As Barack Obama's phenomenally poised, incredibly adorable daughters smiled and waved for the cameras at the Inauguration, J. Crew got a spot on the world's biggest showroom floor. The preppy, upscale retailer was quite happy to spread the word on Tuesday that Malia Obama, 10, and her sister Sasha, 7 (or Radiance and Rosebud in Secret Service parlance), were decked out in J. Crew's children's line, called Crewcuts, for the big event. Malia wore a deep periwinkle blue coat to her dad's swearing-in, while Sasha went for an orange-and-pink combo. Fashionistas raved about the color schemes. "We are honored to be part of such a momentous occasion in both history and fashion," said Jenna Lyons, J. Crew's creative director. (See the top 10 Secret Service code names.)
In fact, J. Crew scored a clothing coup throughout the Inaugural festivities. The girls also wore J. Crew coats to Sunday's star-studded "We Are One" concert, which was broadcast on HBO. The next night, at the Kids' Inaugural concert, where the Obama gals and military families rocked out to Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, Michelle donned an olive J. Crew cardigan over a blue J. Crew skirt and top. The First Lady also wore green J. Crew gloves to the Inauguration. The company says the pieces were designed specifically for the new First Family, though J. Crew "may" roll them out for its fall 2009 collection. (Of course it will.) The Obamas paid for all the clothes, J. Crew insists, and they did not guarantee that they would wear the company's outfits for the Inaugural events. J. Crew found out about their fashion choices along with the rest of the world. (See pictures of Sasha and Malia Obama at the Inauguration.)
What can Inaugural buzz do for J. Crew's bottom line? Compared with most retailers, the company has stayed strong since the economic downturn began. "J. Crew continues to be one of the few retailers offering differentiated and unique merchandise to customers," analyst Christine Chen wrote this month in a report for Needham and Co. CEO Mickey Drexler, ex-chief of the Gap, has jump-started the brand by revamping the quality of its merchandise. But the economic downturn has not left J. Crew unscathed profits fell 6% through the first three quarters of fiscal 2008. "It's a huge deal," says Marshal Cohen, retail analyst for the NPD Group, of the Inaugural exposure. "This is something you get once in a lifetime. J. Crew will take this and run with it." Betty Chen, an equity analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities, predicts an immediate bump in J. Crew's children's clothing sales. She points to Michelle Obama's late-October appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. On the heels of news reports that Sarah Palin hoarded a $150,000 wardrobe budget, Leno jokingly asked Michelle if she paid "$60-, $70,000 for that outfit." Obama bragged, "Actually, this is a J. Crew ensemble." Chen says sales of that yellow outfit spiked. (See pictures of the fashion of Michelle Obama.)
Although it may cause the First Parents some unease, their daughters have tremendous star power and it's only going to grow. "We are going to want to know what they eat, read, watch and wear," says Cohen. "They can influence an entire generation." But the whole phenomenon puts a company like J. Crew in a tricky spot. Yes, it needs to leverage the family's affinity for the J. Crew brand. But will consumers think the company is exploiting these young girls? J. Crew is so sensitive about this perception that it would not make a marketing executive available to discuss the benefits of the Obamas. "It's a very delicate relationship," a spokesperson said. (See pictures of Michelle Obama's Jason Wu dress.)
So while you shouldn't expect a J. Crew commercial featuring clips of Malia and Sasha on the Capitol steps, the retailer probably won't sit on this news. Cohen suggests a word-of-mouth guerrilla marketing campaign for example, a Facebook group promoting the girls in J. Crew that asks users to sign up as fans. "They have to practice the subtle art of selling," says Cohen. "Go out and create a buzz, and just have others do it for you." Chen says J. Crew will most likely send an e-mail to customers in its database about 22 million, according to Chen highlighting the clothes worn by the First Daughters. But it won't show a picture of the girls, which could be viewed as exploitive. The company used a similar tactic with Michelle Obama's outfit on the Tonight Show. "I think you can do that in a very tasteful manner," Chen says. "I think it would be perfectly fine." (Read "Michelle Obama's Dress: A Bold Choice in Designer Isabel Toledo.")
No matter how J. Crew plays it, the company won't be the only one seeking the First Daughters' approval. "This is just the beginning of four to eight years of marketing opportunities," says Cohen. "The First Lady's staff will be inundated with all kinds of products, offerings and gifts for the girls. Keeping up with them will be a full-time job." Right now, J. Crew is the lucky leader. That coat looked pretty cute on Rosebud, and plenty of kids will want to match her style.