Brick-By-Click, J. Crew's Becoming an American Icon -- With Sales to Match

Last Updated Mar 10, 2010 2:36 PM EST

J. Crew (JCG) continues to stride confidently ahead in its (fine Italian leather) sandals with studied nonchalance. Just don't mistake the casual attitude for lack of a plan.

The retailer just posted a revenue increase of 19 percent to $460.6 million for the fourth quarter. J. Crew's been calculating its moves around the right assortment of scarves, t-shirts and suits to great effect for a while, but now it's moved in earnest into selling a whole lifestyle as demonstrated by its top executives and their creative friends. Real people with attainable style. Things can only get better.

Who's that Girl

It started with Jenna Lyons. The creative director of J. Crew once told Vogue that "the DNA of J. Crew is in me," and indeed it is her personal style and overall vision, as well as attention to detail, that is responsible for the lion's share (pun intended) of the company's success in recent years. Lyons introduced wedding apparel in 2004 and the boost to sales was almost immediate.

In the midst of many retailers' recessionary woes, Lyons held on to her cool preppy aesthetic while pushing baubles and beaded belts as a way to update a wardrobe without using up a dwindling paycheck. Notable results included an increase in the bottom line as well as visibility. The entire First Family â€"- but most notably Michelle Obama -â€" sported J. Crew at all manner of events. In some cases, demand was so high for a Michelle-worthy item such as the Lyons-esque beaded cardigan, it sold out in the same day.

Over the last year though, Lyons quietly capitalized on the breadth of her experience as a stylemaker by introducing "Jenna's Picks." This revolving selection of her favorite items is featured prominently on the homepage of as well as marketed heavily via email and through the company's print catalog. Seeing the pieces together is like taking a trusted friend shopping -â€" the one who knows which belt goes with those pants and who can see that lavender and olive green really are quite remarkable in combination.

Though Lyons' stature (she's six feet tall) suggests a commanding presence, she's now eagerly sharing the spotlight with a group of fashion muses that include J. Crew's own bridal and jewelry designer, a novelist, a ballerina and others. Not only are these lovely ladies picking their faves, but they're also dishing on their personal lives and loves. Call it a community of chicsters that tap (once again) J. Crew's uncanny ability to present the aspirational alongside what is attainable.

Let's Hear it for Frank -- and Jack

Not to neglect the guys, J. Crew presents Frank Muytjens and Jack O'Connor, its resident leader of men's design and stylist respectively. While Frank talks big picture inspiration on a short video clip, Jack's available via email to provide the practical: advice and tips for curious guys who don't want to look clueless by asking a friend which shoes to wear with that navy suit. The combination offers enough to entice even the most reluctant males into clicking to buy. Beyond that, J Crew recognized that the gents need retail therapy sometimes too, hence the "Instant Gratification" section with all items under $100.

Future Perfect

With its auxiliary lines such as crewcuts for kids, Madewell for women, and high end specialty boutiques, J. Crew appears to be following in the path of that other designer responsible for elevating Americana: Ralph Lauren. While the two are serving up distinctly different visions, Ralph Lauren's durability in the fickle world of fashion retail is something to emulate. As is the fact that while Lauren was busy building a multi-billion dollar empire he was appearing in his own ads, in his own designs. If J. Crew continues to stay true to its roots while putting fresh faces on its concepts, there's no reason to think it won't eventually reach global icon status as well.