A St Andrews student recently asked me a question that might speak volumes for Jack Wills, the once popular clothin
g brand that bottled privilege in pricey puffer gilets and rugby shirts on its journey to becoming a UK household name.
“Who is Jack Wills again?,” they asked.
Perhaps that helps explain why the brands’ last remaining Scottish branch — sat just a stone's throw from Aikmans, where it’s nestled between gift shops on Bell Street —is set to close in October amid a wider string of 14 closures across the UK.
In its prime, it was difficult to walk down the high street without spotting a gilet branded with a top hat-wearing pheasant. But that’s changed as the company started selling its products alongside Nike and Adidas in its shift to the retail mass market.
That sparked criticism from consumers that felt its rebranding was disingenuous, and even offensive. To them, the St Andrews branch closure symbolizes not just that the company has moved on from prepsters, but that it has failed in its attempts to keep up with consumers and stay relatable.
In 1999, Jack Wills opened its first store in Salcombe, Devon. Dubbed Chelsea-on-Sea, the move into a luxury vacation seaside town was on brand for a company that sought to capitalize on young, aristocratic styles. It was only fitting that its first retail expansion was into St Andrews, Oxford, Eton, and other prestigious and preppy educational epicenters.
The self-proclaimed ‘University Outfitters’ influenced a new uniform for British youth.
“They had us in a chokehold,” a friend recently reminded me. Indeed, I, myself, recall requesting my plaster cast be wrapped in pink and blue stripes (matching the JW branding) when I broke my leg as an 11-year-old.
But the brand lost its luster as more young consumers put preppy into the past. It began to buckle under a shifting economic environment and a slowdown in consumer contact during the pandemic, spiraling into administration in 2019 after it recorded annual operating losses of over £14.2 million.
“Its gradual demise was aligned to the general decline in the reduced high street footfall. It did have a strong web presence but similar to brands like Superdry, who many consider to be struggling to maintain momentum with consumers, it lost some of its popularity,” said Andy Barr, a trend expert, co-founder, and CEO of the digital agency 10 Yetis. “Costly ventures into new territories, such as its sports range, also did not land with customers in the scale that it would have hoped.”
The company's downturn set Frasers Group — a retail group owned by Sports Direct CEO Mike Ashley — up to buy the brand.
Its new parent company shifted the brand away from marketing to the prepsters it was founded to win over. Instead, it turned its attention towards the broader consumer market, selling its products alongside fast-fashion sports gear. This subjected the company to a hard-nosed cost cutting strategy, one which Ashley has honed on his path to making his fortune.
Frasers Group commitment to an anything-for-profit approach probably explains the St Andrews branch's closure. It is unlikely to signal a larger move away from Scotland, Barr said, noting the store would have probably remained open if it could have negotiated cheaper rents. Fraser’s Group declined to comment for this article.
“Aligned to much of Frasers Group other brands, Jack Wills has shifted to looking for mass-market and wider consumer appeal rather than just the one demographic of customer, which was students,” Barr said. “That, alongside its marketing move away from historically targeting the student pound meant that its St Andrews store was always going to be on risky ground.”
But some say the move symbolizes the brand’s failure to retain its youth audience — as well as of its misguided attempts to try.
In summer 2022, Jack Wills decided to opt for a ‘vibe change’ under its new management. It shot its pheasant and swapped its polos for matching tracksuit sets. Perhaps more embarrassingly, the brand took a group of young Tiktokers on a private jet where they stayed in a so-called ‘Jack Wills Tiktok house’ in Ibiza.
“It was kind of like Love Island but with influencers”, Chiara Kinga, one of the creators invited on the trip, told Vice. “It was literally like not being on planet Earth. We got on a private jet, we were all drinking champagne, we were getting pretty tipsy. You wouldn’t think Jack Wills is going to be spending that much budget on such a trip.”
The lavish trip was not a success — it came during the ongoing cost of living crisis, portraying a controversial image in a time of austere difficulty. One of the brand’s newly found ambassadors described the new styles as a “bit younger.” But for some, that faint praise was not enough to cover up the brand’s history of a complete lack of diversity.
Plus, Jack Wills later released a poster trying to reflect its new, more diverse, image. Stamping the slogan "It's a vibe” on its new advertising campaign, it featured models far from the skinny, blonde, archetype that the brand had a soft spot for.
“The Jack Wills rebrand fascinated me, as it felt pretty much the opposite of that which came before. It was also a reminder of how powerful black culture and street culture have always been,” Charlene White, a presenter for ITV News, wrote in an opinion column. “Failing brands (Jack Wills went into administration in 2019 and was acquired by Sports Direct) tend to veer towards the street eventually because bankable creativity in music, fashion, food, culture and more almost always come from there — no matter how many posh brands try to fight it.”
The perceived intensity of the brand’s attempt at diversity has pushed some away from the brand.
That includes one student, who declined to share her name for fear of being associated with the brand (she recently made a similar move to unpick the Jack Wills brand stitching from a backpack she had wanted to wear) that said that even being in the store gives her the ick.
“I felt on edge … and I tried to work out why”, she said, describing when she recently stumbled upon the St Andrews branch while she was looking for a black t-shirt to wear to work. “I looked around to check nobody was looking at what I was doing … and then I went in”.
While the elitism of the brand went over her head at age 12, she reflected on its overarching prevalence. “Whatever new direction the brand went in, it was embarrassing and too late,” she said.
Fashionability hasn’t been the only thing that Frasers Group has lost in its most recent efforts to rebrand Jack Wills. It’s also lost the hearts of its St Andrews employees.
The store’s staff said that they were given less than five minutes to think after being told that the store was set to close. They were angry at being left to aimlessly attempt to brainstorm a plan B.
“Not knowing was the worst,” a source told The Courier, “They just wanted transparency.”
That fits with Ashley’s ruthless approach to cost-cutting, Barr said. The billionaire tycoon’s reputation is closely linked with scandals of mistreating employees. Leaving staff in the dark is a repetition of previous Fraser Group activity. House of Fraser staff were left with frozen pension schemes after the company went under. Further, in an attempt to keep their doors open during the pandemic, the company tried to be deemed as an essential business. As a result, employees were made to feel confused and vulnerable with the prospect that they may have to keep working.
“The once successful Jack Wills brand has a new owner in Frasers Group, who are very much interested in the ‘pile it high, sell it low’ approach over developing and refining brand values,” Barr said. “As part of that rescue deal by Frasers Group, they immediately set about trying to reduce costs, and renegotiating rents for its flagship stores was very much seen as being a key driver of that cost cutting.”
So long as it sits under the mammoth public company — which has a market capitalisation of £3.72 billion — Jack Wills is unlikely to fade into oblivion anytime soon. But even while the store has posted signs that advertise its products on a 20% discount, it might never claw back the consumer group it lost in its old image — or the one it tried, and failed, to win with its new one.
“It will no doubt continue to live on via Frasers own ‘House of Fraser’ concession based stores and their hugely successful e-commerce websites,” Barr said. “But I suspect the brand's own individuality, such as a dedicated website and its own stores, will now slowly fade and eventually disappear.”
Illustration: Isabelle Holloway