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In 1947, Mitchell Cinader and Saul Charles founded Popular Merchandise, Inc., a store which did business as Popular Club Plan and sold low-priced women's clothing marketed through in-home demonstrations. Throughout the mid-1980s, sales from catalog operations grew rapidly. "Growth was explosive25 to 30 percent a year," Cinader later recollected in The New York Times. Annual sales grew from $3 million to more than $100 million over five years. In 1985, the "Clifford & Wills" brand was launched, selling womens clothing that was more affordable than the Popular Merchandise line. In 1987, two executives left the company to start their own catalog, Tweeds.
The 1980s marked a booming sales period for catalog retail giants Lands' End, Talbots, and L. L. Bean. Popular Merchandise initiated its own catalog operation, focusing on leisurewear for upper-middle-class customers, aiming for a Ralph Lauren look at a much lower price. The first Popular Club Plan catalog was mailed to customers in January 1983 and continued under that name until 1989. Popular Club Plan catalogs often showed the same garment in more than one picture with close-up shots of the fabrics, so customers could get a sense of how the garment looked on the body and be assured of the company's claims of quality.
In 1989, Popular Merchandise, Inc. became known as J.Crew, Inc. The company attempted, but failed to sell the Popular Club Plan brand. Also in 1989, J.Crew opened its first retail store, in South Street Seaport in downtown Manhattan.
J.Crew Group was owned by the Cinader family for most of its existence, but in October 1997 investment firm Texas Pacific Group Inc. purchased a majority stake. By the year 2000, Texas Pacific held an approximate 62 percent stake, a group of J.Crew managers held about 10 percent, and Emily Cinader Woods, the chairman of J.Crew, along with her father, Arthur Cinader, held most of the remainder. The brand Clifford & Wills was sold to Speigel, Inc. in 2000 with the intent to boost sales. In 2004, J.Crew bought the rights to the brand Madewell, a defunct workwear manufacturer founded in 1937, and used the name from 2006 onwards as "a modern-day interpretation", targeted at younger women than their main brand.