J. Crew "America" - Chilly & Boring

J.Crew America - Yr Doin It WrongSubscribers - please click through for best viewing!

The first of a guaranteed plethora of spring J.Crew catalogs arrived in my mailbox this week. I immediately paused because of the cover, screaming "America" in red and blue, across a plain black field.

I thought: "Wow, J.Crew is really brining home the Obama-economic stimulus-bring it to retail-optimism in a big way..." I mean, gorgeous couple in a vintage convertible, iconic panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge, and then... "AMERICA" - red A. The first true retail page-turner of 2009 has arrived in my mailbox and I can now breathe a little easier. Nothing has changed, we all still shop, and nothing says American happiness like classic stylings of J.Crew...right?

Nice work, J.Crew! Way to work that fading heartbeat of retail into a stylishly patriotic consumerism. Why not just light up each issue with a neon sign saying: "Spend your stimulus dollars here in red-A America...with the American brand of all-American style: J.Crew". In fact, they probably should have titled it "AMERICA*" with the asterix explained in the footnote as: "J.Crew is not a bunch of crazy right-wingers, we're just preppy, icon-loving, national retailers looking to capitalize on the current new-administration optimism. Don't blame us, we're trying..."

I dunno, I'm just sayin'.

Compelling, but not exactly original. In fact, I'd expect this kind of thing from L.L. Bean, Kenneth Cole, or even DKNY - brands that have always gone after the American heartbeat like a Big Three car company, but J.Crew? Hmmm.

What I found inside the catalog was an equally unoriginal grouping of "iconic" fashion spreads, made all the more disappointing for me because they were shot in San Francisco. Within the front cover, they try to explain the shoots by saing that San Francisco is the "all-American city" while the other spreads were equally American-themed. Unfortunately, the five-oddly disparate "stories" composing the catalog don't live up to the narrative generated by the "AMERICA" cover.

FYI: This girl is freezing.

Can this model get a jacket please?She ain't from around these parts.

But back to the San Francisco story in particular - the reason this shoot fails is because the light, summery, tropical clothing and sherbert-hued palette is totally lost in the perpetually frosty mid-winter air of the city by the bay. March catalogs are shot in November-December, and while San Francisco doesn't have snow on the ground, the temperature isn't exactly spring-ish. So, the models look forced and uncomfortable throughout. We San Franciscans don't run around in sleeveless tops (at least not without a handy jacket nearby,) or short shorts and tank tops, especially not on the wind-swept peaks of a cable car or the Marin Headlands.

J.Crew March 2009

Vogue June 2008There are two shots that were particularly familiar: one below the Golden Gate Bridge, and another on Highway 1 up in Mendocino, overlooking the ocean. Both these locations have featured prominently in previous editorials over the years, in fact, they're kind of the go-to spots for ubiquitous San Fran/No-Cal imagery. These were particularly familiar because of Vogue's editorial last June featuring Pierce Brosnan and Daria Werbowy in a "James Bond-meets-Hitchcock" spread.

The images are so similar that even the clothing looks alike, the cars are the same, and the gestures between the figures is almost identical.

J.Crew March 2009

Vogue June 2008The inclusion of these locations and shot set-ups here begs the question: is there really nothing new to do in the catalog world other than ape the big publications? It is indeed sad that J.Crew couldn't come up with anything more uniquely attuned to their particular brand of sportswear.

The section that I did find interesting and original (and easy on the eyes) was the "Great American Road Trip" section showcasing the new menswear. (Sadly these beautiful spreads crop up after this first incongruous San Francisco one, as well as multiple pages of recycled material from previous issues.) The Route 66 landscapes and classic menswear fits perfectly with the story arc begun on the cover with the two gorgeous folks in the vintage convertible. Too bad the story got stopped and then started again so many pages later when I'd already lost interest.

J.Crew March 2009 - The road trip is the best part.

