NEW YORK – One of the great books read to me by my grandmother, a Sophie Newcomb educated potter by the name of Margaret Clarkson Pollard, were Hans Christian Anderson’s tales. Perhaps the most memorable was “The Emperor’s New Clothes” about an emperor, crooked weavers, and child who dared to be honest. A line that hits me afresh today:
“The swindlers at once asked for more money, more silk and gold thread, to get on with the weaving. But it all went into their pockets. Not a thread went into the looms, though they worked at their weaving as hard as ever.
What made it a great tale? First, the story was a safe time when you could discuss the idea of nudity with adults, and get a chuckle out of it. Secondly, streaking was a big fad in the ’70s, and the fable sort of turned that idea upside down. Indeed streaking was about causing a scene and endless laughter with nudity; could we ever imagine a society that was so brainwashed it would not notice an emperor in skivvies? Thirdly, the fable established a sort of subversive element to the establishment; I wonder today if the fable is read to North Korean children? Fourth, it showed that modesty was a virtue. Lastly, the whole moral idea of the fable was that children needed to express their most basic truths, openly, and would be rewarded and be considered smart and adult if they did this. Plus, it was a good business tale.
Around the same time, Sesame Street introduced Mr. Snuffleupagus. I found the original Snuffleupagus idea enormously compelling, namely that there was a large creature only kids could see, and no matter what Big Bird said, Snuffy was never to be seen. The Snuffleupagus turned the old Emperor fable inside out; in that it allowed kids to hold some thoughts away from parents, confirming the child’s reality that there are many things you see as a child that an adult might not understand.
At some point, Children’s Television Workshop decided that everyone needed to see Mr. Snuffleupagus, because if kids were not to be believed when they saw a mammoth hairy elephant creature, they would certainly not come forward to confront child abuse. Not sure if that was the right call.
So what does this all have to do with J. Crew? I just opened an ad in Fast Company, to see a woman wearing a strange pair of Snuffleupagus-sized sleeping pants, a stupid shirt with Salut! on it, and the meaningless slogan “Our Clothes, Your Style.” She is standing with a guy in a white tee. This was at the same time the news hit that Jenna Lyons was rowed out to sea as the company’s president and executive creative director.
It was nice to see a shake up at the brand, as it has gotten uglier and uglier since it was turned into a fashion brand by the supposed genius crew that ruined it with debt. Of course she is but a symptom; the company has $1.5 billion in long-term debt, same store sales falling by seven percent this year and three percent last year.
The ad, however, tells the story better than financial figures:
- The scripty new J. Crew logo. Huh?
- The pants. Really? Are you serious? Not only are they ugly, they could never be worn anywhere. You could not even sleep in them.
- A guy in a white t-shirt: Nothing wrong with selling white tees, but they are sort of low-margin items, and they don’t work as lead catalog images, unless you are Hanes or Fruit of the Loom.
- French slogans? Salut? Are you kidding me?
- Purple? Purple on horizontal stripes? Carole King looking women don’t like purple stripe pants.
I cannot help but think of this line:
“So off went the Emperor in procession under his splendid canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!” Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool.
Good Taste Sells
The brand of J. Crew was about handsome people, timeless fashion, sensible craftsmanship, consistent styling and good taste. No, edgy is not really what J.Crew is about. The world, we think, is quite edgy all the time, and the purpose of J.Crew was to bring comfort and class to that edgy world. If J. Crew wants to get back to improved sales, it needs to get back to sensible good taste. Mickey Drexler might ponder these sentences as his sales have tanked over recent years:
“Before the procession the swindlers sat up all night and burned more than six candles, to show how busy they were finishing the Emperor’s new clothes. They pretended to take the cloth off the loom. They made cuts in the air with huge scissors. And at last they said, “Now the Emperor’s new clothes are ready for him.”
Two years ago, a J. Crew exec joked with Hunger Games hashtags as they fired 175 staff. Sick. They fired the guy, thankfully, but he was off having a drink in the bar with his gains.
Sack Pants from Somsack’s Department
All fashion brands need to remind themselves occasionally that modern, adult, sassy expressions of the Emperor lesson are still valid, even if supposed fashion experts come in and tell you otherwise. Some statements that might be useful when Jenna Lyons’ replacement Somsack Sikhounmuong (in charge of women’s wear) pulls out the some sack striped pants and tries to pass them off as something that can help pay off part of that $1.5 billion debt.
- Are you kidding me?
- Somebody lied to her.
- Please make it stop.
A humble hint to Mr. Drexler: If Somsack Sikhounmuong is responsible for the purple stripey pants, she might not be the right replacement.
Below, a few images of the pre-nightmare J.Crew, with a bit of evidence to see where the brand was in the 1980s and 1990s and early 2000s. Note that it is very difficult to know which year the photos are from; that is sort of the idea of classic fashion, anyway, isn’t it.
I hope Mickey Drexler has a good archivist of his back catalogs. They might do well to open a few and see what they are missing.