Style Queen of The Age of Obama

“I think a lot of [J. Crew’s] higher-price-point items are actually doing well because they are more specialized and they are better quality and they have a lot more fashion in them,” said retail analyst Christine Chen of Needham & Company in San Francisco. “So the customer sees it as value. … In this environment, the definition is really value, and value is not necessarily price. If you look at Old Navy’s performance, they have some of the cheapest price points out there and they’re still struggling.” (Ms. Chen said that J. Crew’s more fashion-driven items are selling better than their basics in this climate.)

Ms. Lyons said her customers have arrived at this new Middle from both ends of the spectrum. “It’s been really interesting; we’ve been getting people either trading up or trading down,” she said. After all, if J. Crew’s prices are prohibitive to some customers, they are positively a relief to others.

“The woman who would ordinarily shop designer feels comforable shopping at that price point, and for the woman who would normally shop at H&M, it’s a splurge,” said Vogue’s statuesque senior market editor, Meredith Melling Burke, who recently featured J. Crew in the magazine’s Index section and on story subject Jill Biden (sparkling in the brand’s gold lamé skirt for a photo in the November issue). “It’s kind of that very comfortable zone for a lot of people.”

For Ms. Melling Burke, who grew up in Boston, the classic J. Crew aesthetic is nothing to be ashamed of. She recalled “the multi-striped button-down that I had, it was great stripes and red stripes and blue stripes, and that was sort of like the shirt. The new catalog would come and I’d sit on the phone with my friends and get first dibs on who was getting what in what color.”

While we’re on the subject of nostalgia: Could the Middle be just another way of expressing a return to the ’80s sounding concept of sportswear?

“I never use words like that,” said designer Bryan Bradley of the pricey label Tuleh, who is creating a more accessible, Middle-friendly line under his own name and shipping it to stores this fall, where it will retail for $158 to $488. “It’s clothes to go to work in. It’s clothes to go out in.”

But the term holds no stigma for Ms. Lyons. “I feel like we sort of consider ourselves American sportswear,” she said. “But truthfully, if you look at what defined sportswear back when it first came to be, that moniker has changed and morphed so much.” Back then, it was “classic, sporty, it really was sports-influenced; I think of it as just mixing separates and not necessarily doing the whole outfit. Modern sportswear to me is really about … being able to sort of move your wardrobe around and have it be an undulating wardrobe. It’s about sort of being able to change up your look by buying new pieces and infusing new things into your wardrobe.”

 

TOOTHPICK JEANS

And J. Crew is offering many “new things” … some of them old.

“If you click on jewelry, you can get a great sort of fun and colorful necklace for a hundred and something dollars, but then you can also, if you want to, buy an heirloom locket for $500,” Ms. Melling Burke pointed out. “They lure you in with something a little more attainable but then present you with something else.”