If you’ve become disillusioned with J. Crew (or concerned about their May 4 bankruptcy filing), try these up-and-coming clothing brands for men and women on for size. These are terrific clothing options if you like J. Crew.
When the J. Crew Group Inc. announced it would seek bankruptcy protections on May 4 amid the COVID19 pandemic, it created uncertainty about what will happen to J. Crew’s online and physical stores and interest in alternative shopping options.
Reviewing J. Crew’s recent struggles and bankruptcy filing
First, let’s review J. Crew’s recent turbulence.
In the summer of 2018, Khadeeja Safdar of the Wall Street Journal profiled the struggles of J. Crew. The brand’s social media accounts were “littered with complaints from angry shoppers” who had come to expect quality fabrics and flattering fits. J. Crew had lost popular designer Jenna Lyons, and was portrayed in the press as listless.
Soon after Safdar’s article, I authored the first version of the article that you are reading right now. In it, I wrote that I hoped new CEO James Brett would give the brand a makeover.
So much for that: In November 2018, Brett announced his departure from J. Crew.
Here’s quick timeline of what happened next leading up to J. Crew’s decision to seek bankruptcy protection:
- On November 17, 2018, following Brett’s departure, the J. Crew Group announced that it would form an “Office of the CEO” comprised of a committee of Michael Nicholson, Adam Brotman, Lynda Markoe, and Libby Wadle. These four executives would captain the ship until a permanent replacement was found.
- By the spring of 2019, a replacement had still not been found after former Ralph Lauren Chief Stefan Larrson said no thanks to J. Crew.
- On April 11, 2019, in an SEC filing, J. Crew indicated that Michael Nicholson would remain interim CEO for the time being, and also announced that Brotman would leave the company.
- In May 2019, with the company still without a permanent CEO, Vanity Fair observed snarkily that, “the only discernible feeling the company has evoked in recent months is ennui.”
- In January 2020, J. Crew announced it had picked former Nike and Victoria Secret executive Jan Singer as its permanent CEO.
- On May 4, 2020, buffeted by the coronavirus shutdown, J. Crew announced it would file for bankruptcy protection.
Will J. Crew’s website and stores remain open during the bankruptcy process?
J. Crew indicated that its website would remain open and that it stores would re-open “as quickly and safely as possible” while considering COVID19 restrictions.
In its statement announcing it would seek bankruptcy protection, J. Crew CEO Jan Singer said:
Throughout this process, we will continue to provide our customers with the exceptional merchandise and service they expect from us, and we will continue all day-to-day operations, albeit under these extraordinary COVID-19-related circumstances. As we look to reopen our stores as quickly and safely as possible, this comprehensive financial restructuring should enable our business and brands to thrive for years to come.
That announcement also notes that J. Crew filed a series of “first day” motions with the court that would enable it to continue operations during the restructuring process.
The Best Alternatives to J. Crew
It’s hard for a brand to find its voice amid so much change.
While the company adjusts, here are some brands like J Crew to consider for high-quality clothing for men and women:
Strong J. Crew influences for women and men. Alex Mill has serious ties to J. Crew. Founded in 2012 by Alexander Drexler, the son of J. Crew’s former CEO Mickey Drexler, the company enlisted the services of former J. Crew and Madewell designer Somsack Sikhounmuong to relaunch the brand in February 2019. Back in 2012, the younger Drexler first launched the brand with a focus on men’s shirts, but the company’s 2019 relaunch brought a full line of elevated basics for men and women, including tees, sweatshirts and sweaters, outerwear, pants, shorts, shoes and accessories, as well as dresses, jumpsuits and skirts for women. (They have a particularly nice selection of striped t-shirts.) In addition to selling direct to consumers, retailers including Mr. Porter, Unionmade, Stag Provisions (which, by the way, is one of the greatest independent clothing retailers in the United States) and Nordstrom stock Alex Mill.
Solid basics at a fair price for women and men. California startup Everlane promises “radical transparency” into its supply chain practices. I like the visibility founder Michael Preysman provides as he emphasizes the benefits of cutting out the middleman and delivering minimalist, modern clothing for women and men. In Modern Fellows’ list of the best online destinations to shop for clothing, I wrote that,
Everlane makes standout and reasonably-priced men’s wardrobe staples including soft t-shirts, super-comfortable cashmere crew and v-neck sweaters, fleece pants, backpacks and outerwear.
Comfortable-yet-fashionable performance clothing for the office. Ministry of Supply was founded in 2011 by a group of MIT graduates, including Aman Advani and Gihan Amarasiriwardena, with the goal of selling professional and business casual clothing made from engineered performance fabrics, including materials NASA uses.
