MEN’S FASHION: J.Crew’s Frank Muytjens is moving menswear into the future with his cool understanding of the past

Frank Muytunes
Frank Muytunes

Frank Muytunes
Frank Muytunes

Last summer, when J.Crew opened a store in Toronto—its first store in Canada, or anywhere outside the U.S. of A.—the guys in town were left boo-hooing when they learned that that shop is only for women. But Canadian men can dry their eyes: J.Crew is opening three more stores in Canada—Vancouver in April, Edmonton in May and Toronto in September—where the offerings will include menswear.

So, OK, maybe big boys don’t cry. But they do care about clothes, and they let it show. They’re no longer bashful or embarrassed about matters of style.

“Men’s fashion has moved more quickly in the last 10 years than it has over the last 40,” Millard “Mickey” Drexler, J.Crew’s CEO, told The Wall Street Journal last fall.

J.Crew
Left: J. Crew Wallace & Barnes jacket, $300. J.Crew T-shirt, $45, and pants, $105. Alden for J.Crew shoes $610. Right: J.Crew sweater, $130, T-shirt, $50, and shorts, $70. Sperry Top-Sider for J.Crew shoes, $115.

Frank Muytjens, head of men’s design for J.Crew, agrees that men’s interest in what they wear has been accelerating. “I think guys are becoming more aware of what’s happening,” he says. “I think guys want to be educated about fashion. They want to know about fabrics, about the history of certain garments. They want to know where everything is from. I don’t think we’ve seen that before.”

The new level of engagement that distinguishes the current state of men’s fashion is very much informed by an appreciation of the past. Nostalgia has not been such a driving force since the 1970s, the last time that preppiness was as big as it is now. It was also the last time a big movie was made out of The Great Gatsby; another one is due for release late this year.

Today, there is a whole new generation of males rediscovering the joys of peacoats, varsity jackets, pocket squares, the old-timer’s cardigan, chino pants, bare ankles or colourful socks, work boots and wingtip shoes.

However, J.Crew, which began as a catalogue business in 1983 and has long been associated with preppy basics, has brought fresh kicks to the notion of heritage. “We always use historical elements from menswear,” says Muytjens. In the Wallace & Barnes capsule line, launched last fall and inspired by vintage pieces that never made their way into the regular J.Crew line, there is a four-pocket jacket based on one that Muytjens found in a vintage store around the corner from his New York office. He improved on yesterday by translating the humble piece in cloth that is a handsome combination of cotton and linen.

“Guys like old things,” explains Muytjens, summarizing the appeal of garments that look as if they know a little about life. “If you ask a guy about the best thing among his clothes, he’ll pull out his oldest, most faded jeans, or his oldest leather jacket. If you were to ask a woman, she’d likely pull out the newest item.”

The oldest piece of clothing that Muytjens owns is a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans that he brought from Amsterdam when he moved to New York in 1994.

Even before landing in the U.S. and going to work for Polo Ralph Lauren, Muytjens, a native of the Netherlands, had developed a taste for Americana.

“When I was in college, I was a big fan of the Clash, and they have a song called ‘The Right Profile,’” he says.

“In it they mention Montgomery Clift, the American actor, so I started to read articles about him. I loved North by Northwest, and that triggered my love for mid-century modern and beautiful grey flannel suits. Another important milestone was my love for industrial designs by Raymond Loewy.”

Muytjens continues to savour American culture. The soft, vivid colours he admired in the work of Fairfield Porter (1907–1975), a painter and critic who lived in Southampton, New York, were an influence on the J.Crew men’s collection for this spring.

In a further embrace of styles that have stood the test of time, J.Crew has partnered with several external brands, offering carefully curated merchandise from iconic American names such as Timex and Red Wing Shoes.

At the same time, the company has enhanced its international perspective. J.Crew’s Ludlow suit—a slim-fitting model so popular that it has become a store unto itself, the Ludlow Shop, which opened in New York in February—is tailored from cloth originating in British and Italian mills. The range of Thomas Mason for J.Crew shirts combines the legacies of a label that goes back to 18th-century England and of manufacturers in Italy that have been making shirts and shirting fabrics since 1876.

“They have such history. I think a guy needs that reassurance,” observes Muytjens, as he considers the collaborations that J.Crew has undertaken. All for progressive attitudes, still, he admires a patina. A current favourite in his closet is a pair of Red Wing shoes from the 1940s that he found in a vintage store in Japan: “They look so beaten up, and beautiful.” 

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