The rise of J.Crew catalogs as a thrilling aspect of fashion in the 1980s

The rise of J.Crew catalogs as a thrilling aspect of fashion in the 1980s

Thirty-five years ago, J.Crew was the leading clothing catalog in America, delivering fourteen free catalogs every year.

J.Crew offered a fantasy that traditional retail stores did not provide, providing the delicate brine of a clambake or the particular romance of a misty morning at a rustic lakehouse. It was a ritual that had little to do with shopping; it was an event, and people could not wait for the next issue to come out.

J.Crew was the second act for Popular Merchandise, Inc., a New Jersey-based company founded in 1947 as a mens’ haberdashery. The founders, Arthur Cinader and his daughter Emily Cinader, decided to reinvent the business as a catalog-only retailer to stay competitive in the market. J.Crew found a middle ground between the priciness of Ralph Lauren and the “folksy” charm of Lands’ End.

Their catalogues depicted models who looked like your next-door neighbors, providing the dream of becoming something better at a price that was in step with reality.

The brand’s fictional “surname” was almost Sir Edward Coke, an obscure English magistrate, but Emily convinced her dad that “coke” was more closely associated with either soda or illegal drugs. So, they decided on J.Crew, an amalgam of the initial J borrowed from J. Press and crew, the rowing sport.

The J.Crew models, or “characters,” were always in motion, engaging in activities such as ice-skating in the Adirondacks or beach picnicking in the Hamptons. Their other secret was the “no fakery” rule.

The litmus test of a great J.Crew picture was that it could pass for a snapshot. J.Crew girls didn’t tee-hee, they laughed, and if a model looked stiff, the solution was to throw her on a bike or give her a picnic basket.

J.Crew had become the clothing of choice for the preppy generation, and The Official Preppy Handbook, a humor book that became a huge bestseller in the early ’80s, had reset the style goals of popular kids at lunch tables across America. However, Emily did not use the word “preppy,” and anything deemed “too Connecticut” was axed. Tierney Horne, J.Crew’s creative director during the ’80s, believed that they were cool and preppy was not.

Emily and her art team wanted to create a clothing catalog that didn’t feel forced or inauthentic. They insisted on “no fakery” at all costs, and the entire staff reviewed new art together and looked for signs of artifice. If a model gave a cliché, hand-over-mouth giggle, it was immediately trashed.

Tierney Gearon, a J.Crew photographer from the era, approached the shoots like they were films, with huge crews and big productions. She created a lot of chaos, so the models weren’t really paying attention to the camera.

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