premised on treating his customers like people who deserve good things—and can be trusted to do whatever they want with the clothes he designs for them. J.Crew’s customers don’t need a uniform anymore—now they need attention, and respect. Babenzien is ready to give it to them. “I feel like this company has an opportunity to say, ‘We’re just going to make better stuff,’ ” he said. “We need to do that. There’s nowhere else to be.”

Sam Schube is GQ’s deputy site editor.

A version of this story originally appeared in the august 2022 issue with the title “New Crew”


PRODUCTION CREDITS:
Photographs by Jiro Konami
Styling by Miyako Bellizzi
Hair by Nero using Oribe 
Makeup by Sena Murahashi using Mac Cosmetics
Tailoring by Carlos Sanchez at Lars Nord Studio

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