[MediaBOMB] The Inexplicable Browning of J. Crew

cover of the current J. Crew catalog...set in some exotic brown place

Remember Lisa Jones’ brilliant collection of essays Bulletproof Diva? The biracial daughter of writers Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka, Jones, a former Village Voice columnist, included in the 1994 collection an essay called “1-800-wasp,” in which she writes about the universally irresistible appeal of J. Crew’s mail order catalog as a “lifestyle guide.” Jones writes: “Even Afrocentric iconoclast-boheme-girl writers hunger for some version of it. … Zora Neal Hurston meets George Sand and Jessie Fauset at Emily Dickinson’s cabin in Amherst. Our kind of weekend.”

I was right there with that. Growing up in a small town in the Dickinsonian Northeast, many of my high school peers embodied the chosen J. Crew demographic: young, rich, white and lucky. And pretty. So pretty they were almost shiny. Like the models in the pages of J. Crew’s catalog, which also featured a few strategically placed Black models. Up until then, Jones reported, the company’s running standard had been “one Black model per catalog.” But she also noted, as did I, that the catalog had started to feature a few more Black models than usual (which is to say, four instead of one out of 50). Perhaps, Jones smartly posits: “With annual postal rate hikes, catalogers can’t afford to prospect randomly for new customers, why not target Blacks?”

Naturally, J. Crew’s then director of new market development Adrienne Perkov, told Jones: “We don’t do race-oriented marketing. We try to make the product available to everyone.” And by everyone, she meant the vast everyone-ness of white America. But the non-race-marketing worked. Fast forward 15 years, when we have not only the first Black President sworn into office, but our new Black First Lady rocking J. Crew at the inauguration. Her outfit choice (Malia and Sasha also wore J. Crew) crashed the company’s website. It also influenced Oprah to buy stock in J. Crew.

And that's all very well and good, and yet there’s something unsettling about this historically uber-white company taking its sweet time to become culturally inclusive, and then reaping all the financial benefits without openly recognizing that Black buyers have helped not just to keep the company afloat, but to increase its stock value considerably. I’m looking at you, J. Crew CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler, who is all over the news lately because of a CNBC documentary that aired last week called “J. Crew and the Man Who Dressed America.” Drexler, perhaps best known for launching a “khaki revolution” at the Gap, took over J. Crew in 2003 and has since driven revenues up 170 percent.  

Beyond calling Michelle Obama “the most incredible gift that keeps on giving,” J. Crew President and Creative Director Lyons has never directly addressed the company’s choices surrounding race and representation. Neither has Drexler. Not that publicly discussing a company's marketing strategy is required or even the best practice, but I for one would like to know what the hell J. Crew was thinking with their most recent "style guide." The guide features white models on location in some exotic country surrounded by native brown children, which prompted the ever on-point Jezebel editors to suggest, “Maybe the next catalog can feature grinning white people standing next to inner-city black children!”

Sadly, who would be surprised by that?