Commentary

With Customers In A Tizzy Over The Tilly, J.Crew Sheds Lead Designer, Lays Off 175

With sales diving, customers carping about poor design and high prices, and analysts getting antsy about pinched revenue and profitability, J.Crew announced Wednesday that Somsack Sikhounmuong, who has led design for its Madewell brand for two years, will replace a departing Tom Mora as head of women's design for the J.Crew brand. It is also laying off 175 people, primarily at corporate headquarters in New York.

“The company has been grappling with poor results from its women's fashion and accessories business as shoppers seek out hot alternatives such as Forever 21 and H&M,” writes Nathan Bomey for USA Today. “Sales at J.Crew stores open at least a year fell 10% in the quarter ending May 2, compared to the same period a year earlier.”

“We are making meaningful and strategic changes across our organization to better position us for future growth,” said J.Crew chairman and CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler in a news release. “While many of these decisions were difficult, they are necessary.”

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And they’ve been apparent for some time.

“J.Crew has been losing luster with its once-loyal fan base, with shoppers criticizing the brand’s recent styles, quality, sizing, and prices,” write BuzzFeed’s Sapna Maheshwari. “The Wall Street Journal outlined those frustrations in a story last month titled: “Dear J.Crew, What Happened to Us? We Used to Be So Close.” Some customers have used the hashtag #reviveJcrew to air their complaints about the brand at the suggestion of the Capitol Hill Style blog.”

One ill-begotten merino-wool sweater, dubbed Tilly, seems to be emblematic of the problems the company has faced — at least as far as style and fit.

“This sweater shows everything that's wrong with J. Crew,” reads the headline atop Hayley Peterson’s piece for Business Insider replete with a picture bearing arrows pointing to the model’s shoulders. In addition to admitting the Tilly was a “big mistake” in an analysts call last week, Peterson reports, Drexler also pointed to a cardigan that “didn’t fit that well.”

“The Tilly was a disaster. An absolute disaster. They should not have gone that way,” Rynetta Davis, 38, a professor at the University of Kentucky tells the New York Times’ Julie Creswell, who explains that the academic is a “J. Crew obsessive who recites the articles of clothing by their catalog names and posts pictures of herself wearing the chain’s outfits on her blog, jcrewismyfavstore.blogspot.com.”

Creswell leads with an anecdote about another “loyal J. Crew customer” peering into the window at a retail outlet at The Mall at Short Hills, N.J., and rejecting the offerings on two mannequins as “really boxy.” In the store earlier, she had decided to leave behind a $70 shirt she liked. “It was cute,” she said, “but it will go on sale soon enough.”

But the difficulties are more fundamental than a few bad designs.

“J. Crew is learning the hard way that in an era when e-commerce has presented women with ever-greater shopping choices, customer loyalty is hard to win and incredibly easy to lose,” Sarah Halzack wrote for the Washington Post in covering the recent analysts call with Drexler. “And with its middle-of-the-road price point, the typical J. Crew shopper might be just as likely to invest in a $595 shift dress at Tory Burch as she is to impulse-buy a $8.90 crop top at Forever 21.”

J.Crew Group, founded in 1983 with a catalog mailing, now describes itself as an omnichannel retailer with 283 J.Crew retail stores, 88 Madewell stores, jcrew.com, jcrewfactory.com, the J.Crew catalog, madewell.com, the Madewell catalog, and 144 factory stores.

Sikhounmuongm, the new lead women’s designer, held various design positions at J.Crew dating to 2001 before moving over to Madewell.

“He brings to J.Crew a fresh perspective across all categories and has an aesthetic consistent with what J.Crew's customers know and love,” according to the company’s release. Pointing out that Madewell sales rose 33% over the last year, New York’s Véronique Hyland wonders if he ““will he be able to sprinkle that same fairy dust on J.Crew?”

Sikhounmuongwill continue to report to J.Crew Group president and executive creative director Jenna Lyons, as will Joyce Lee, who succeeds him as head of women's design for Madewell.

A jaunty manifesto on J.Crew’s About Us page begins: “WE SIDE WITH STYLE OVER FASHION, think timelessness is underrated and find that clothes look best when they’re lived in. WE LOVE COLOR-BLOCKING AND PATTERN MIXING and temper tomboy with heels. WE’RE FANS OF TOUSLED HAIR and think everything’s right when something’s left just a little imperfect….”

But there is apparently a limit to just how much imperfection it will and can tolerate when it comes to the bottom line.

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