The Lyons eye helps shape J.Crew’s look
Leading lady has made the quirky accessible
It’s all very well steering an international fashion chain by using your personal esthetic as a compass and being cited as one of the world’s most influential tastemakers. But it was when Jenna Lyons began seeing pictures of her friend’s children dressed up as her for Halloween that she knew her style had become part of popular culture.
The creative director and president of J.Crew does have a distinctive look: boy meets girlie, with those supersize-me spectacles that have now become so mainstream she thinks she may have to rethink that detail. Not that she’s precious about her style.
“I’m deeply flattered if anyone wants to reference it. It’s not as if I haven’t referenced others. We’re all composites, I think.”
And not because she likes to think too much about her style, “because when I do, I tend to over-think. That’s when I make mistakes.”
The Halloween honour is quite misleading, actually. There’s nothing camp about the essentials of Lyons’s look — trousers (“I’m six feet — I don’t look good in skirts”), blazers, boyfriend cardigans and a killer heel. True to form, when we meet, she’s in Prince of Wales trousers (nabbed from J.Crew’s menswear department, taken in and up so that they show plenty of bare ankle), a jewelled buttoned-up shirt, a ginger-coloured menswear cardigan and gorgeous strappy heels with perforated leather detailing, a trophy from a recent collaboration J.Crew did with British shoe designer Sophia Webster.
It sounds as though she always dressed in a version of this, although she claims that growing up in a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles in the late ’70s deprived her of any meaningful fashion mentors.
“There was nothing like the awareness or interest in style that there is now. By the time I was a student my look was very much, ‘broke girl only just managing to make the rent and largely wearing sweats.’ ”
That was probably a positive. It meant she had to figure out what suited her for herself — not easy when you’re boy height.
But by her teens she’d learned to shop in the boys department and get everything taken in. So when her preppy grandmother started sending her clothes from the East Coast, she was already “doing that boy-girl-surfer thing.”
There would be Brooks Brothers blazers, mixed with short pleated skirts and surfer shorts. These days she’s more likely to express that fusion by wearing an ultraglamorous feathered and beaded skirt with a man’s cashmere V-neck to a red-carpet event.
But by and large, the Lyons Look has always been the same equation, with different numbers. It’s the formula of J.Crew’s phenomenal appeal across classes and nationalities: a little bit vintage, a little print, lots of layers and a ton of aspiration.
Even when J.Crew was still primarily a purveyor of chinos, it appealed to Lyons because, she says, “It always had high production values. It would shoot its catalogue using Christy Turlington, and although it looked very different from the way it does now, it didn’t compromise.”
In those days, it was run by Emily Cinader, whose father owned it. Cinader was model-gorgeous, talented and abrasive. Lyons shares the first two qualities, but is softly spoken. Mostly she says she doesn’t have to talk that much at work because the team has learned to speak the same language.
She joined J.Crew more than two decades ago after a stint at Donna Karan, when she was barely out of New York’s Parsons School of Design. At J.Crew, she was “assistant to the assistant to the person in charge of rugby shirts … I agonized over those stripes,” she laughs.
She’d worked her way up to head of womenswear by the time Mickey Drexler arrived as CEO. Drexler had worked miracles at Gap in the ’90s and subsequently did the same at J.Crew, supercharging Lyons’s career in the process.
“The amazing thing about working with Mickey was seeing how little changes he effected could make a huge difference,” she says. “For instance, he told the design team that we shouldn’t listen to the buyers when they told us we had to fill certain price categories or tried to influence how something should look. He told us to just design the best product we could and they’d work out the pricing.”
J.Crew is anything but cheap, but it is interesting, eclectic and although most of it sells for less than designer prices, you rarely feel you’re slumming it. Like Lyons’s own style, Crew’s recipe is trend conscious rather than trend focused.
Ultimately it’s the Lyons eye that makes the difference. She can spot a phoney or banal detail at 50 paces. That’s innate. What’s universal is the way she’s made the quirky accessible. That’s more than innate. That’s clever.
Jenna Lyons, creative director and head of J.Crew and its public face, exemplifies the company’s distinctive esthetic.