A J. Crew store. (Bloomberg)
A J. Crew store. (Bloomberg News)

It wasn’t long ago that J. Crew was the envy of the retail industry. Its distinctive look — well-made basics bedecked with a splash of sequins or a door-knocker-sized necklace — stood out from less adventurous retailers in the same price range and helped the brand triple its revenue between 2003 and 2013.

And yet 2014 marked a turn in fortunes for the retailer. The company recently reported that sales at its stores open more than a year fell 2 percent in 2014. In the crucial holiday quarter, the brand’s financial picture was especially cloudy, with revenue decreasing slightly to $620.7 million and comparable sales sliding 5 percent.

In a rare appearance on a conference call with analysts, chief executive Mickey Drexler offered several reasons for what he called “a tough year” for his company, including a decline in mall traffic, intense competition and shoppers’ fixation on promotional prices.

And yet the biggest problem of all, Drexler said, was one of J. Crew’s own making: It filled its stores with clothes that women really just weren’t into.

“We’ve made some mistakes,” Drexler said, including “missteps in our iconic classics.”

Drexler said the women’s business has been “challenging” recently and that the fits, silhouettes and color palette of the clothes simply haven’t connected with shoppers the way they had in the past.

J. Crew says it is aggressively trying to win customers back with fresh colors, classic designs and a more diverse merchandise assortment, particularly in the pants category. (As Drexler said, if you weren’t buying their skinny-cut Pixie or Minnie pants last year, you probably weren’t buying women’s pants from them at all.)

J. Crew is learning the hard way that in an era when e-commerce has presented women with ever-greater shopping choices, customer loyalty is hard to win and incredibly easy to lose. And with its middle-of-the-road price point, the typical J. Crew shopper might be just as likely to invest in a $595 shift dress at Tory Burch as she is to impulse-buy a $8.90 crop top at Forever 21.

With that kind of breadth of competition, J. Crew is betting that the way to get ahead of the pack is not with new marketing tactics or store designs, but to simply make better, more appealing clothes.

J. Crew is not the only specialty retailer that is grappling with a style problem. Gap has lately had similar struggle, with sales stumbling hard as critics say its sportswear has veered from classic and simple to just plain boring. Gap recently pushed out its creative director, Rebekka Bay, a sign that it is looking to get back the halo of great style that made it the epitome of cool in the 1990s.

Gap’s sister brand, Banana Republic, appears to be coming out of a style rut under its new creative director, Marissa Webb, who impressed critics and analysts with fall and winter collections featuring trendy and edgy details. But before Webb’s arrival, the brand was struggling, as cheaper fabrics and stodgy designs helped contribute to weak sales.

The recent weakness at J. Crew comes after a long stretch in which the brand was flying high. Many attribute its recent success to its top leaders, including Drexler, the chief executive, who has been dubbed the Merchant Prince for his previous work building Gap from a modest jeans chain into an empire of casual style. When he was fired from Gap in 2002 amid a downturn in sales, he took the helm at J. Crew and engineered its turnaround.

Jenna Lyons, J. Crew's creative director, is beloved by fashionistas. (Associated Press) Jenna Lyons, J. Crew’s creative director, is beloved by fashionistas. (Associated Press)

And then there is Jenna Lyons, the creative director who has earned the kind of cultlike adoration that is typically reserved for haute couture designers. She’s responsible for the unique, preppy-with-a-twist aesthetic of the clothes, and she is a walking billboard for how to wear them. Photos of her regularly ping-pong around fashion blogs and Instagram feeds, often featuring her in thick-rimmed, geek-chic glasses and some sort of formal-meets-casual ensemble — maybe a structured blazer atop ripped jeans or sequined harem pants paired with a striped T-shirt.

The growth and buzz that Drexler and Lyons created led to whispers about an initial public offering for the privately-held company. But amid last year’s slowdown, that talk has died down.

Reviving the women’s business isn’t J. Crew’s only hope for improvement. The company also includes Madewell, a newer, casual-c00l chain which had a much stronger year than J. Crew.

Madewell — a destination for distressed denim, suede ankle booties, and vintage-looking button-downs — had a 14 percent sales increase in 2014 at stores open more than year, growth that is vastly better than what was seen at most specialty apparel retailers. It appears that Drexler sees Madewell as something of a pet project and that he is intensely focused on making it the next big thing in American casual apparel.

The company is also rapidly growing its lower-priced Factory outlet business, with plans to add 21 more of these stores in 2015. And it is cautiously expanding the presence of the J. Crew brand overseas, with a Paris store in the chic Marais district and plans to grow its footprint in Britain and Hong Kong.

But even if these other strategies help make up for slowness in J. Crew’s women’s business, the company remains determined to win back its core female shopper.

“She is loyal as hell until we go wrong,” Drexler said.