At NYFW Spring 2024, J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret market their reinventions

At NYFW Spring 2024, J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret market their reinventions

It’s a walk-off between brand nostalgia and brand amnesia at New York Fashion Week

Attendees pose for a portrait with a backdrop during a J. Crew party at Pier 17 in New York on Sept. 5. (Bryan Anselm)

NEW YORK — As Fashion Week descends upon Manhattan, two legacy mall brands offered an unofficial kickoff to New York Fashion Week and a marked contrast in how to reinvent themselves after hard times. One was J. Crew. The other was Victoria’s Secret.

In her signature thick-framed glasses, Jenna Lyons flitted around Tuesday’s party dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the brand that made her famous. The former creative director of J. Crew womenswear oversaw the brand’s golden era, when it was worn by first lady Michelle Obama and seemingly every young professional 20-something in America. Now, six years after she left the brand, Lyons was back, as a newly minted star of “The Real Housewives of New York,” to help usher in a new era for an old flame.

Lyons danced with model Joan Smalls as the indie-rock band the Strokes played on the Rooftop at Pier 17, a riverside venue in Manhattan with spectacular views of the Brooklyn Bridge. She mingled with VIP guests such as Diane Keaton, as well as friends from her tenure at J. Crew. The day after the event, posing on Instagram in a black pencil skirt and crop top laden with paillettes, she posted a message wishing her former employer the best after their much-publicized breakup: “I am rooting for you @jcrew.”

Three years ago J. Crew was bankrupt, as the pandemic accelerated a retail apocalypse. Now, the choice brand for accessible moneyed prep is in the midst of yet another grand reinvention, though its ethos isn’t rocket science: Blend the old with the new, and hope to please everybody.

J. Crew CEO Libby Wadle said as much in an emailed statement sent via a publicist: “Through our design, stores and overall creative approach, we’ve prioritized capturing the brand heritage in new ways — and always through a firmly modern lens.”

J. Crew isn’t the only old-school brand attempting a reboot. For suburban middle-class millennials of a certain age, the aughts were defined by a quintet of mall brands — J. Crew, Victoria’s Secret, Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch and the Gap — that defined their teenage and youngadult style as smart but simple, and sexy but safe. A collection of circumstances both financial and cultural caused those brands to lose their way, ceding relevance to fast-fashion retailers and new brands with a wider range of sizes and a stronger point of view.

But lately, 30-somethings for whom a lacy Victoria’s Secret bra and a J. Crew No. 2 Pencil Skirt were a rite of passage into adulthood may be giving the brands a second look, thanks to a wave of publicity about their updates from fashion publications including GQ and Refinery 29. Time has helped, too: Fashion, always cyclical, has returned to the late ’90s and early 2000s aesthetic, which capitalizes on Millennial nostalgia and Gen Z anemoia.

Victoria’s Secret and J. Crew kicked off New York Fashion Week with back-to-back events that celebrated their newfound identities. And they’ve taken two markedly different approaches. J. Crew is invoking its classic, preppy-Americana roots to bolster its reputation; Victoria’s Secret has scrambled to obscure the sins it committed for decades in the name of maintaining its signature “fantasy.”

The question for both is: Can they pull it off? Their events offered a glimpse of their divergent new directions.

It’s not the first time either of these brands have come back from the brink of disaster.

J. Crew made its name in the catalogue business before expanding to physical retail locations. It faltered financially in the 1990s, when the New York Times mused that its catalogue’s “carefree models in lemon-colored turtlenecks” were “far removed from the messy world of junk bonds and leveraged buyouts facing the retailer,” which sold its majority stake to a private investment firm in 1997. J. Crew bounced back in the early 2010s, when Lyons lent high-fashion credibility to the mainstream brand and Obama wore the name on trips to both “The Tonight Show” and to South Africa.

But in 2020, after poor sales of clothes that many thought had become too trend-driven in recent years, J. Crew filed for bankruptcy. Since then, J. Crew has changed its strategy, appointing Brendon Babenzien (formerly of Supreme) to head its menswear department and Olympia Gayot to lead womenswear. Babenzien also co-founded the classics-with-a-streetwear-twist menswear label Noah. His hire at J. Crew, then, gave a preppy, old-school label license to play around with preppy, old-school motifs. Gayot, meanwhile, has imparted to the brand some of the relaxed, elegantly minimalist style that’s made her an Instagram star known for mixing oversize masculine silhouettes and dainty feminine touches.

Part of J. Crew’s reinvention has been to look into its archive for classic, timeless pieces that were wardrobe staples in its catalogue days. That approach was apparent Tuesday in its party’s decor, which prominently displayed its vintage catalogue photos.

J. Crew’s event seemed to ask: Remember the good old days? Remember sun-washed colors and cozy sweaters and sturdy, pleasantly rumpled khakis?

It was warm and humid. Guests’ floaty dresses clung to their backs. The ice under the clams and oysters was melting at a concerning pace. Channeling J. Crew’s preppy vibes, guests mugged for Instagrams by a vintage white Land Rover surrounded by piles of hardcover books and a small wooden boat with a canoe paddle. Joshua Jackson — a catalogue model for J. Crew in 1998, now a salt-and-pepper-bearded friend of the brand — posed there with his wife, Jodie Turner-Smith. Other VIPs included actor Adam Scott, singer Leon Bridges, model Ella Emhoff (stepdaughter of Vice President Harris), and J. Crew royalty: Wadle, former CEO Mickey Drexler, Babenzien (in denim shorts and a tie) and Gayot (in a white suit and sequined bikini top).

