It’s 8 p.m. on the last day of 2003, and I’m waiting for my cousin and his date to arrive at a party in Princeton, New Jersey. This ritual New Year’s bash, attended by a mix of finance types and my friends (their college-age children), is black-tie. I’ve emphasized the dress code to my cousin’s newish girlfriend—a self-identifying “Jersey Girl”—who shows up 20 minutes late in black stretch pants, a white shirt with a vertigo-inducing neckline, and a black knit scarf that hangs down past her knees. We’re standing in the driveway; my cousin shakes his head to let me know this battle has been fought and lost.
“Hey, Melissa,” I say, “it’s a little dressier in there.”
She gives me a pitying smirk and unwraps her scarf, savoring the moment. I’m having an experience best described by Bob Dylan: Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Melissa holds the scarf up to my face so I can read the words woven into the fabric, a kind of wool and polyester ticker tape: JuicyCoutureJuicyCoutureJuicyCouture.
“Um,” Melissa says, “so this is Juicy? I’ll be fine.”
I grew up in New Jersey, but not the New Jersey that springs immediately to mind. Princeton is devoutly preppie, and because my parents didn’t watch TV or read the tabloids, I never witnessed Britney’s Juicy Couture–clad Starbucks runs and psychotic episodes. Sartorially speaking, I’d led a pretty sheltered life up to that point.
So while “Juicy” means nothing to me, the power of this brand is immediately apparent. This scarf is a sartorial stopgap, a style bandage that, in theory, elevates everything it touches. Melissa feels fabulous—or at least comfortable enough to have sex in the master bathroom of someone else’s home and respond with righteous indignation when the hostess—in a vintage evening gown—dares to interrupt. I wondered, later, if that episode was a rebuke aimed to my implied critique of her outfit. I also wondered if Juicy made her do it.
The rise of Juicy Couture was mostly Madonna’s fault. The brand started as a maternity label in 1995, but two years later its founders switched gears, and sent their velour tracksuit to celebrities. And it was Madge who cottoned to the idea of declaring your ass “Juicy” and being photographed in the kind of clothes my Italian grandfather wouldn’t wear past the end of his driveway.
As Americans, we have a rich history of heritage workwear brands—ruggedly handsome clothes that telegraph a self-starting ethos and ability to get shit done. Juicy Couture was the antithesis of that. The clothes were both loud and lax; like a certain class of recent political hopefuls, they were long on noise but short on substance and structure. The voluminous velour track suits, a precursor to the Snuggie, sent a clear message: “I have disposable income but not enough bandwidth to pick out a bottom and a top.” Sales were driven by sex-tape stars who have since been marginalized or at least temporarily institutionalized, women who matched their Juicy to their Bentley.
Now that era seems to be finally ending. In 2014, the brand announced that they’d be closing all their U.S. stores to focus on the international market, which felt like a small domestic victory. The flagship Fifth Avenue store is gone, but an article in AM New York last month reported there’s still one boutique left in New York City. It’s in Terminal 4 of JFK International Airport, past the security checkpoint. The message is clear: Please take it with you. We’re better than this.