Commentary

Faltering J.Crew Names Jan Singer CEO

After more than a year of shopping for a good fit, J.Crew Group yesterday named Jan Singer, who most recently was CEO of Victoria's Secret Lingerie, as its chief executive starting Sunday.

“The J.Crew brand, with about $1.8 billion in annual sales and 190 stores, has struggled with fashion missteps, along with sizing and quality issues in recent years. Its longtime leader Mickey Drexler stepped aside as chief executive in 2017,” Suzanne Kapner writes for The Wall Street Journal.

“His successor, former West Elm executive Jim Brett, left after 16 months following clashes with Mr. Drexler and the board over his strategy and spending plans, according to people familiar with the situation. Mr. Brett had veered from the brand’s preppy image, signed a deal to sell some clothes on Amazon.com Inc. and added more lower priced items,” Kapner adds.

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“While serving as CEO of Victoria’s Secret, Singer attempted to bring change to the ailing American intimates company. In a conference call in 2017, she said she wanted to bring ‘choices of sexy’ to the Victoria’s Secret shopper, telling investors that while competitors like Aerie were thriving off the bralette trend, Victoria’s Secret could thrive if it stuck to its roots,” Chavie Lieber writes for Business of Fashion.

“But she also tried lowering prices in order to attract new customers and updated styles as frequently as some competing fast-fashion retailers, according to Bloomberg. Neither strategy was successful in reversing the slide in sales,” Lieber continues. “Singer left her role at Victoria’s Secret after just two years, and just days after chief marketing officer Ed Razek apologized for offensive comments made about the plus-size and transgender communities in an interview with American Vogue.” 

Singer was CEO at Spanx for 22 months before taking the Victoria’s Secret helm. Before that, she spent 10 years at Nike, where she led both the global footwear and apparel teams. 

J.Crew “has been led by Michael J. Nicholson, its chief operating officer, on an interim basis since last April. Mr. Nicholson will resume his previous role. Mr. Drexler, known as Mickey, has continued to work for J. Crew as a strategic adviser and retains a stake in the company, according to the retailer’s most recent annual filing,” Sapna Maheshwari writes for The New York Times.

“The company, which began the last decade as a retail darling and a favorite of Michelle Obama, was taken private in 2011 in a $3 billion deal led by TPG Capital and Leonard Green & Partners. But the brand’s sales started to slip in 2015 after it started to lose appeal with many of its core customers. The deal has left J. Crew with more than $1.5 billion in debt,”  Maheshwari continues.

“The brand had gone too far upscale, particularly for women’s wear which generates about 80% of sales, and too fashion forward for customers who had long turned to it for stylish basics. What's more, J.Crew sat on its hands while big new trends like athleisure, casual athletic clothing popularized by Lululemon Athletica and Gap Inc.’s Athleta, emerged,” Phil Wahba writes for Fortune.

“Singer, 55, will have her hands full trying to repair J.Crew's image with shoppers who, thanks to the rise of many new brands, have far more options than just a few years ago,” Wahba adds.

“I'm excited and honored to join this iconic brand and team at such an important time. For me, J.Crew has led specialty retail by knowing what it takes to be a brand -- putting the consumer first and at the center,” Singer states  in the release announcing her appointment. 

“Over the past 18 months, J.Crew sharpened its focus on core products while whittling away items that weren’t popular with millennial consumers. In late 2018, it shut two sub-brands that weren’t working: Mercantile and Nevereven,” Bloomberg’s Kim Bhasin and Katherine Doherty write.

“Its most promising brand is Madewell, which J.Crew is looking to take public to raise capital and help cut its crushing long-term debt load of almost $1.7 billion. As the J.Crew brand struggled to attract shoppers and posted falling revenue, Madewell’s sales rose 13% to nearly $152 million. Madewell CEO Libby Wadle will remain in her role and report separately to the board of directors,” Bhasin and Doherty add.

“Madewell has emerged as the company's crown jewel, accounting for the majority of profits," Raya Sokolyanska, senior analyst at Moody's, said in a note when the company announced that in was spinning off the popular denim brand last September,” Nathaniel Meyersohn writes for CNN Business. “A successful Madewell IPO could help J.Crew pay down a ‘meaningful portion’ of its debt, she said.”

And Singer’s ability as “a left and right brain leader,” as former colleague Hea Won Chun Harris puts it on her LinkedIn profile, could help it get back on track with consumers. “She connects, inspires with optimism/vision, leads with gratitude and fills a room with an energy that gets an organization moving forward,” Harris continues. 

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