The only interruption to all the earnest nostalgia came from the Strokes, who also played at J. Crew’s fall Fashion Week party last year.

“It’s been real. It’s also been a little fake,” mused frontman Julian Casablancas from the stage toward the end of their set. After a moment he added, “I’m kidding.”

Maggie Bullock, author of the new J. Crew history “The Kingdom of Prep,” attended the party. She wondered “what the Strokes’ early-aughts selves would think if you told them that, circa 2023, they’d be playing a J. Crew party.” She also wondered whether the privately held company had won back enough customers to be profitable.

Looking around the party, Bullock tried to pin down the “new J. Crew” look and failed. “I’m sure they dressed a lot of the people there, but it was a little hard to discern,” Bullock said by phone afterward. That said: “What they’re leaning into right now is the quietness of, basically, good taste and great tailoring. They’re riffing on their own classics. These are not things that stand out in a crowd by their very nature.”

Emily Sundberg has written about J. Crew on her business Substack Feed Me. “The men’s stuff impresses me right now,” she said in a phone interview. She’s not entirely clear on who the women’s side has in mind with its designs, though she thinks some of the suiting is “beautiful.”

“Is it a Tribeca mom?” Sundberg asks. “Is it a young, cool person who hangs out downtown and understands style? Is it somebody who’s going to work? Is it for somebody who’s staying home?”

At the Manhattan Center on Wednesday night, Victoria’s Secret hinted, not so subtly, that it had changed. The dark event hall was decorated with pairs of wings, a Victoria’s Secret staple — but in earthier tones, instead of the iridescent or psychedelic vibes of yore. Nearby, screens flashed vague feminist phrases such as “Protective armor” and “Female form,” then switched to black-and-white video clips of oysters being shucked, garments being loomed, an Indigenous person performing a ceremonial dance.

Back in 1982, the New York Times described the Victoria’s Secret catalogue as featuring models “photographed in ladylike poses against elegant backgrounds.” By 1991, The Washington Post’s James Morgan noted that Victoria’s Secret had “refined the notion of lingerie as fashion better than anyone else. The idea was then revelatory: that what was under your clothes should be as colorful, intricate, and trendy, too.”

Like J. Crew, Victoria’s Secret is also under new leadership; it divorced from parent company L Brands in the wake of the controversy that essentially killed the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. In 2019, when the brand had lost relevance to other companies that presented themselves as more feminist, diverse and unfussy, former L Brands executive Ed Razek told Vogue that Victoria’s Secret would not be changing its approach to underwear even as the rest of the industry radically reformed to be more inclusive of different sizes and identities. Backlash ensued (to put it mildly), and the annual TV spectacle was canceled.

Additionally, Victoria’s Secret has found it hard to scrub the stain of Jeffrey Epstein’s association with the brand, which was the subject of the recent documentary series “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons.” In the mid-1990s, Epstein, a friend and adviser of the brand’s then-CEO Leslie Wexner, allegedly presented himself as a model recruiter for Victoria’s Secret to assault women. Wexner stepped down in 2020. Victoria’s Secret declined to comment for this article.

At the party Wednesday, the lingerie label introduced what seems to be its replacement for the fashion show: A short, four-segment video presentation on an IMAX-size screen debuted four collections by designers based in Tokyo, London, Bogotá and Lagos, Nigeria, with the help of beloved models of the past (Naomi Campbell, Gigi Hadid, Candice Swanepoel) and up-and-comers with looks and physiques decidedly outside of Victoria’s narrower historical tastes. Among them: freckled model Adwoa Aboah; Sora Choi, who has substantial tattoos all across her torso and hips; transgender model Valentina Sampaio; and plus-size models Devyn Garcia and Paloma Elsesser.

Victoria’s Secret touted the film, titled “The Tour,” as “a reimagination of the iconic fashion show.” Notably, not one of the collections delivered the traditional bra-and-panties combination that built the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show into a juggernaut. The models wore pants, coats, leggings, gowns and crop tops.

Colombian designer Melissa Valdés Duque clothes her Victoria’s Secret models in see-through dresses woven in random, chaotic patterns to resemble scars on human skin — in an homage to the stories that scars tell about our lives. And Japan’s Jenny Fax delivers arguably the most effective revamp: She covers a few of her models in layer upon layer of lacy bras and panties and “xoxo” tape, while others wear bubble dresses molded from semi-firm material that gives them soft bellies, love handles and small, humble breasts.

It is the models’ bodies that deliver the clear thesis statement of the reinvention. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show will live on in popular memory, whether Victoria’s Secret likes it or not, as a spectacle of winks, blown kisses and blown-out pageant-queen hair. With its “Tour” film, Victoria’s Secret acknowledges — finally — real skin with its bumps and lumps and folds. Bodies in pregnancy, in postpartum, in a multiple-decade range of ages. Hair in various stages of air-dry, not a glossy hot-roller curl for miles.

Not everyone is happy, of course. (How could they be?) Just look at the feedback on Victoria’s Secret fan accounts on Instagram, where you’ll catch comments such as, “This isn’t sexy” and “I want ’00 Victoria’s Secret back.” Some people just want the past.

Victoria’s Secret, meanwhile, is trying to adapt to the present and future, which seems to belong to shapewear. “Because they know if they don’t,” Sundberg says, “then Skims is going to win that game.”

Judkis reported from Washington.