Can a streetwear designer save J.Crew?

Can a streetwear designer save J.Crew?

Brendon Babenzien may not be a household name, but he’s well-known within men’s fashion. After a 14-year career as design director of Supreme, during which he helped make the streetwear company one of fashion’s most influential names, he left in 2015 to relaunch his own clothing line, Noah, with his wife, Estelle Bailey-Babenzien. The line has developed its own loyal customer base, and today sells at retailers such as Ssense and Dover Street Market.

Now he’s got a new job. J.Crew has announced Babenzien as its men’s creative director.

It marks J.Crew’s latest move to update and revive its business, which has never quite recaptured the success of its mid-2000s heyday and underwent restructuring last year as part of a bankruptcy filing. Menswear is just a fraction of its sales—21% in 2018, according to the company’s last full-year filing. But any traction it can gain turning around its business and brand image would help, and the appeal of a designer associated with streetwear is clear.

The category, which has roots in surf and skate culture and takes influence from classic American sportswear and hip-hop, has exploded in recent years, prompting big names in fashion to pull from its ranks. Louis Vuitton hired Off-White founder Virgil Abloh as its men’s artistic director. Jil Sander tapped former Supreme designer Luke Meier and wife Lucie as its creative heads. In November, VF Corp., the owner of brands such as Vans and The North Face, went a step further and bought Supreme itself for $2.1 billion.

Babenzien comes from that world, but despite streetwear’s reputation for hoodies and t-shirts, he’s known for a grown-up version of streetwear that leans preppy, just with some eccentricity thrown in. His version of a white oxford button-up shirt might have neon pink stripes, and a fairly classic overcoat might come in a cheetah print. He’s not afraid of pleats either, incorporating them into chinos and even jeans. He told the Wall Street Journal he expects to keep J.Crew’s popular slim-fit suits but is considering roomier fits and even pleated pants. His first collection for J.Crew is slated to debut in the second half of 2022.

Babenzien’s hire fills a position that’s been empty since Frank Muytjens left J.Crew in a 2017 shakeup that also saw creative director Jenna Lyons and CEO Mickey Drexler depart. Since, the company has been a revolving door of executives and designers, while the strain of the pandemic finally caused the company to buckle under its debt load and seek bankruptcy protection. It emerged in September, and shortly after Libby Waddle, who previously ran J.Crew’s more successful Madewell denim brand, took over as CEO.

Waddle appears to be looking to rebuild, and Babenzien now has to prove his sensibility can serve the J.Crew menswear customer while attracting new ones.

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