Can Brendon Babenzien Transform J. Crew?

The newly appointed Men’s creative director faces the challenge of reinventing the 74-year-old brand’s traditional style codes.

Fashion 
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J. Crew — a label once professed dead after a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, then reinstated — is determined to reinvent the wheel that once placed its Ludlow suits at the pinnacle of men’s fashion. But it needs a revolutionary force to redirect its central design vision in order to remain afloat. 

After several executive shifts over the last five years, the company’s efforts to change its course were to no avail; however, the brand seems ready to switch gears entirely with the appointment of Brendon Babenzien — the co-founder of Noah and former lead designer for Supreme  — to creative director of J. Crew Men’s. Made official on Monday, May 17, the streetwear trailblazer now faces the task of reviving the it-factor that once made J. Crew a top-tier menswear label in the early 2000s. The question is: can he do it?

Babenzien will undoubtedly usher in a new attitude for the objectively conservative (and, some would say, uptight) mall brand. But whether that makeover makes use of his revered stake in streetwear or pulls from his subcultural design ethos is still up for debate. The designer began curating his creative vision as a teenager working at his local skate shop in Long Island, before moving to Miami in the early ‘90s to help Don Busweiler build his subversive Pervert label, where he initially took his ideas to the design table and formulated his countercultural aesthetic. 

In the latter half of that decade, the visionary landed at the helm of Supreme, where he called on his adolescent influences to play a major role in the brand’s trek to the crest of streetwear for over a decade. In 2015, he founded Noah — a NYC-based label that drew in his cult Supreme following, as well as an older men’s demographic, and returned to his utilitarian roots with punk-meets-preppy essentials. It’s safe to assume that Babenzien will employ elements from each of his prior positions at J. Crew, though merging those clashing design codes with the traditional brand’s bourgeois ideology might pose a challenge. 

Jesse Hudnutt — former Buying Director for Opening Ceremony and current creative consultant for brands including Eckhaus Latta, Seasons NYC and Très Bien  — cites Babenzien’s youthful design ethos as an asset to the decades-old brand.

“I think we oftentimes group streetwear in one hand and preppy, traditional in the other,” he told HYPEBEAST. “But for me, Brendan is an interesting mix of both, and his work at Noah has shown us an interesting mix of both.” 

“Everything in fashion is cyclical, but there’s also an evolution. So while we may have moved on from the kind of traditional J. Crew moments of the past, I do feel like within menswear, we are moving into more of a traditional space, maybe away from more of a streetwear focus, logo space.”

Babenzien’s J. Crew will likely undergo a past-meets-future transformation, one that embraces the brand’s legacy of conventional preppy style, but also expands the product offering to include a wider variety of silhouettes that meet the expectations of menswear’s modern principles. Perhaps the addition of wider, roomier, and more relaxed bottoms could combat the dated nature of the tapered-slim chino pants that once dominated the style genre. And more experimental cuts with tops and tailoring could draw in a younger demographic seeking alternative clothing.

“I think that [Babenzien] can bridge a younger consumer who might be interested in wearing traditional clothes in a non-traditional way and the more regular J. Crew customer who’s looking for something new or looking for some reason to come back to the brand,” Hudnutt said. 

Though Babenzien’s shift from cutting-edge streetwear to traditional menswear might initially shock the system, his path to take over a leading mall brand is not all that uncommon. Elsewhere in the industry, Jerry Lorenzo — founder of LA-based label Fear of God — now leads Adidas’ basketball line, and Aimé Leon Dore’s Teddy Santis currently runs New Balance’s Made in USA counterpart label. The industry shift derives from the idea that a creative director who was once able to claim a sizable share of the competitive streetwear market through social media and e-commerce should be able to do the same for a mall brand, and that’s exactly what J. Crew is hoping Babenzien can accomplish at its helm. 

Babenzien’s designs will not hit shelves until mid-2022; however, if the designer is capable of redefining J. Crew’s customary preppy look with fashion-forward silhouettes that attract young and old consumers alike, he might just take the brand to new heights.

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