So what's my point? J.Crew began this catalog with an interesting concept: create a story and merchandise around it. Since magazines and retail are both feeling the bite of this economic downturn, I think it only makes sense that retailers start to be more editorial, while magazines start to be more product-focused. The sooner the retailers get this format correct, the sooner they can start mixing entertainment with sales, and the sooner they will get a sales lift.

Too bad J.Crew's attempt is so mixed up and ubiquitous it looses it's stylistic punch.

All images scanned by Poetic & Chic.

The Anthro Effect

The Anthropologie "Presents 08" CatalogLast weekend I let myself spend some time at Anthropologie. Now, this can be a highly dangerous activity for normal women, but I've found that the danger comes when rushing through the store and buying indiscriminately. This time, I took control of the situation and recognized the cute-overload for just what it was: and evil ploy to rid me of my money. In so doing, I could take a deep breath, slow down, and take it all in.

The masterminds at Anthropologie have distinguished their brand by its sheer girlishness. A brand that exploded in the early 2000s, it popped onto the scene when the dot-com crowd was young, stylish, and had full pockets. It was the perfect product line for the "cool job" and the new economy which distinguished itself from the old by accepting casual offices, youth, and femininity. Anthropologie was the darling of the hour and hasn't quit since.

While Banana Republic says "we're mod, lean, kinda boring, and perfect for work, " and Zara says "we're Euro and cheap, but totally dashing," Anthropologie practically screams its validation for just being a girl. It says: "we're here, we're cool, we're girls." It says it so loudly that the nob must be turned to eleven.

From the "Presents 08" catalog...Anthropologie knows what we like: knitwear, floral patterns, delicacy, buttons, monograms, appliques, stripes, ribbons, flounces, embroidery, sashes, vintage, bright colors, bedding, romance, tea cups, and scented soaps. They tell us that it's okay to light candles during the day, just because, and that dressing a vintage chandelier in Spanish moss and twine is not only chic but totally normal. They tell us that we too could live life on the cusp between a World War II era kitchen and a Paris flea market. They tell us that if we were truly creative we'd recycle our old junk into clever visual props that would make everyone go gooey with delight. In fact, "gooey with delight" is really the whole point.

After twenty minutes in the store my head begins to spin. Dizzy from the sensory cute overload, or that scented candle that's meant to evoke laundry drying in a French lavender field... I'm not sure which. I notice "the boyfriend" section is completely full with obviously uncomfortable men who are trying very hard not to put their hands anywhere, while they are also trying very hard not to make eye contact with anyone. Yes, it's the look common to caged animals and those enduring torture.

The sale section is crammed to the rafters with redlines and the women who love to buy them. But what do they really buy? My theory is that everything at Anthropologie always looks better on the hanger than it does in real life. Or, as to quote this fabulous post from Decorno:

"How about something that fits? How about something that is not an empire waist? Anthro clothes are for women who no longer want to get laid, or who are already dating a boy who isn't interested in sleeping with girls anyway."

Um, yeah. (And Decorno is my new favorite thing. I also found the beautiful blog called Breakfast at Anthropologie which is just as lovely as the brand, but that blogger too frequently expresses her own frustration at the brand in her posts, despite her love.)

True, the visual merchandising is truly amazing. Opulent, clever, and pitch-perfect each season. Take a look at the gorgeous holiday windows photographed by Platinum Blonde Life at Rockefeller Center. I definitely do give props for creating the atmosphere most girls want to fall into and never leave, but still, how well does that translate to reality?

Much like the fit of the clothes, my feeling is that the Anthropologie brand doesn't quite suit the current climate, and it will probably only get worse. While this is always a store I love to visit, it's rare that I actually make a purchase; the items are too specific, too styled, too detailed - it's like they wear you instead of the other way around. They're nice to haves, not need to haves, and as we all know, the luxuries are definitely back burner these days.

So, despite overall adorable-ness, charm, and girlish appeal, can Anthropologie survive this new new economy? How does a brand founded on cute suddenly become more serious and hard-working? I guess it's time for the Anthropologie girl to grow up...