Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Madewell's Origin Story

Many of us have been turning to Madewell lately as they are doing a really nice job of offering styles that are truly "classics with a twist".

"Thanks!" to J.Crew Guy In Canada who shared the following article about Madewell's origin story from Buzz Feed (click here to read in its entirety) with us:
Something Borrowed, Something Blue
By Dan Nosowitz
September 28, 2014

In 1937, my great-grandfather started a workwear company in New England called Madewell. In 2006, 17 years after the last factory shut down, J.Crew relaunched a women’s clothing company with the same name and logo, based on a 50-year history in which it had no part.

I stopped dead on Broadway, in the middle of the sidewalk, and stared, not up at the beautiful wrought-iron SoHo buildings, as would befit someone who’d moved to New York in the past month, but at an ordinary sign advertising a small clothing shop. The logo, a casual cursive scrawl with both E’s capitalized, jumped out at me like a beacon from a lighthouse somewhere deep in the back of my brain. That was the logo emblazoned on my baby clothes, the logo my great-grandfather created. It was, I thought, forgotten family history, the factories having shut down shortly after I was born in the ’80s. ...

Over the next four years, I saw Madewell everywhere. Today there are three stores in Manhattan alone, and 77 throughout the country. On bags on the subway, on tags of clothes worn by friends, I am constantly bombarded with totems of my family history.

Asking my family yielded the basics: Madewell as it stands today began in 2004. That’s when Millard “Mickey” Drexler, now the CEO of J.Crew, acquired the logo and the trademark of the company my great-grandfather founded in 1937. Dhani Mau, a senior editor at Fashionista, said, “J.Crew considers it their younger sister brand,” though she said it’s not necessarily for younger sisters. Pressed to pick out a celebrity who might typify the Madewell girl, Mau chose Kate Bosworth and Rachel Bilson. This does not entirely jibe with my mental picture of my tough immigrant great-grandfather selling stiff denim overalls to New England dockworkers.

Still, Madewell will not let you forget the date 1937. The store could originally be found online at madewell1937.com, and the year is prominent on the site and on some of the clothing. The company’s Instagram and Twitter handles are both still @Madewell1937, and its LinkedIn page says, “Madewell was started in 1937 as a workwear company, and we’re always looking to the brand’s roots for inspiration.”

This is, to put it mildly, baloney. Madewell as it stands today has almost nothing at all to do with the company founded by my great-grandfather almost 80 years ago. How many vintage labels out there have similar stories? How many corporations are out there rifling through the defunct brands of America’s past like a bin of used records, looking for something, anything, that will give them that soft Edison-bulb glow of authenticity?

Madewell’s story — my story — leading up to that moment in SoHo began over a century ago, half a world away. It traces the evolution of how Americans shop, and how Americans shop heavily informs how Americans see themselves; we, as a country, are what we buy. Mickey Drexler, in creating J.Crew’s new womenswear stores, shrewdly read the market and realized that stocking nice clothes wouldn’t be enough: He’d have to tell a story along with them. Drexler didn’t have any stories, so he bought ours. ...{much more to read
Really interesting to read this family member's take on Madewell's transition from family brand, forgotten logo, to trendy retailer. I can see the passion coming through his words about his family's history, of which he should be proud of.

This post reminded me a lot of a piece on CBS' 60 Minutes about Luxottica, a famous producer of sunglasses. (Watch and read about the 60 Minutes segment here.) It discussed the American brand Ray-Ban and how it was struggling. The Italian company, Luxottica, ended up purchasing the brand and turned it around. Today, Ray-Ban sunglasses are world-renowned top-sellers while playing on its iconic American history, despite being produced and owned elsewhere.

But back to Madewell... Honestly, it is no secret about Madewell's past and how Mickey Drexler came to acquire the brand, logo, etc. Although, I do think Mickey Drexler/ J.Crew Corporate try to emphasize Madwell's rich past as though the Madewell brand under J.Crew has been around that long.

But isn't it better that the Madewell brand lives on and not forgotten altogether? I mean, J.Crew/Mickey Drexler did do a pretty good job of portraying Madewell as a retailer of quality denim and leather. Just a thought...

What are your thoughts on the post? Any points of the article resonate with you? If so, please share!


  1. Very interesting post, Alexis. I had always wondered about that '1937' part of the Madewell brand. I can understand the feelings, but at the same time I wondered - did they make any money for selling that logo etc.?? The company apparently went under, or was closed for some reason, I would think it is somewhat nice to see it live on. I guess it's the glass half full or half empty thing.

    1. I agree Suzy. I can understand the feelings regarding the brand and the writer's family history with it, but it would seem logical that they would have made something for selling the logo. Like Alexis mentioned, Mickey Drexler has done a pretty good job of portraying Madewell as a retailer of quality denim and leather, so perhaps it is actually better that the name/original company hasn't been forgotten altogether.

  2. Oh, well. For a while, J.Crew's publicists hinted at the company's "Nantucket origins." Sounded more, um, something or other than Garfield, New Jersey, I guess.

