There's something I need to talk to you about. Something I saw on page 58 of your February 2012 catalog that I just can't get out of my head. But first, a potentially embarrassing bit of background info, lest you think I'm just some weirdo internet troll with ulterior motives rather than a loyal customer writing out of legitimate concern, or at least something resembling concern.
In my closet right now, there is what a lot of people would consider an absurd amount of clothing purchased from your company: 13 long-sleeve button-down shirts, 15 sweaters, one suit, two ties, two pairs of pants, and this really great thermal-lined hoodie you stopped selling years ago. This is to say nothing of the few pairs of shorts I've packed away for the winter, or the two short-sleeve button-downs I got on clearance last year, or the half-dozen or so madras—excuse me, Indian cotton—shirts I fell for starting back in the spring of 2010. I have a bunch of your socks, too. And I wore a pair of your shoes on my wedding day, back before you even starting selling all that "special occasion" stuff you sell now.
So yeah, since 1997 or so, I've owned more clothes made by you than by any other company, by far. Like so many other people, I've long valued your commitment to menswear that is classic and generally conservative, but also cut and styled in a way that keeps me from feeling like somebody's father, even now that I am actually someone's father. Though far from a bargain, I feel like your prices are reasonable enough, at least on your more basic items, and especially when they go on sale, which they do often.
To be completely honest, though, I've started to have mixed feelings about you these past few years. As I've gotten older and learned more about menswear, I've come to enjoy the many aspects of dress you've expertly kept us from having to worry about for so long. I've come to like buying my own 100% cotton oxford cloth button-downs and wearing them in myself—I don't need my shirts to be pre-faded or distressed, and I certainly don't need those weird shrunken collars. I like the process of breaking in a really stiff pair of boots—I don't need my Red Wings to look like I've been working in a field for 30 years as soon as I take them out of the box. And probably more than anything else, I like the act of discovering brands that demand a premium for a superior product they've taken decades or more to perfect. Scrolling through the pages of your catalog or your website, through the Alden and the Barbour and the Baracuta and the Chippeawa, it feels not unlike the overly-curated little vinyl selection at Urban Outfitters stores these days, where Joy Division meets Bon Iver and you basically couldn't purchase a bad record if you tried. It feels a little too much like cheating. This, I realize, is just standard hair-splitting about authenticity—a topic so complicated I feel like I can't even hold you accountable to whatever personal conclusions I come to about it. So that's fine.
But on page 58, you just took things a little too far: Above a neatly stacked tower of shirts and ties, it reads "Dress Shirts: Now available by neck and sleeve measurements (that's as close to custom as it gets) in our regular or slim fit."
Now, for anyone who doesn't know what this means, for as long as I can remember, J. Crew has sold its "dress shirts" in standard sizes, XS through XXL. Now, though, they're selling them by neck measurement, down to the half-inch, and by sleeve measurement, down to the inch. So you wind up buying a shirt sized 15x33 or 16.5x34 or whatever. It sounds complicated… assuming you are not a man who has ever bought an actual dress shirt anywhere in the world at any point in your entire life.
Offering shirts in neck and sleeve sizes is not, by any stretch of the imagination, "as close to custom as it gets." It is simply how mens shirts are sold, everywhere from high-end traditional shops like Brooks Brothers and J. Press to down to Lands End and L.L. Bean all then all the way down to the shit you can buy at Macy's or Target or even fucking Kohl's: Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, Nautica… stuff like that.
The "closest to custom you can get," if you're wondering, is actually pretty damn close. There's a company called Mercer & Sons that makes highly regarded traditional dress shirts in a wide array of materials and patterns—it's a small operation and they'll work with you on all aspects of the fit to make sure you're happy. For a slightly younger vibe (and only $10 more than J. Crew), Ratio Clothing will take your neck measurement to the quarter-inch and your sleeve to the half-inch, while also factoring in overall shirt length and the exact size of your chest. And there are places like Indochino and MyTailor.com, too, both of which will get you considerably closer to custom than you guys, J. Crew, are telling people is even possible.
Why do I find this so bothersome? Well, it's willfully, aggressively dishonest, for one, so that's just a total bummer and the kind of thing I genuinely thought was beneath you. But even more than that, it seems to contradict the most optimistic possible interpretation of your M.O. in recent years—that your business will grow because people are learning more about clothes and learning to recognize and respect quality. When I began lusting after Alden Indy boots a few years ago, only to see months later that you were selling them, it made me think more of you—even if you'd just discovered them on the same stupid websites where I did, it didn't really matter. But with this shirt thing, you're creating a situation that will play out very differently. If I were to somehow find myself in a frankly inconceivable position where I didn't know how mens shirts are sold, and I were to then do even the modicum of research one would need to do before learning that neck and sleeve measurements are the norm, I would see page 58 in your catalog and immediately come to view you as a) stupid, b) manipulative, or c) some combination of the two. You're not rewarding knowledge of your industry, you're hiding from it, and that means you don't have my best interests at heart.
Which, you know... of course you don't! You are a giant corporation whose only reason for existing is to take as much of my money as possible, I get it, but I also refuse to believe that this approach will be beneficial for you in the long term. It's too cynical and too depressing and so far off-message that I'm holding out hope it was just a brief lapse in judgment. If not, well, replacing everything in my closet will take some time, but it will be worth it.
Follow Mike Conklin on Twitter @LMagMusic, but don't worry... he promises he will never write about clothes again.