For women, Ministry of Supply sells a range of office-appropriate dresses, blouses, skirts, blazers, suits, jackets and t-shirts.
For men, Ministry of Supply specializes in stretchy, performance button down shirts, slacks and shorts, suits, t-shirts and more. Perhaps Ministry of Supply’s sleek aesthetic is a bit more Banana Republic than J. Crew, but I love their look.
See Modern Fellows guide to performance clothing for women and men for additional options and to learn more about technical fabrics, and my interview with co-founder and CEO Aman Advani, who gives advice on what you should purchase first from his company. (Hint: It’s the stretchy Apollo dress shirt, which comes in versions for women and men.)
A spectacular alternative to J. Crew for swimsuits for men and women. I fondly remember J. Crew’s old mail order catalogs contained an impressive selection of swimsuits for women and men. They weren’t flamboyant or necessarily extravagant, but they were attractive and functional. Carl Cunow and Nathan Romano founded Onia in 2009 to fill “a huge gap in the marketplace for men’s and women’s swimwear that married great quality and outstanding fit.” Onia offers really striking and bright swimsuits for women and men, as well as cute casual-wear options that will have you reminiscing about those old J. Crew catalogs.
Affordable luxury basics for men and women. Club Monaco began life as a Canadian startup. Canadian retail entrepreneurs Joe and Saul Mimran and Alfred Sung launched the brand via an initial retail location on Queen Street West in Toronto. On March 1, 1999, Club Monaco was acquired by the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation for $52.5 million in cash, who moved its headquarters to New York City. Club Monaco has had its ups and downs over the years — at one point eliminating its entire menswear line — but today exists as “a modern, urban-minded brand with an element of ease and a spark of entrepreneurship from its Canadian roots.” I love that Club Monaco experiments, and you can almost always find something new to covet, from marled sweaters to herringbone gloves, when walking through their minimalist retail locations or shopping online.
Classy British fashion for women and men. Johnnie Boden founded his eponymous company in 1991 with a small line-up of menswear. Today, modern and colorful takes on classic apparel for women dominate Boden’s online and snail-mail catalogs. (In advance of her birthday each year, my wife hands me the Boden catalog with more than a dozen pages folded down of A-line skirts, cinched dresses, Breton tops, colorful socks and more.) Boden’s selection of menswear features an array of business casual wardrobe staples, a great collection of corduroy shirts, jackets and pants for the fall, and a small selection of made-in-Britain accessories and footwear. While I like Boden’s look, the company sure has a funny way of treating unsolicited advocates for its brand.
Brands like J. Crew courtesy of Amazon. Ok, Amazon is a behemoth, but it also maintains a startup mentality and continues to iterate on its private clothing brands for women and men. Amazon is specifically targeting men who like J. Crew and Banana Republic with its Goodthreads and Buttoned Down house-brands. Check out their chinos and button downs, which have a similar look to those found at J. Crew. For women, Amazon Prime Fashion brands like Lark and Ro and Daily Ritual also play in the same space as J. Crew and Banana Republic. (See Modern Fellows’ guide to Amazon Fashion Brands for Women including Amazon Essentials and Lark and Ro.)
“Contemporary since 1978” for men and women. In 1968, French fashion designers Marithé and François Girbaud established ÇA, short for C’est ça. Forced to change their name, in 1978, the company settled on CLOSED. Fast forward 5 decades and two ownership changes, and today friends Gordon Giers, Til Nadler, and Hans Redlefsen collaborate on running the a global fashion brand that focuses on affordable luxury and sustainable production. They do color well: For men, think chunky cable crew sweaters, slim fit chinos and relaxed weekend-approprite button down shirts. For women, classic denim jackets, stripped turtlenecks and soft winter coats.
Heritage-inspired clothing for women and men. Madewell has an interesting history. The name dates back to a family clothing operation founded in 1936 by Russian-born entrepreneur Julius Kivowitz. Fast forward several decades: As CEO of J. Crew, Mickey Drexler learned of the history of Madewell and, 2004, registered the trademark.
J Crew re-launched the Madwell brand in 2006 and developed it into a fashion-forward, e-commerce friendly complement, selling an attractive range of wrap dresses, puff-sleeve v-neck blouses, jumpsuits, and vintage and flare denim aimed at younger women. Originally focused exclusively on women’s apparel, in 2018, the brand quietly launched a menswear line, Madewell Men. Madwell Men began with a heavy focus on denim, but has built up a nice arsenal of thermal t-shirts, waffle-knit henleys and other knitwear, swim trunks, shorts and more.
