How J.Crew Redefined American Style

Apr 30, 2024

Get ready to delve into the fascinating world of American fashion with Maggie Bullock, the brilliant mind behind the captivating book The Kingdom of Prep. In this enthralling narrative, Maggie takes us on a journey through the history of J.Crew, a lifestyle brand that has left an indelible mark on our culture. Through her exploration of fashion choices and consumer behavior, she offers a fresh and unique perspective on the profound impact J.Crew has had on our society. Maggie introduces us to the visionaries who brought this iconic brand to life, unveiling their stories and the rich history behind J.Crew. It’s a tale of innovation and transformation that will keep you hooked from beginning to end. But that’s not all! In this engaging Q&A, Maggie generously shares her extensive research and insights into the legacy of J.Crew. 

What led you to write this book? 

Well in the most basic sense it started with this story I wrote for Vanity Fair, back when J.Crew was in a downward spiral and a lot of people who’d been loyal shoppers forever (myself included) were scratching our heads, wondering how such a golden brand could have taken such a nosedive. But in a larger sense I have always found J.Crew uniquely interesting—it’s really the only mass (or semi-mass?) brand that really captured my imagination, and at times felt uniquely aspirational, brushed up against real fashion, and seemed to stand for a whole way of being in the world. When you describe someone as “so J.Crew,” everybody knows what that means, good or bad. That’s really interesting to me. 

How did you go about researching for the book? 

I had to do a lot of digging to get all the way back to the people who founded the company in 1983—long before the advent of LinkedIn. It was sort of a daisy-chain process: one OG would recommend a few more OGs, and little by little I pieced together forty years of the company. I spoke with more than 100 people and, honestly, could have spoken to so many more, but at a certain point I had to cut myself off and start actually writing the thing.

What are the biggest takeaways you hope people get from the book? 

I find that different people read it for different reasons – some are really fascinated with the subculture of preppy, and how it shaped our notion of “American” style, certainly one of the most interesting elements to me; others are Jenna Lyons fans who love her origin story, from humble beginnings to Vogue superstar. Business and retail types seem to really devour the tick-tock of the building of a legendary brand, from the ground up–and also how it was forced to reinvent itself after the brand’s handful of near-death experiences. But I’d say the biggest chunk of readers are those with an emotional attachment to J.Crew, who grew up wearing the brand or longing for it, and I hope they get a lot of juicy lore as well as a satisfying examination of why it held that specific magic. 

Did you learn anything that surprised you while writing this book? 

So many things! For starters I loved unearthing the story of the very earliest days of inventing J.Crew, which took place at a drafty one-time Victorian factory building in New Jersey, in the least “J.Crew” environment imaginable, and was led by a visionary and cantankerous founder, Arthur Cinader, and his daughter Emily—the human embodiment of J.Crew, long before anybody had ever heard of Jenna Lyons (or, now, Olympia Gayot.) I loved that this brand had this whole “lost” first life that even loyal J.Crew fans knew nothing about. 

I loved your take on the fact that Casual Friday led to the uninspiring state of workwear today. Any thoughts on how to course correct? 

Oof, if I had the answer to that I’d be a “unicorn” startup founder and not an ink-stained wretch! After Casual Friday came athleisure, then the WFH revolution. Now that we’ve acclimated to casual and comfortable and remote work, it’s hard to imagine putting the genie back in the bottle. Casual Friday took hold during the ‘90s economic downturn, when companies that couldn’t (wouldn’t?) give employees raises instead offered them the perk of being allowed to wear golf shirts on Fridays: it was the result not just of a social or fashion trend but of a widespread shift in corporate policy. Which, again, would be hard to reverse at this point. But of course there will always be specific industries and individuals to whom style still matters, and where an unspoken dresscode it still very much enforced. I guess if you’re the kind of person who’s depressed by uninspired workwear (same!), either you do you, and dress for the world you want to see, or… you look for a job in a field where clothes still matter?  

What has been your favorite J.Crew era?

Hmm. I wore a ton of Jenna Lyons-era J.Crew in the aughts and early 2010s, when it was the go-to semi-affordable outfitter for twenty- and thirty-something women in the workplace. In the beginning, that look was genuinely inventive! But after marinating in the old catalogues over the years of writing this book, I’m really drawn to the quality and integrity of the J.Crew clothes I first lusted after, back in the early ‘90s, when boxy rollneck sweaters were a status symbol (one I could rarely afford) at school. 

What’s next for you? Where can people find you? 

I’ve teamed up with my “work wife” Rachel Baker—in a former life, we were attached-at-the-hip editors at Elle magazine—on a weekly newsletter, the Spread, where we round up and riff on the best “women’s media” stories of the week. We scour print, digital, TV, and podcasts to build our weekly dream magazine featuring great reads from The Atlantic to the Drift. I’d love for people to check it out!

The Style That Binds Us


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