Madewell’s Menswear Debut: Reworked Workwear Styles for a New Audience

J.Crew’s been doing menswear for a number of years, so it made little sense that the company’s sister brand, Madewell, focused exclusively on women. Yet, as their roles reverse, with Madewell essentially propping up J.Crew’s declining sales, it only made sense that, back in August, CEO Jim Brett announced Madewell’s expansion into menswear as part of its strategy to turn into a billion-dollar denim brand.

Earlier statements, on the other hand, seemingly positioned its actualization for the distant future. Rather, Madewell started rolling out its plan during the second week of September, adding 38 men’s pieces to its website, while a handful of brick-and-mortar Nordstrom stores, plus their website, stocked the same styles. And, nodding to Madewell’s own roots as a men’s workwear brand, a pop-up at Crest Hardware in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood showcased the new collection from September 14th through the 16th.

Yet, for its own brick-and-mortar locations, Madewell isn’t entirely certain about how to market the menswear side. To date, these locations have been geared specifically toward how women shop, and currently, the company’s tooling with a few concepts based on men’s clothing shopping habits. Eventually, a few select locations will feature the line.

So, how does Madewell’s menswear debut stack up? First, before understanding the company’s approach, you’ve got to be familiar with Madewell’s history and revival. Its namesake started strictly as a men’s workwear brand in the 1930s, but after a few decades, it became defunct, until J.Crew’s then-CEO Mickey Drexler purchased the branding and revived Madewell as a casual women’s denim brand. 

While initially considered secondary to J.Crew, push for higher-quality basics and jeans buoyed Madewell’s growth, while J.Crew tumbled a bit, seeing both Drexler and long-time creative director Jenna Lyons depart. Capitalizing on that momentum, the company opted to carve a path through menswear, itself an ever-visible sector within the fashion marketplace, and began designing its line nearly two years ago.

In short, Madewell for men is an amalgamation rooted in both history and modern tastes: There’s a bit of the heritage angle, with denim based on the original Madewell garments, and then, there’s construction suited to the modern consumer, the guy who wants to look classic but still feel comfortable in his clothes. The result covers 21 different denim styles in three possible fits, along with tees, a few jackets, and sweatshirts – essentially, just a bit bigger than a capsule collection, with many of your casual basics covered.

To start, let’s touch on the denim, the heart of the menswear line for now. The collection covers skinny – slim and stretchy from the thigh to the ankle – and slim fits, which skim the body while offering a bit of room. There’s a straight fit, too, built for muscular physiques and often looking like a hybrid between a bootcut silhouette and a work jean.

Amongst these pieces, the look references the classics – rigid, to a point, and with minimal fading in most cases – but construction tells a different story. With jeans specifically, skinner fits are based around a cotton/polyester/elastane blend for more movement, while slim and straight fits – even selvedge denim – utilize a cotton/elastane blend. Purists might balk, especially with the company’s heritage angle, but it’s all for a practical purpose: Madewell intended to decrease break-in time, so the pants feel natural right after the first wash.

Yet, denim’s long-dormant profile returned in 2017, thanks to a mix of embellishments, darker and lighter washes, and somewhat-innovative silhouettes like moto jeans, and this consumer hasn’t been ignored. This somewhat small but solid line adds rips to the knees, experiments with a Cone Mill-manufactured 12 oz. selvedge jean, and throws in a wider range of shades. No, you won’t find anything light, white, bleached, or colored; rather, mid and darker washes dominate, with a handful of dyed black options reflecting classic offerings.

In what might be best described as a reduction of Levi’s modern approach, Madewell sticks with the workwear theme by introducing a few trucker jackets, in a narrow range of wear. Fully made out of cotton and designed with a fit wide enough to wear a hoodie or sweatshirt below, they’re specifically meant for layering on cooler fall days, and add in no bells and whistles, save for some prominent hardware. As an upgrade for colder weather, a Sherpa-lined style adds the soft, somewhat insulating material to the body and complements it with quilted-lined sleeves. 

Jeans and tees just go together by default, and perhaps hinting of more things to come, Madewell covers a few basics: Solid, fully cotton garment-dyed styles and heathered tri-blend silhouettes, sporting a crewneck or pocket. Fits veer toward slim, and like the jeans, they’re meant to get softer with time. Along with these essentials, a couple of crewneck sweaters and a full-zip hoodie – in blended fleece and French terry, respectively, with styling not unlike something you’d find from Champion – round out your year-round essentials.

Although some might claim menswear has enough lines geared toward high-quality basics, Madewell’s history and first offering make a strong case for its growth forward. We just have to see if consumers take the bait and run with it.