J. Crew originally started out as Popular Merchandise, Inc., founded in 1947 by Mitchell Cinader and Saul Charles. They started out by selling low-priced women’s clothing through parties and in home demonstrations. The company was eventually passed on to Mitchell’s son Arthur, who turned the company into a catalogue ordering business in the 1980s. J. Crew officially debuted in 1983 as a mail order catalogue to the customers of Popular Merchandise, Inc.
J. Crew initially planned on selling to an upper class contemporary look for less through catalogue distribution.
In the late 1980s, there were many rumors at that time that J. Crew would be put up for sale. These rumors were denied, but it was clear that a change was in order. In 1989 Popular Merchandise, Inc. officially became J. Crew Group, Inc. Along with the name change, J. Crew set up a separate operation called J. Crew Retail to start up retail stores.
The first J. Crew retail outlet was opened in March of 1989 in the South Street Seaport in Manhattan. The staff that ran the retail operation contained only 22 members at the time of the opening, including Arnold Cohen, previously employed with Gucci. Within a year three more retail outlets opened up, with print advertisements appearing in local newspapers and magazines.
Although J. Crew seemed to be doing well at this time there were still some setbacks. In late 1989 two of the catalogue’s lines were reported to be not doing well. A small number of layoffs resulted. Desperate to increase their sales and consumer base, J. Crew added several new lines in the early 1990s, including sleepwear, outerwear, and working clothes. They also expanded their low price products: socks and t-shirts. J. Crew also expanded into the international markets in 1991 to help boost their profits, starting with Canada. Canada’s versions of the catalogues were successful, and J. Crew pushed further internationally. In 1993 stores were opened in Japan.
By 1996, J. Crew had 40 retail stores in operation, but they were still not doing so well. They were having major management issues, with several managers resigning within a small number of years. In mid-1997, J. Crew was bought out by Texas Pacific, who planned on making the company more public. Things improved with J. Crew following the push for more retail outlets and the turn to e-commerce in early 2000.