J.Crew’s Jenna Lyons Talks Picks, Preps, And The Art Of Personal Connection
Since taking over as creative director, J.Crew’s Jenna Lyons has helped grow the brand into that rare creation: a multimillion-dollar mass retailer with serious fashion cred. It’s not just her staffers who follow her lead—”Jenna’s Picks” have converted legions of shoppers to her mix-and-match sensibility. We caught up with Lyons a couple times zones away from (and several thousand feet above) her New York home base during Aspen fashion week, where she was spending a few days checking out new outerwear collections and the brand’s Aspen boutique.
What’s something you’ve seen lately, outside the fashion world, that’s been inspiring?
Probably the Marina Abramovic show at MoMA. So much of the world today is getting less personalized, and I thought it was interesting that she chose actually to be physically there for the length of the show, connecting with her audience.
How important is it for a big fashion brand to have that kind of connection with consumers?
It’s a necessity right now. We’ve been talking a lot internally about how we can run a large company but find ways to form relationships with people. There isn’t much loyalty anymore, so how do you make people feel like they’re part of something? I want people to trust “Jenna’s Picks,” and I think they respond to it because they’re looking for help editing: There’s so much noise, so many things to look at now. People say, do you really pick them? Absolutely! Once in a while I’ll have a merchant come and say, can you put this on your picks? I’m like, no.
Why carry non-J.Crew brands in your stores?
It goes back to editing, and also appreciation of quality. The Red Wing boot—they do it well, they do it in America. Why try and re-create it? Some things are amazing the way they are. Alden shoes, Sperry Top-Siders. We love that you’re buying our Ludlow suit, but we want you to have the option of the best possible shoe out there. They come with tons of history and brand integrity that we might not be able to offer in shoes.
What manufacturers do you have your eye on next?
We haven’t closed the deals on some of these, but we are looking into beauty. We’ve just seen an insatiable appetite for nail polish, so we’re looking at other things we can do for women. Women want candy. Someone else said this: “Ask a woman what her favorite thing in her closet is, and she’ll pick the thing she bought yesterday; ask a man, and he’ll pick the thing he bought 40 years ago.” So for men’s, we’re looking into heritage pieces. One is an old coat factory, and one is another American classic shoemaker. What we’d really like to do, especially for women’s, is a shoe collaboration where we maybe go to someone like Manolo Blahnik or Christian Louboutin. Gap did a great job doing that with Pierre Hardy, I thought. Women’s is just harder. Would I love to sell Chanel bags? Sure. Would they let us? No.
Let’s talk about your history at J.Crew. You’ve been with the company for 20 years, and your first designs there were men’s knitwear.
I was an assistant to someone’s assistant. I sat out in the hallway and I barely had a desk. My first day was hilarious. But one of the benefits of having started at the bottom is that I’m not afraid to push the brand. I’ve seen so much change, and I feel like I truly know where the brand came from. To me, it’s about evolving slowly. Remember when St. John tried to go sexy all at once, with Angelina Jolie? They lost half their customer base. I also have a lot of experience understanding what it’s like to work in all those different departments, on those different teams. They can say, ‘Oh, I don’t think we can do that,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, yes we can.’ I’ve done it!
It’s rare to see a talented designer stick with one company for so long.
Looking back on it, there was a time that was sort of rough. I was not sure I was going to stay. It’s funny, because you say “the same company,” and in a weird way it’s kind of not. One of the things I’ve learned is that leadership is everything. I was there when Emily [Woods] was running it and it was a mom-and-pop company. It was really small and intimate, and that was amazing. But then we needed certain things to get us to another level, and had a totally different group managing us. Then we had another man managing us who came from frozen food. Those were dark times.
I’ve noticed that you and [J.Crew CEO] Mickey Drexler allow items to sell out. Why?
The problem of ubiquity—everything is everywhere. You can go to Amazon and get six different versions of the same thing at six different prices. We are very fortunate that we’re not wholesalers. I mean, we are selling to Net-a-Porter, but that’s slightly different because it’s international, which we’re not, currently. But we have a dress in the store here [in Aspen] that’s made out of leather sequins. It’s $2,000 and each sequin is cut by hand. We don’t want that to be hanging on the rack three months from now. There are only eight of them, and we never had that dress online. We’re not doing that to make money. We’re doing it to add a layer of interest, to give people the opportunity to be surprised. It’s so hard to be surprised anymore.
“Preppy” style is often mentioned in the same breath as J.Crew. Is today’s preppy different from yesterday’s?
I have a hard time with the word “preppy.” To me, it’s a way of styling. Classic things mixed a certain way—especially special color combinations—look very preppy. We still have the same pieces: polo shirts, khakis, a great classic blazer, a beautiful white shirt. But what we’ve been trying to do is change the way things are presented. Maybe that little cargo jacket that we would have shown ten years ago with a polo shirt we’re now showing with a little sequin top and high heels. And the thing about preppy is it can be alienating to some people. It’s very coastal and it leaves out a lot of Americans who aren’t yachting or going to the beach club.
Michelle Obama has given you a big boost. Do you wish affordable fashion had more spokespeople like her?
There are very few people that hold the country’s attention the way she does. I don’t think anyone ever noticed what Hillary Clinton wore, or necessarily cared. I love that [Michelle Obama] wore an Alaïa dress with a J.Crew cardigan and Jimmy Choo shoes. And she shops her closet. I’ll notice sometimes she’s worn something of ours and then it’ll be altered—she’s actually had it changed, which I think is kind of amazing—and she’ll wear it completely differently. It says a lot about what works today. And she took a lot of flak for those $500 Lanvin tennis shoes, but I love that she wore those.
What do you think about top designers making “affordable” lines for mass retailers?
What I appreciate about it is someone like Rodarte or Proenza Schouler maybe gets more mindshare from people who might not have known who they are. But I think it’s a little flash-in-the-pan, and the quality, a lot of times, is really not great. That, to me, is for the young little fashion girl who’s obsessed with Proenza and Rodarte and who can’t afford it. For someone who just wants to look good on a day-to-day basis, it’s not a strategy for how to dress.
With the economy, a lot of people have had to do extra strategizing lately.
We’re really watching the opening price points. It doesn’t mean we’re vacating some of the more expensive pieces—we’re just making sure they’re in the right places. New York isn’t necessarily feeling it as much, in terms of our customer base. But other parts of the country are, so we’re just really conscious about how we’re distributing the clothes.
What’s your definition of affordable luxury?
We’ve been working with Loro Piana and some of our Japanese mills to buy bigger bulk so that we can give better pricing. We just worked on a suit that’s Loro Piana quality and under $600. I’m not saying we’re the only ones who are doing it, but that, to me, is affordable luxury.