  3. I would be very interested to learn what's relationship between Madewell and Wallace?

  4. Wow, thanks for sharing this Alexis. I think the "baloney" part of the story is what really stands out for me. Very interesting article and I can just imagine how the author feels every time he sees a Madewell bag.

  5. This reminds me of when Gap co. bought Banana Republic. Banana Republic now resembles nothing of the original BR safari travel clothes down to the design of the logo. Although I understand the authors point of view I think Mickey Drexler has done a decent job with Madewell (but I'm biased cuz I'm into their stuff now and not so much JC these days). In any case I agree with the fact that they sold their logo and trademark and most likely was well compensated for it. Thanks for the article- enjoyed reading it. P.s. Someone told me u can still find original Madewell clothing on eBay - yes the ones his great grandfather made , the ones the author wore as a kid.

    1. This is true - I saw a pair of Madewell dark denim men's overalls on eBay a few months ago, Madewell tag on the front pocket and all.

    2. I thought of a Banana Republic too, when the Zieglers owned it and put out the best catalogues with nothing but illustrations and little stories to describe the items. The stores were the coolest too. I also like Madewell (a lot), but I assumed j.crew acquired the company, business name, etc.

  6. I know everyone is praising mickey retaining the brand's focus on denim and leather, which is fine. but I felt like the article was saying that the original madewell did not care at all about authenticity and design but instead about utilitarianism, whereas the new madewell is all about design and feigned authenticity, which flies in the face of the family's old ideals. our narrative about clothing has changed, so what j. crew is doing isn't surprising - but it is somewhat changing the company's roots to reflect what they want it to be about instead of what it really was.

    sure, one of his family members made some money off the sale, so I understand people thinking that maybe the author is making a big stink for nothing. j. crew seemed to do everything legally. but I still think them constructing this image around a company history that so clearly isn't reality is somewhat ethically problematic.

    1. I think you've articulated this point well.

  7. Ever since Madewell started up, I've been wondering about its connection w/an old Madewell brand I remember from my junior high school days. Yes, I'm in my 40's and wayyyy back in the 80's, Madewell "painters pants" were all the rage on the preteen/teenage girls fashion scene back then. Does anyone else remember this? Is it the same Madewell that is the one discussed in the article? It has to be. And can I just say I absolutely LOVED my Madewell "painters pants" back in the day. They were really flattering, believe it or not!

  8. Although I feel for the family member (clearly it wasn't him who sold the brand to J.Crew), I don't think what J.Crew's doing is unethical. They're creating a storyline to market the brand. It's no different from World Market, who pushes their authenticity by pushing highly romanticized stories behind the exotic locales their items are from, when in reality, they are created in a factory that happens to be in that Southern/Southeast Asian (mostly) location. Or Abercrombie, for that matter.

  9. Yes jcrew is good at storyline and names behind their products- who else writes elaborate descriptions about their clothes--- "sourced from a family mill in Italy reflecting.... Etc" "minnies, Jackie's, Andies, dani" this is their marketing forte so it's no surprise Mickey would use Madewell 's story behind their marketing strategy. Sometimes I have to run Gigi's f21 test on items and not let all that marketing get me!

  10. Interesting line from the article: "J.Crew’s Madewell is grasping to emulate some sepia-hued commitment to quality in the original company, some moral or ethical standard from better, more authentic times. But that’s not what motivated my great-grandfather at all — his motivation was profit, and quality was a means to an end."

    That's a big difference between then and now. I think that the attitude is that if items are high quality, customers will buy less because they won't need to be replacing them frequently - coupled with the higher cost of production that would lead to smaller profits. So now it's fast, cheap (to make) fashion with high markups. Plus, every retailer is doing it, so it's not like there are many options for consumers that do want higher quality clothes. The ones that are USA made are incredibly expensive in comparison, which again doesn't go with the attitude of having all the biweekly new arrivals.

  11. So, I read the entire article at Buzzfeed. Apparently, the author or his immediate family had no rights to the name or brand. His Great Uncle's son was the "sole owner" and did as he pleased with the company...i.e.- not sharing the profits from that sale.

    A quote that was interesting was "Madewell’s logo didn’t necessarily indicate who physically created the garment, but simply who was selling it." This was preceded by a story of how, if his Great-Uncles saw something selling well in a department store they would copy it. At times they would go buy the item, rip the seams, make a pattern of it and recreate it. Also, they might even call another factory and tell them to make the same item and just put the Madewell stamp/logo on it. That seems to go with Silver Lining's quote of his Great-Grandfather being motivated by profit.

    Yes, the new Madewell is also motivated by profit...what company really isn't, but they do focus on quality as well. I am glad I read the whole article as he doesn't seem so "bitter" to me. He even said he tried to explain the original Madewell to an employee at that first store he saw and said he struggled to explain a history he didn't really even know. Hence the research and article.

    Thanks JC Guy in Canada and Alexis for bringing this up. It's always interesting to hear about the "history" of a store or brand, especially when it involves us JCAs.


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