Walnut St. diversifies, welcomes brand that’s “Madewell”

The recent Walnut St. opening of J. Crew’s sister store, Madewell, has fashion addicts flocking.

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By 9:00  a.m. Tuesday morning, a jumbled line of them had stretched five storefronts long.  Crossed legged, they sat with knees tucked to their chests, faded denim shirts grazing the cement, huddled, with backs to buildings.  Their messy topknots bobbed as they chattered.

“We were asked if we were homeless earlier,” Shelby Kay, 21, said. “This man offered to buy us a doughnut.  We said we already ate.  He offered a dollar. We said no.  Then, I think he finally got it.”

Kay, among 30-some other eager young women forwent commitments to class, work, and sleep last Tuesday, Oct. 15, to wait out front 1716 Walnut St. for the 10 a.m. opening of Philadelphia’s first Madewell store.

“We’ve been here since 6:30.  She’s my boss,” said Kay, pointing to Jen Green, 26, sitting to her right.

The two employees of HyLo Boutiques, a marketing company in Old City were first in-line to shuffle the neatly folded columns of Madewell denim.  Though the die-hards claimed they were simply there for the fashion, the promise of $10-$500 gift cards and free polka dot purses for the first 100 customers in line were welcomed rewards for their morning campout.

Walnut St.’s tall glass storefront looks in on a style-guide display of fitted red flannels, leather paneled leggings and camel booties.  The 4,000 sq. ft. retail space reaches back to the classic denim bar, freshly stocked with tailored skinnies and boyfriend cuts.  In the farthest room of the store, sunrays from a sky-light highlight a towering shoe display.  The windowed ceiling reveals an aging fire-escape and red brick-walls, reminding customers of the label’s contemporary city vibes.

“It’s a store designed for people who have phones in their hands.  It’s for people who Instagram vignettes” Green said, nodding towards the artful collage of clothes and accessories hung on the front left wall of the store.

Founded in 1937, in New Bedford, Ma., as a work-wear company, the Madewell denim label found its way to J. Crew Group Inc., 76 years later.  Purchased by current J. Crew CEO Millard Drexler just prior to his joining the company in 2003, Drexler fully launched the brand in 2007 as a division of J. Crew.

Madewell opened its flagship store in SoHo in 2008 and went online in 2010.  The opening of the Walnut St. Madewell marks the 63rd store to join the franchise.

While J. Crew markets to the upper-middle class young professional, with its simple, preppy style. Madewell has secured its niche in a hipper, more bargain-chic crowd.

“J. Crew is pretty vanilla,” Green said. “Madewell is J. Crew’s cooler sister.”

Though, the franchise features prices cut to fractions of older sister, J. Crew’s high-end apparel, Madewell jeans still fall in the range of $98-$135.  A Racked post cites Madewell’s defense:

“We made sure our jeans don’t cost more than, say, a nice dinner out,” reads an ad. “Sure, you can get jeans for less, but it’s not worth it—they won’t fit (or look) like this.”

The proof is in the profits: consumers agree with Madewell’s higher quality claims and are willing to pay the higher quality prices.

“The prices reflect quality,” Kay said. “It’s an investment that just seems to make sense.”

With Anthropologie to the left of it and Urban to the right, Madewell has found territory among the big dogs of hipsterdom.  However, fears of the newcomer getting lost in the mosh of pleather leggings and ironic shades aren’t among the thoughts of the brand’s fans.  To them, Madewell falls somewhere outside the style lines.

“Madewell is something new.  It has a more intimate vibe than mainstream stores,” Green said.  “I am so happy to finally see some variety on Walnut.”

Suzannah Cavanaugh can be reached at suzannah.Cavanaugh@temple.edu.

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