When head men’s designer Frank Muytjens took the reigns at J.Crew in 2008, he transformed the storied retailer into a one-stop shop where men could enter as poorly dressed schlubs and exit as super stylish versions of themselves. The Ludlow suit was slim but not constrictingly skinny, the 484 jeans had selvedge lines for an authentic look but could be worn under a sport coat. Rugged chambray shirts featured mother-of-pearl buttons and looked even better with a knit tie. The clothes fused utilitarian workwear with the basic elements of tailored goods.
Muytjens’ menswear overhaul netted him a nomination as one of GQ magazine’s Best New Menswear Designers in America in 2010. Everything from Great American novels to flea market finds inspired him. That eclectic mix lended his clothes a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure vibe. Dressing up as a guy became simultaneously foolproof and fun. New Balance sneakers with chinos? Go ahead. Sweatpants with a topcoat? Sure, why not.
With this attitude, J.Crew became a destination not just for dudes who want to look great in a suit, but also for a more style-conscious casual dresser. The type of guy who never tucks in his shirt but is very particular about the fit of his jeans and chinos. As the workplace becomes less buttoned-up, former weekend warriors can now feel free to flex from 9 to 5, too, and for many guys that means trading in the hard-bottomed soles for a proper pair of kicks.
The idea of collaborating on sneakers struck Muytjens in 2009 while he was traveling in Japan, where he encountered a pair of New Balance runners in a beautiful dark green, the kind of emerald hue you’d find on a vintage Sprite bottle. Unfortunately, Japanese sizing standards meant that the shop didn’t carry his larger shoe size. Out of his dejection came the idea to team with the American footwear company to make shoes.
“We sold some sneakers, but I don’t think we ever really drove our stake in the ground,” says Muytjens.
Working with Jennifer Lynch, a Senior Product Manager at New Balance, in October 2010, Muytjens and his team produced two colorways of the New Balance 1400 sneaker, a retro runner with a streamlined silhouette and daring ripple sole, rendered in a supple suede mixed with mesh. In addition to Muytjens’ coveted dark green color, there was also a versatile navy. It was the first of many official collaborations with New Balance, and marked J.Crew’s official foray into the sneaker world.
When the first 1400s dropped, blogs like Hypebeast posted about the shoe. So did Complex. It made the store relevant to a certain subset of consumers. Not just the burgeoning Americana menswear guys who aspired to look approachably rugged, nor the sartorial #menswear nerds who loved the floating chest piece in J.Crew’s ubiquitous Ludlow suit, but also avid sneakerheads who wanted to dress a little better.
J.Crew began picking up other brands, like Vans, P.F. Flyers, PRO-Keds, and even Converse Chuck Taylors, which were emblazoned with the cartoonish Filip Pagowski-designed heart logo of Comme des Garçons PLAY, but it wasn’t until the company began selling vintage-inspired Nikes that connoisseurs’ interests were piqued. J.Crew started with models like the Cortez and Waffle Racer, then in 2012 carried the Challenge Court, a mid-top sneaker associated with tennis great John McEnroe. Ironically, the shoe was already experiencing a second life—skater Gino Ianucci retooled it that year for Nike’s SB label.
Muytjens says the affinity of old Nike silhouettes stems from an appreciation from true classics, and not by any concerted effort from J.Crew or Nike to push a specific shoe. Rather, it’s about inducing nostalgia in a different context.
Yes, these were the same shoes you remember from 1984, and yes, you can wear them as an adult. In the world of J.Crew, sneakers were yet another building block in a man’s perfect wardrobe.
One of J.Crew’s best-selling sneaker models is another Nike: the Killshot 2, a low-profile squash shoe with a white upper, dark blue swoosh, and contrasting gum sole. Muytjens regards it as a classic, and online communities like Reddit’s Male Fashion Advice subforum admire the shoe so much they’ve created guides on how to wear it.
