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J.Crew Plays It Safe for Spring 2016, While DKNY Gets a Reboot

And Greg Lauren has a Ralph Lauren moment.
The scene at J.Crew's spring 2016 presentation on Wednesday. Photo: Imaxtree

The scene at J.Crew's spring 2016 presentation on Wednesday. Photo: Imaxtree

J.Crew's been under a harsh spotlight for the past few months. After years of consecutive growth, its womenswear sales have taken a turn for the worse in recent quarters, triggering a round of layoffs and the ouster of its head women's designer of four years, Tom Mora, in June. CEO Mickey Drexler, who alongside President and Executive Creative Director Jenna Lyons has spearheaded J.Crew's transformation from a tired clothier for prepsters into a dynamic retailer for fun, fashionable — but still accessible — goods over the past 12 years, has vowed to renew its emphasis on heritage products and downsize its investments on the brand's high-fashion fare. Meanwhile, Somsack Sikhmounmuong, who has helped Madewell's sales rise dramatically over the past two years, has been brought over to J.Crew to lead its women's design — though he did not direct the design of the spring collection shown in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday.

For those who loved J.Crew's fashion-forward phase like I did, it was a disappointing collection. Gone were the bright jewel tones, the colorful fringe, the punchy faux fur and the occasionally adventurous cuts that so delighted us in seasons past. Lyons said the company has been revisiting its DNA, and that showed in the collection's conservative cuts and preppy prints. The palette was muted, a mélange of khaki, army green and faded pastels derived from the season's desert inspiration. Stripes were dominant, alongside gingham and plaid. Sequins made an appearance, but only sparingly, on a pale plaid shirt and blazer, and on a striped tank and a rainbow-hued maxi skirt. The least conventionally cut piece was an off-the-shoulder dress in seagreen with cropped bell sleeves and a shirttail hem — which is to say, the silhouettes weren't at all adventurous.

Fortunately J.Crew hasn't let go of its styling tricks, which helped add excitement to the presentation: A faded, rainbow-striped oxford was paired with a maxi skirt in matching stripes, only more vivid; kerchiefs were knotted around oxford shirts; a blue and white striped trench with scrunched-up sleeves was worn open to reveal a matching shirt and denim pencil skirt. This, said the ever-charming Lyons, is the point: to offer wearable pieces that can be made "a little more surprising" by how they're paired.

The accessories offered some excitement, too: heeled ankle-strap sandals in a combination of colored plaids; clutches covered in rows of bright plastic flowers; a spin on Dr. Scholls's buckled sandal in glittery and white-lacquer finishes; and layers of colorful statement jewelry, usually floral. For the first time, J.Crew produced its own sunglasses, done in familiar wayfarer and aviator shapes in a range of colors.

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I asked Lyons, who looked wonderful in an off-the-shoulder plaid jumpsuit from the collection, how she was handling all the press scrutiny. "I have to listen to it because I have to know what's going on, it's my job," she said, adding that she can't take too much of it to heart. "At the end of the day, there's always going to be [people] who don't like what we do, and I hope there always will be people who do like what we do. But, you know, I think sometimes [that] can be a good thing. As hard as it's been, I think it's helped us in having a really healthy conversation about our DNA that we wouldn't have had otherwise."

Still, I hate to see J.Crew play it safe at the exact moment it should be thinking about how to get shoppers re-excited about the brand.

Excitement is exactly what LVMH is hoping newly appointed creative directors Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne — the much-lauded design duo behind street-cool label Public School — bring to DKNY now that Donna Karan and Jane Chung are out of the picture. (Well, mostly: Karan did make a polite appearance front row.)

DKNY could have kept the venue small and exclusive — there was so much interest in the collection — but it went the opposite direction, transforming a cavernous gray hall in the bowels of the World Trade Center Plaza into the longest runway I've ever seen. That meant a lot of front row seats, and plenty of time to study the clothes: riffs on pinstriped suits and white shirting, heavy on the asymmetry, that paid homage to DKNY's earliest collections in the mid and late '80s.(There were even shoulder pads, and they worked.) The clothes were not the most thrilling Chow and Osborne have ever done, but they did lay down some solid aesthetic foundations for the new DKNY and proved the designers could play in the contemporary space; it's not hard to envision these clothes hung alongside 3.1 Phillip Lim and T by Alexander Wang. 

Later that evening, Greg Lauren put on a show — his first to showcase womenswear exclusively. Having looked a little at Lauren's past work, I was expecting lots of torn edges and grunge; what I did not expect were the striking similarities between his show and that of his uncle, Ralph Lauren. There was an unmistakable similarity in the casting and styling of the models and even, at times, the clothes; I'm pretty sure my jaw dropped when a model walked out holding the skirt of her bias-cut silk dress out to the sides — the whole thing could have been lifted straight from his uncle's show. The grunge elements were still there, mixed with a heavy dose of Western, so that the collection looked like the remains of a Ralph Lauren collection at the end of a Western-themed horror film. Still, it made me wonder whether Greg has ambitions of taking over his uncle's creative duties, or if he just took on too much help from Ralph's casting and styling people.