It was unfair of all of us to expect sudden change as soon as Brendon Babenzien — the founder of Noah and a former design director for Supreme — took over J.Crew's men's section. He was appointed creative director last spring, and the first collection was slated for the following fall. Well, the following fall is, well, now, and it seems that things haven't changed too much.
But that's okay, I think?
When Babenzien's appointment was first announced, no one seemed shocked. It was surprising, sure, but his vision aligned with closely with J.Crew's, even if Noah's price points are, well, upmarket. He often references the ocean through nautical themed collections with Popeye and collabs with the Billion Oyster Project. Hell, Noah even made limited-edition limestone-based wetsuits.
Then there's Babenzien's penchant for prep, a style he subverted while with Supreme but has clearly come to appreciate since starting Noah in 2015. Noah's lookbooks have always felt like what J.Crew could be. There's alway been clear crossover in their collaborator pool, too: Sperry, Barbour and Timex, to name a few. And even though Noah is decidedly more free-minded about its statements, the brands' themes sometimes felt similar, too: One Noah season centered on cross country, while another featured nods to life upstate. J.Crew's done hiking collections and fictional sports merch has been a mainstay since Todd Snyder worked there.
So, was it fair to expect a complete transformation? Probably not. That being said, more of the same feels surprising, too, even though the standout pieces from Babenzien's tenure are already much stronger. If this collection were a cocktail, it'd be three parts J.Crew, one part Babenzien's new direction — a subtle, purist's-opinion-preserving twist on a classic.
His most notable alterations were much-needed improvements to the brand's rolodex of colors, patterns and textures. Take this first collection's Madras Barn Jacket, which comes in bright red or a pink-ish Madras pattern with a contrasting corduroy collar, for example. It's a familiar formula, for sure, but these iterations fit far better than J.Crew's past attempts. The same can be said of the jeans and the sweaters, which are, respectively, less stretchy and seemingly sturdier.
"My first collection with J.Crew focuses on American classics with subtle alterations that aren’t intended to be attention seeking — but that cannot be ignored," Babenzien says. If that really was his goal, mission accomplished. "J.Crew has been synonymous with American style for nearly 40 years, and we’ve honored that heritage by creating clothing that encourages individual style and confidence, with the hope that each piece will outlive trends that come and go."
It just so happens, though, that his first collection closely aligns with a few forming (and fading) trends. Prep has been back for a few seasons now, a benefactor of renewed interest in golf, tennis and the coastal aesthetic. So too is classic menswear but only because no one is forcing it upon anyone anymore: Dress codes are disappearing fast, making dressing up fun, not a formality.
If J.Crew under Brendon Babenzien means more of the same but better, we'll be treated to a few standout pieces a season, better quality overall and a few surprising collaborations — that's for sure. But will J.Crew release collections the Internet clamors for? Incessantly refreshes their web browsers for? Maybe, but I'm not sure that's even the goal.
Brendon Babenzien's new J.Crew designs will drop on a rolling basis from July through August. You can shop the first segment here.