“It’s a stripped-down version of a sneaker, but it’s still functional,” says Muytjens. “It’s just timeless, and that to me is what a classic is.” The Killshot 2 is so popular that many J.Crew stores can’t keep it on the shelves for long. At TriBeCa’s Liquor Store on the day I meet Muytjens, they only have two sizes left.
“We restock our Nike Killshot every three months—especially in summer, as it’s peak selling season and we can never stay in stock,” says a rep for J.Crew.
The intersection between sneaker culture and the J.Crew consumer was further highlighted in an editorial posted on J.Crew’s Tumblr. Shot by notable photographer Tommy Ton, it featured guys like Public School designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne wearing "Oreo" Jordan Vs and Common Projects Tournament High Tops with J. Crew hoodies, while Details Style Director Eugene Tong paired his J. Crew sweatpants with Nike Flyknit Trainers and a Louis Vuitton topcoat.
After so much time on the periphery of the sneaker world, J.Crew did something totally different when it released its bright red New Balance 998 sneaker collaboration in January 2014. Sneakerheads could see the fiery flag that had been planted. The “Inferno” 998 marked the first time J.Crew gave one of the collaborations a nickname—a common practice by sneaker enthusiasts.
J.Crew released them in select men’s shops before making them available online, and seeded pairs to influencers and street style stars like Nick Wooster in time for New York Fashion Week. The company even created a hashtag: #jcrewxnb. This time, the shoes weren’t a footnote in a guy’s wardrobe—they were the main event. And according to a rep from J.Crew, they sold out “within a few hours.”
“First of all, the design was amazing, and [we’d] never run a bright red sneaker before,” says Muytjens.
Despite overseeing the collaboration, Muytjens doesn’t have a pair of the Infernos himself, though he wants them. J.Crew followed up that collaboration in June with another 998, the red-white-and-blue “Independence Day.” Pairing an off-white suede upper with red and blue accents, the shoe was subtly patriotic, setting the tone for the deconstructed color themes that J.Crew would revisit in the future.
The “Independence Day” also sold out relatively quickly, and kids even lined up outside the TriBeCa Liquor Store on release day hoping to score a pair.
“Those limited-editions, they create a frenzy,” says Muytjens. “It’s amazing. It gives me goosebumps looking at that.”
Scarcity is often used as a marketing tactic in footwear, but Muytjens and J.Crew say they just want the shoes to feel special. Muytjens notes that the company is in a place—size-wise and business-wise—wherein a place like the Liquor Store can still feel like a boutique. Stocking limited-edition products there adds to that vibe.
Around the same time the “Independence Day” 998s launched, J.Crew introduced the Sideline Pant, which for all intents and purposes, is a cinch-bottomed jogger pant, a trend that is ubiquitous among sneakerheads. Pairing them with the campaign images for the “Independence Day” kicks made a statement—whether intended or not—that J.Crew could not only speak to men who wanted to look good in a suit, but also guys who got dressed from the ground up.
In September 2014, J.Crew released the “Concrete Jungle” 998, this time deconstructing the concept of urban camouflage with dark browns, mossy greens, and hazard orange accents. It’s one of Muytjens’ favorites.
As expected, the “Concrete Jungle” also sold out within a few hours. Also like its predecessors, it fetches a hefty resell price on the aftermarket, sometimes more than double the $170 retail tag.
Muytjens admits that he only owns six or seven pairs of sneakers. (Someone on his team purportedly owns about 300—half of which remain in deadstock condition.) Like the customers buying J. Crew clothes, the people buying their sneakers skew decidedly older than, say, the type of person waiting for the next signature sneaker from LeBron James. But for Muytjens, sneakers have no age limit. They’re one of the weapons in a modern man’s arsenal of style, but he does have some pointers on how to pull them off as you get older.
“If you’re above 30 or 40 and wear sneakers, they need to be a bit more understated, not as flashy,” he says. Of course, he notes that if you’re in the midst of exercising, all bets are off. “But in the street, they need to look a little more sophisticated.”