J. Crew likely to file for bankruptcy in virus’ first big retail casualty

Vanessa Friedman, Sapna Maheshwari and Michael J. de la Merced, The New York Times

Posted at May 04 2020 02:24 PM

A window display at a J. Crew in Westport, Conn., March 22, 2020. J. Crew, the mass-market clothing company whose preppy-with-a-twist products were worn by Michelle Obama and appeared at New York Fashion Week, is expected to file for bankruptcy protection as soon as Monday, May 4. Dave Sanders, The New York Times

J. Crew, the mass-market clothing company whose preppy-with-a-twist products were worn by Michelle Obama and appeared at New York Fashion Week, is expected to file for bankruptcy protection as soon as Monday. It would be the first major retailer to fall during the coronavirus pandemic, though other big industry names including Neiman Marcus and J.C. Penney are likewise struggling with the devastating toll of mass shutdowns. 

J. Crew has been in negotiations with lenders on how to handle its debts for weeks, according to 2 people with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because discussions were confidential. The retailer’s board was expected to confer Sunday evening and J. Crew could file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as soon as Monday, the people said. The company on Sunday declined to comment.

The pandemic has been disastrous for the already weakened retail industry. In March, sales of clothing and accessories fell by more than half. The numbers for April are expected to only be worse, because many stores were open for at least some of March (e-commerce, a relatively small contributor to total sales for most store chains, is not enough to make up for the closures). 

Retailers have furloughed employees, slashed executive salaries and hoarded cash in a desperate attempt to survive until the shutdowns are lifted. And there is widespread acknowledgment that J. Crew, which also owns popular millennial denim brand Madewell, is not likely to be the only retailer to face the brink.

J. Crew was carrying a debt burden of $1.7 billion based on a leveraged buyout in 2011 by two private-equity firms — TPG Capital and Leonard Green & Partners — even before the coronavirus brought clothing sales to a near-halt in the 182 stores, 140 Madewells and 170 outlets it was running as of early March. And it had struggled to adapt to changing consumer tastes.

But in recent months it seemed to be making strides toward a more viable future. The company recently hired a new chief executive and was planning an initial public offering of Madewell this spring in order to pay down some of the debt and rehabilitate the J. Crew brand.

The coronavirus scuttled those plans and eventually toppled the company.

J. Crew started life in 1947 as a family-run low-priced clothing line for women called Popular Club Plan, and in 1983 it was renamed and reinvented as a catalog company selling turtleneck tops and crew neck sweaters in “Preppy Handbook” shades. It made the leap to household name and 21st century fashion fairy tale in late October 2008 when Obama, whose husband was then the Democratic candidate for president, appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” This was just days after it had been revealed that Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for vice president, had been given a costly wardrobe makeover by her party. “I want to ask you about your wardrobe,” Leno said to Obama. “I’m guessing about 60 grand? Sixty, 70 thousand for that outfit?”

“Actually, this is a J. Crew ensemble,” Obama replied, referring to her $148 yellow pencil skirt, $148 yellow and brown print tank top and $118 matching yellow cardigan. “Ladies, we know J. Crew. You can get some good stuff online!”

It was a priceless marketing moment. After that, everyone knew J. Crew, which seemed to embody the high/low mix-and-match trend of the moment.

The company was purchased by TPG in 1997 in a leveraged buyout from the founding Cinader family, and was taken public in 2003 — only to be reacquired for approximately $3 billion by TPG and Leonard Green & Partners nearly a decade ago.

Its creative director, Jenna Lyons, who had first joined as part of the design team in 1990, became a boldface name, known for her black-rimmed glasses, gangly frame and love of sequins and camouflage. Newspaper reports crowed about the comeback of the company’s chief executive, Millard S. Drexler, who had previously led Gap Inc. for years. Drexler, who goes by Mickey, became famous for riding his bicycle around the office and checking in with store associates via speakerphone.

In 2011 J. Crew became the first mass-market accessible brand to breach the high fashion parapet and present at New York Fashion Week. Vogue crowned the brand “a significant voice in the conversation on American style.” As the face of the brand, Lyons attended the Met Gala and, in 2014, played a role on the HBO show “Girls.”

In 2017, however, after 2 years of falling sales, Lyons left the company. J. Crew, the criticism went, had gone too fashion, falling into the trap of prizing quirk over quality and pricing itself out of practicality. And it had never focused enough on e-commerce. Madewell, its younger, simpler — “more authentic” — sister brand, acquired by Drexler in 2006, was the company’s new shining star. Indeed, after Lyons left, Madewell’s designer, Somsack Sikhounmuong, who had switched over to J. Crew in 2015, took the top creative spot. Much was made of a return to core values.

It was too little, too late. For a fashion brand to thrive it must be either needed or wanted. J. Crew, sitting somewhere in the netherland of style and price, was neither. A few months after Lyons’ departure, Drexler stepped down and two months later, Sikhounmuong left, starting a round-robin of executives and designers. That served ultimately to confuse rather than clarify the identity of the company and its strategy. Jan Singer, formerly of Nike and Victoria’s Secret, was named as J. Crew’s newest leader in January.

Madewell, which filed for an IPO in the fall, was expected to go public this spring while J. Crew remained private, but those plans were ultimately scrapped in March, which added a new wave of pressure and question marks to J. Crew’s future.

Now the question is whether the upheaval of the retail industry — which predates the pandemic, with the collapse of Barneys New York late last year — will continue.

“The companies going into bankruptcy, for the most part, were companies that were struggling before COVID — we have not seen true COVID-only bankruptcies,” said James Van Horn, a partner at the law firm Barnes & Thornburg and a specialist in retail bankruptcy.

However, he added, “depending on how the current situation continues, that may change.”

For instance, Brooks Brothers, another quintessential American shopping institution, is already facing questions about its future.

“In the ordinary course of business, Brooks Brothers consistently explores various strategic options to position the company for growth and success, in partnership with its financial advisers at P.J. Solomon,” a spokesman said, in response to question about a potential sale.