In Conversation with Frank Muytjens | Part 1: The Modernization of J. Crew
by Yoeri Khyrian Jonker / posted on 25/08/2015
As I’m waiting in the lobby of J. Crew‘s headquarters on 770 Broadway, I find myself nervously gazing at the bronze coloured letters above the desk of the receptionist. There’s a quality of nostalgia in the design of the letters, yet in typeface the logo feels completely modern; a poignant metaphor for what the brand stands for. You see, the reason why I’m nervous isn’t because I’m sitting in the lobby of one of the coolest brands in America, but because I’m about to meet the man who made it cool again.
When Frank Muytjens was appointed head of menswear design at J. Crew seven years ago, the brand was seen as a preppy catalogue company. Two years later the brand was redeemed of its outdated image, with Mr. Muytjens being honoured with the GQ’s Best Menswear Designer of 2010 award. “We were already streamlining the new collection before I was appointed head of menswear. To us it was very important to look at fits and bring in more fun, make it more contemporary. We had always wanted to do that, but we hadn’t had the opportunity yet, so it was great that at that moment Jenna Lyons backed the decision.”
But it wasn’t just a better fit that Mr. Muytjens and his team were bringing to the table. In the autumn of 2008, on the corner of West Broadway and White Street, an old bar was transformed into what we know now as ‘The Liquor Store’. It would become their first menswear store, one that would show a more curated version of what J. Crew stands for.
The elevator doors open and break my concentration. It’s Mr. Muytjens’ assistent, here to bring me to his office. As I follow his assistent, I notice that the headquarters of J. Crew look as if it’s been hit by a storm. And not for no reason: I am later told that the first samples of Spring/Summer ’16 came in today. Everyone looks inspired.
As the door to Mr. Muytjens’ office opens and I sit down on the chair in front of his desk, I admire the carefully put together interior. Part of the desk is reserved for pencils, pens and ink, the sorts of tools a head of menswear design would use to sketch new collections. Books and magazines are organically scattered all over the desk, ranging in subject from Henry Moore to visual impressions of Big Sur. A record of ‘The Smiths’ is displayed in front of a stack of various Japanese workwear magazines, with the rest of his vinyl collection stacked up next to that. And then there are archival prints of the American flag and Galerie Sonnabend, and a sketch of Mr. Muytjens (presumably by famed illustrator Richard Haines). Everything works incredibly well together, and nothing seems out of place.
Five minutes later the man of the hour walks in with a friendly smile and asks me, in Dutch, how my stay had been so far. You can hear a vague adaptation to English in his Dutch accent, but that’s to be expected when living in America for over two decades.
How do your Dutch origins influence your work?
That’s an important question. I think Dutch people are very practical in design, and I’ve always been designing outerwear. My first job after art school was in Geneva, where I designed skiwear for a year. It was so much fun looking at all the details, yet I think that I always carried this practical aspect with me. This unpretentiousness breathes through all the collections, and I think it’s important to keep things fun. And I think that’s also very Dutch: the unpretentiousness.
When you started as the head of menswear design, we were treated to The Liquor Store and saw an update to the fits. As you previously said, J. Crew became more modern, more fun. What was the reason behind those changes? A younger audience perhaps?
Well, not necessarily younger. I’d always like to think that our guy is already quite young, and ranges from 18 years old to late 50s. So what we were going for is to give this guy an updated version of the classics. When I look at what we do, I always like to think of it as a television series. You have the key players, and then there’s the cameos, which represent the newness. What we found out is that that newness made our J. Crew guy tune in. Not only that, but I think that at this point that’s what he expects from us when he walks in the store.
And it’s funny: I remember that when we were working on The Liquor Store people kept wandering in and wonder what happened to their old bar. For me that moment really felt like we put our stake in the ground. It felt like that moment where you say: we are here. And I believe that what I was just talking about, that newness, is what The Liquor Store is about: the elevated, more experimental stuff from the lab, together with the collaborations J. Crew did with third party brands like New Balance and Nike.
Talking about third party brands: J. Crew has teamed up with New Balance and released a jogger pants, and previously worked with Nike. Are you guys looking at what’s happening in streetwear more these days?
Yes, absolutely. The team at J. Crew that we’re working with is great, and I couldn’t do my job without them. They bring things to the table that they’ve seen in the streets, and we translate and tailor that until it has that J. Crew look and feel. With every collection you try to surprise people with these new things and take it one step further.
And you know, it’s such a great feeling that we are getting validated by our guy; that they’re picking up on what we’re doing! I always get a coffee at Blue Bottle before I head to work, where I see a lot of the baristas that’re working there in our shirts matched with a cool hat or something else. That’s a truly great thing: to be accepted by so many walks of life.
There was a whole collection in 2014 that focused on outerwear more than ever before. Do you deliberately focus on certain pieces when you design a collection? And where does that decision come from?
During the design process there will be a moment when the prototypes come in and we get a better idea of what the collection will be like. This is normally when we start with the finetuning of existing ideas.
The anorak that you described was based of an original vintage sample that we found in London. The original, unlike the nylon and wool anorak in our collection, was cotton. So we decided that we wanted to make a wool version, because that seemed right at the time. At some point, however, there was another jacket in nylon that was lying next to the anorak, and both the anorak sample and the nylon jacket were in navy. When we looked at both jackets, it just made sense to combine them into one jacket and do the body in wool and the details in nylon.
I guess the process is all very random and naturel, basically.
So where do you think J. Crew is at now, and what can we expect from future collections?
We just showed Fall / Winter, and I think the push I really wanted to make with that collection was topcoats. We had done topcoats before, but they were always tailored and formal. Now that’s great, but I also wanted to add the more slouchy, informal kind of topcoat as an alternative option. You know, to try something different.
At this point in the process we got our samples in and it’s still in the early stages, but of course it’s going to be colourful. I know that this has been said before and that it might sound like a cliche – and perhaps it is – but I always felt like menswear is an evolution. Everything is in flux, and everything moves, but in an understandable pace. I wouldn’t want to rapidly change the direction we’re moving in now, because it comes from a strong foundation and we’re still building on that gradually.
Part two of our “In Conversation with Frank Muytjens” is now online, where we talk about his house in Hillsdale, becoming a New Yorker and his love for denim. Read it here! Also, check out Frank’s favourite Instagram channels here.