THERE IS SOMETHING CHURCHLIKE about the J. Crew store that opened in May in Dallas’ NorthPark Center, something solemn and reverent, as if the store had been designed by a Shaker splinter group. Shoppers accustomed to the aristocratic fun of the ubiquitous J. Crew catalog—photo after photo of those handsome, impeccably proportioned couples wearing windbreakers and chinos at the shore—will find a different aura here. Studied simplicity is the rule, from the burnished wood floors and the (darker) burnished wood shelves to the clothes themselves, folded with decorous precision or hung precisely in the clutterless windows. It’s a stark contrast to the razzmatazz of Barneys, right across the mall, but in the ongoing fashion wars for the hearts and pocketbooks of the nation’s consumers, J. Crew displays the understated cool of a winner. The store resembles nothing less than a chapel of worship for the fashions of the nineties.

Such an atmosphere is fitting, because J. Crew’s customers are nothing less than true believers. Simplicity sells, bringing revenues of around $200 million last year to the ten-year-old, mostly mail-order business, which in the last few years opened a retail division. Seemingly, lots and lots of people want to live the J. Crew life, which means that they want to buy classic American casual wear—“broken-in chinos,” “vintage workshirts,” or the “J. Crew barn jacket,” in company parlance—at reasonable prices.

They also want to buy the J. Crew fantasy, as portrayed in catalogs dispatched to frequent buyers almost every month. Within those pages are pictures of alluring people doing all sorts of outdoorsy but tasteful things, from kayaking to sipping café au lait. J. Crew people, it barely needs to be said, do not get stuck in overheated cars on the freeway, nor do they drag screaming children through Target. Their lives are relaxed, cozy, and very pretty; they look like people that yuppies would kill to hang out with.

J. Crew is not the only purveyor of this vision of the world, of course. Walk through any upper-end suburban mall and you see essentially the same clothes, marketed the same way, at places like the Gap, Banana Republic, and the sportswear sections of all the major department stores. The fantasies employed to sell these garments may differ slightly. The Gap urges buyers to be as hip and as individualistic as teen idol Luke Perry (customize your own denim shirt by cutting off the sleeves!), while Banana Republic, whose stores look a little like lost sets from The African Queen, suggests that customers find themselves by traveling back to a more gracious and adventurous era. Still, the style they all promote is basically “Brooks Brothers meets L. L. Bean,” the weekend wear of the American upper class, goosed up and then manufactured and marketed for the middle and upper-middle class.

Every establishment presents a semi-androgynous stock of denim and cotton shirts, cotton sweaters, jeans, and slacks. (The least appealing of them is the overdone A/X line from Giorgio Armani; it’s as if the Italian master of precision couldn’t really grasp Americans’ unwavering devotion to sloppiness.) Most items cost less than $100, and many are around $35. Natural fibers predominate, as does a worn, shapeless look that used to take years to achieve—that sentimental patina of faded colors and soft fabrics. If the eighties were dominated by French designers who made horrifically expensive ball gowns for the wives of corporate raiders, the nineties feature survivor wear for diminished expectations and a tightened economy. Today’s clothes must be affordable, because fewer people can throw money away on clothes, and enduring, because fewer people can throw money away on clothes. Even so, these ensembles must have some cachet, which is why the weekend clothing of the American gentry fits the bill so nicely. The stuff looks good year after year, doesn’t cost a fortune, and evokes good breeding and good taste. In other words, you can still fake it.

No business embodies, promotes, and profits from such New Age striving better than J. Crew. Social pretensions haven’t exactly gone underground: “It’s younger, hipper, richer, better-schooled,” one fan said in distinguishing J. Crew from the Gap, Lands’ End, L. L. Bean, et al. “You can look at a person and say, ‘J. Crew’ or ‘not J. Crew.’” Even better for the upwardly mobile, the stock really is slightly more expensive—and slightly more sophisticated—than the competition’s. But more important, these clothes are hip and stuffy at the same time.

The company’s president and chief designer, Emily Cinader Woods, has made no secret of her devotion to Calvin Klein, the designer who elevated American sportswear to its current exalted position. His influence can be seen in everything from the interior of the Dallas store to the catalog photography and the elegant sweetness of the sweater sets. It has been noted before that the catalogs (and now the stores) not only teach people how to dress but also how to live—the casually sexy Klein seems a much more appropriate high priest for this generation of shoppers than, say, the earnestly nostalgic Ralph Lauren.

Even so, confronting the differences between shopping the J. Crew catalog and shopping the J. Crew store is much like confronting the differences between, well, fantasy and reality. The Dallas store is one of only ten in the country, so it provides a gloss of exclusivity that the catalogs lack (60 percent of the items are unique to the stores). At the same time, though, those beautiful people who lead such leisurely lives in the catalogs are not in evidence in the store. (When you see the salespeople decked out in head-to-toe J. Crew, they don’t look like they’ve been in the Hamptons; they look like they go to SMU.) Then, too, the privacy of the catalog makes it easy for a shopper to pretend that she is one of those tall,

thin, sun-kissed people who look equally great in a blazer, baggy shorts, or a bikini; under the harsh lights of the store’s small dressing rooms, however, such illusions are much harder to conjure up and maintain.

On the other hand, to see the clothes naked, without assistance from the catalog’s photographers and stylists, is enlightening. Some items hold up brilliantly: the sensible women’s bathing suits, whose tops and bottoms can be purchased separately; the delicate cardigans and the tough-but-tender polo shirts; the deceptively simple palettes that in Texas could work almost year-round (this season’s choices include some particularly pretty shades of brown). There are pleasant surprises. A lovely silk shirtdress that appears to have a flowing skirt in the catalog is actually, without the aid of an electric fan, stylishly severe. Almost half of what you see in the catalog is here: the jaunty boxer shorts, the sunglasses, the belts, the conservative and conservatively priced (around $36) silk ties that would probably satisfy any Dallas banker. It is fun, after years of catalog shopping, to be able to try on items with abandon.

But the store also exposes J. Crew’s weaknesses, a genuine, if accidental, service to the consumer. Yes, these clothes don’t really have to fit very well to succeed, but sometimes the cotton sweater that looks so comfortable in the catalog looks merely shapeless on the body. Sometimes the clothes are cheaper because they aren’t well made. Yet spotting the puckered seam or the mangled elastic waistband in the store is so much better than spying it in the box, which necessitates a return trip to the post office. The larger truth is that the higher up the fashion food chain these clothes go—as they attempt to encroach on designer territory—the less successful they are. The same yuppies who willingly shell out $36 for an “oatmeal heather” sweatshirt balk at paying more than $250 for a gabardine suit with a too-short jacket (unflattering) and a too-short skirt (impractical). At that price, customers have many more options—including the sale racks across the mall at Barneys and Neiman’s, not to mention other chains like the Limited, Ann Taylor, or even Brooks Brothers. That long-standing J. Crew loyalty could get lost in the company’s own quest for upward mobility.

Probably not anytime soon, though. Competitors may carp about J. Crew’s single-minded devotion to American classics—“Wake us when it’s over,” gripe the ads for one flashy, fanatically trendy New York store. But shoppers who can’t afford to replace their wardrobes seasonally might just find that J. Crew is the answer to their prayers.