The brand became so successful in recent years that it threatened to outstrip J. Crew in popularity. In September 2019, Madewell filed for an initial public offering. (“Chinos Holdings,” the parent company of J. Crew and Madewell, indicated in its IPO filing indicated that the company would be renamed to Madewell prior to the completion of the IPO.) Chino Holding’s 2019 filing noted that the company would fully separated itself from J. Crew: “Chinos Holdings will have no interest in the J. Crew business after giving effect to the Reorganization,” according to the filing.
However, in J. Crew’s May 2020 bankruptcy protection announcement, they reversed course, indicating that Madewell would remain part of the same company as J. Crew.
It’s hard to say what the future of Madewell holds given the challenges of its’ parent company. As of this writing, Madewell is captained by Libby Wadle, who was promoted to President and Chief Executive Officer of the brand effective March 31, 2019.
Even more alternatives to J. Crew for women
Several women-only clothing brands also provide great alternative options for brands like J. Crew:
Edgy-yet-appropriate sustainable fashion for women. Yael Aflalo founded the Reformation, aka “Ref,” as a side-hustle in 2009 She has since grown Ref into a formidable brand that delivers flowy, flower-print dresses, printed tops with dramatic necklines, bad-ass leather and denim jackets and more while focusing on sustainability. Even their COVID-19 face masks are cute. (For more on Ref’s COVID19 response and other options, see Modern Fellows’ guide to where to buy washable, reusable face masks online right now for kids and adults.)
Minimal, fashionable clothing for professional women. After graduating from Stanford, Jess Lee and Lizzie Agnew founded Modern Citizen in 2014 to make it easier for professional women to fill their closets with go-to pieces. Modern Citizen projects a sleek, minimalist aesthetic. Its wardrobe includes simple sleeveless knit tops and oversized button down shirts, cropped sweaters and wrap blouses, and tapered trousers and high-waisted culottes.
Effortless wardrobe solutions for professional women (including those working from home). Founded by Sarah Lafleur, Narie Foster and Miyako Nakamura M. M. Lafleur is an innovative fashion startup focused on uncomplicated wardrobe staples for women. While the company began by offering a stellar selection of work dresses, suits and separates for professional offices, M. M. Lafleur has expanded its offerings to cater to work from home wardrobe needs including everstretch “yoga pants of work pants,” breathable summer knitwear, and “power casual” tops, bottoms and dresses. The fashion startup has turned into a fully omnichannel retailer, combining its sleek online presence with M. M. Lafleur showrooms in Washington, DC, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York City, and San Francisco.
Curated, high-quality dresses, pajamas, cashmere and more. Grant Dowse and Pegge Kirschner founded Garnet Hill in 1976 after returning from Denmark where they discovered the perfect flannel sheets and wanted to share them and other high-quality products with U.S. consumers. The company evolved over the years to feature a wide range of cute, high-quality clothing for women (as well as children) plus shoes and accessories, a ton of backpacks, and bed, bath and home goods.
Their women’s fashion collection includes flowy knit and wrap dresses, soft stripy sweaters and wraps, comfy organic pajamas and intimates, and entire collections for linen and cashmere. While they are no longer a family owned business — Founders Grant and Pegge died tragically in a plane crash, after which the brand was sold to the Home Shopping Network’s Cornerstone division — but Garnet Hill is a great alternative to J. Crew.
Effortless essentials from women, courtesy of H&M. I first stumbled upon & Other Stories while looking for a gift for my wife in London, and I immediately thought of J. Crew. And Other Stories is owned by the H&M Group, the brainchild of then creative director Sara Hilden Bengtsson, and smacks of effortless essentials for women from sleek cardigans to slouch leather boots to a leather croc handbag.
What about Jenna Lyons’s post-J. Crew plans?
The internet has been anticipating for years the next venture(s) from J. Crew’s former creative director Jenna Lyons, who is widely credited with reviving their women’s line and overall interest in the company. Jenna told Athena Calderon in the Eye-Swoon podcast that she is involved in a beauty brand launch in the summer of 2020 as well as a separate e-commerce venture. Watch this space.
Even more alternatives to J. Crew for men
There are several innovative menswear brands who come to mind that serve as great alternatives to J. Crew, including two that are helmed by J. Crew alumni.
