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There was a time before every sartorial impulse, every pang of longing for that dope jacket you clocked on the G train could be satisfied with a quick Google search and an “add to cart.” There was a time when iconic pieces defined a lifestyle moment for more than one season, when our tastes (and our entire lives really) were less disposable, less dictated by the ceaseless, overwhelming influx of images that leave us always wanting more, new, different. There was a time when you lived for the arrival of the new J. Crew catalogue.
If you were a teenager in the mid-1990s, the pages of that catalogue were ripe for fantasy about life lived on the wind-swept shores of east-coast beach towns. Endless clambakes, afternoons horseback riding through wildflower-dotted fields followed by lying in the grass with an impossibly handsome hunk in an unbuttoned chambray work shirt. Those pages played that oh-so-addicting dual role of presenting an unattainable yet covetable life where everyone is gorgeous and smiling like a golden retriever and giving us a way to get it: Just fill out the order form, ask your mom for her credit card and call the 800 number.
The Barn Jacket. The Anorak. The Roll-Top French Bikini Bottom. Hell, every single one of their swimsuits. The Roll-Neck Wool Sweater. Even that Chambray Work Shirt itself. Each of these perennial favorites that barely changed season after season, year after year. All of them, symbols of the effortless, classic American Good Life J. Crew came to represent as a brand.
So what exactly was it about those clothes that made them and the pages of the catalogue they graced so enticing?
It is difficult to place a contemporary sportswear line in the same category today in terms of its ability to create timeless pieces that define the aspirational yet still relatively attainable lifestyle of a decade. Or, perhaps it’s that the lifestyle of the current decade revolves around constant change and upgrades—jettisoning the old to make room for the new. We are told to KonMari our way through our closets, purging all that no longer serves us. As a result of our obsession with what’s next, we become seekers of trends, rather than keepers of durable garments and lasting style.
These iconic J. Crew pieces stood in for comfort, for possibility, for love and acceptance. They seemed a tether to a beautifully art-directed, impeccably cast fantasy about adulthood in which, by simply putting my arms through the sleeves, I too could play a part.
Clothes have that power to transport and transform. They can make us who we are, who we long to be. Vintage J. Crew, with its unerringly specific point of view, allowed us to relax into a vision of life that was beautiful and easygoing yet energized. By knowing itself fully as a brand, it could provide its customers—particularly teenage customers whose identities were still in formation—with a little piece of that authentic personality for ourselves.