J.Crew Bankruptcy Filing May Not Be The Last For Retailers Slammed By Pandemic : Coronavirus Updates The clothing retailer's troubles predate the health crisis. Other stores, like J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus, are also struggling to survive extended closures.

J.Crew Bankruptcy Filing May Not Be The Last For Retailers Slammed By Pandemic

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A staple of the suburban mall filed for bankruptcy today. J. Crew could be first among several retailers to implode during the coronavirus pandemic from financial troubles that pre-date the health crisis. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The history of J. Crew goes back over 70 years as a catalogue company whose sport-inspired name was a direct response to Ralph Lauren's polo with the initial J. to look cool. But there's a moment in recent memory when, by all measures, the brand hit the big time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO")

MICHELLE OBAMA: This is a J. Crew ensemble.

JAY LENO: Really? Wow.

SELYUKH: Michelle Obama, about to become fashion trendsetter first lady, touting J. Crew's sensible pricing on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO")

LENO: I have no idea what that means but OK.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: We - ladies, we know J. Crew.

(CHEERING)

SELYUKH: That was late 2008, a sort of a renaissance for the preppy brand with its straight silhouettes, nautical stripes, cashmere sweaters and crew neck cardigans. But this week, the company became the first retail casualty during the coronavirus pandemic, which has left stores and malls around the country shut for weeks. Clothing brands are especially struggling, which is particularly painful for those already in financial distress like J.C. Penney, Brooks Brothers, Neiman Marcus or J. Crew.

SUCHARITA KODALI: This accelerated the inevitable.

SELYUKH: Sucharita Kodali is a retail analyst at Forrester. She says J. Crew has been skating on the edge of bankruptcy for a while. The company's story is a familiar one in retail. Private equity firms bought J. Crew about a decade ago and weighed it down with debt. Soon after, the brand began to miss trends and slowly lose cachet in a growing crowd of online competitors.

KODALI: You think that you have the ability to set trends, and you think that anything that you create, people will buy.

SELYUKH: That worked for J. Crew for a while. For those epic years of success, J. Crew was run by a man known as the merchant prince, Mickey Drexler. Alongside him was influential fashion designer Jenna Lyons, who took mass market J. Crew to the New York Fashion Week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNA LYONS: If you're already familiar with J. Crew, you know that we like to pair sparkle with tweed.

SELYUKH: But then came complaints that J. Crew was becoming too runway, too expensive. The company became a revolving door of executives. It totally missed the huge athleisure trend. Its online business wasn't keeping up.

KODALI: It was selling a lot of the same types of merchandise - you know, the ballet slippers and the bejeweled sweaters, you know, and the big chunky necklaces, which are cute but they were a little off-trend by, you know, the last few years.

SELYUKH: J. Crew's shining star was Madewell, the more youthful and casual brand. The company wanted to spin it off and use that cash to pay down some of the debt. But that public listing was suspended in March right as the pandemic hit. Now J. Crew hopes to reopen its stores soon as it gets its finances in order using bankruptcy, an option on the table for a growing list of big retailers during the coronavirus crisis.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

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