Thoughtful, high-quality wardrobe staples for men from a J. Crew alumnus. Iowa-born entrepreneur Todd Snyder advertises a combination of “Savile Row craftsmanship” and “New York aesthetic” for “the modern gentleman.” For me, his line instills that same kind of closet envy that leafing through old J. Crew mail-order catalogs produced — with good reason. Snyder was a Senior Vice President for Menswear at J. Crew. While at J. Crew, he helped conceive of the innovative-at-the time J. Crew Liquor Store. Now, he runs a true one-stop-virtual-shop for everything from suits, button-down shirts and dress trousers to wallets, watches, neckties and underwear. No, it’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for, and these “effortless everyday luxuries” are meant to last. Wandering around Todd Snyder’s flagship store alongside Madison Square Park is a real treat. Oh yeah, and he revived the Liquor Store.
Elevated and colorful business-casual for men. Take 20% off at Ledbury with code MOD20 through July 31. Richmond-based menswear startup Ledbury has earned consistent high-marks from this website for its slightly-modern, slightly-Southern takes on menswear classics. It too offers a one-stop shop for many menswear wardrobe staples, and does a particularly good job with blazers, sweaters and business casual shirting and pants. Ledbury has a terrific store in Cady’s Alley in Washington, DC’s Georgetown neighborhood. And Ledbury offers custom suiting via its shops in Richmond and DC. (If you’re looking for more made-to-measure suit options, check out Modern Fellows’ comprehensive guide to bespoke and custom suits.)
Refined, made-to-measure men’s shirts, suits and more. New York-based startup Proper Cloth specializes in a sliver of a man’s closet — button down shirts. Through regular lookbook and fantastic website layouts, founder Seph Skerritt and his team do an amazing job conveying the fit and feel of the company’s impressive array of casual, semi-formal and formal button down shirts, along with an expanding array of custom suits and off-the-rack knitwear, suits, outerwear, belts, neckties and other accessories. Proper Cloth shirts have been a favorite of Modern Fellows since 2013, and their v-neck cashmere sweaters also impress.
Chinos and more for men. One of the nice things about Bonobos is their bricks-and-clicks presence. Their well-appointed Guideshops — like this Bonobos outpost in Washington, DC’s Shaw neighborhood — allow customers to touch, see up up close and try on the company’s suits, blazers, chinos, jeans and other menswear to get a feel for fabrics and fit. While the company focuses mainly on menswear, Bonobos released a capsule collection for women for international women’s day in 2019. Bonobos is best-known for their chinos, their dress pants and accessories also shine. (My one nit is that they seem to have completely abandoned 100% cotton fabrics in favor of stretchy, cotton-blend fabrics.) Yes, they’re now owned by Walmart, but Bonobos maintains a startup mentality and separate identity.
For even more options for men’s chinos, including 100% cotton options, see Modern Fellows’ guide to where to buy chinos for men.
Curated men’s fashion online. Founded by Andy Forch and Rich Greiner in 2010, Huckberry boasts an incredibly well-curated selection of menswear, accessories, homewear and textiles alongside journaling on adventure and life. The company owns Flint and Tinder and features the brand prominently, but importantly introduces men to a thoughtful selection of less-well known brands including Topo Designs, Adam Mar, Relwen, About Vintage watches, and Naked and Famous denim. As Andy put it in an article explaining Huckberry’s origin, they founded the company because:
There were men’s stores, sure. Adventure magazines, too. Yet nothing out there spoke directly to us — 25-year-old guys who lived in the city but lived for the outdoors — and we envisioned a brand that was equal parts store, magazine, and inspiration to help guys suck the marrow out of life.
Fashion-forward menswear from the Netherlands. Like Bonobos, a benefit of Suit Supply is being able to actually walk into a physical store and try on the company’s wares — and, in Suit Supply’s case, you can walk out with a purchase in hand. The company’s elegant, minimalist stores, like this one alongside the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, DC’s Georgetown neighborhood, are a pleasure to walk through as long as you can deflect occasionally over-eager staff who are quick to point customers to their luxury suiting line. Their suits either fit you or they don’t — unfortunately for this writer, my shoulders and torso can’t agree on a size — but if they do, you have a highly-rated, inexpensive go-to option. Their knitwear and accessories are also worth checking out.
Finally: Don’t Dismiss J. Crew
Finally, it would be a mistake to dismiss J. Crew. The company’s bankruptcy filing means this is an uncertain time for the brand, but their future hasn’t been fully-fleshed out. The company’s Wallace and Barnes workwear line still gets high marks and the J. Crew Ludlow Suit remains a staple in many a man’s closet for good reason — it’s clean, simple and slimming. I hope we can look forward to keeping an eye out for more good things to come from J. Crew.
Photo credits: Unless otherwise noted, photos are copyrighted by Modern Fellows and were taken with permission at Bonobos, Todd Snyder and Suit Supply.
About JakeJake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age. Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and/or fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.
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