She’s the self-effacing president of J crew and one of the best examples of how to successfully climb the career ladder Stylist has ever seen. Susie Lau meets the undeniably inspiring Jenna Lyons...
It’s been nearly five years since ‘cardigan-gate’; the day in April 2009 when Michelle Obama stepped out in a cream-coloured ‘crystal constellation’ cardigan and started a knitwear riot. By 10am that day the $298 (£182) item had completely sold out online, sparked an impatient waiting list and garnered a million cries of “Who’s that brand?” It was, as we now well know, J Crew.
By that time, Jenna Lyons had been the brand’s creative director for two years, and while Obama is credited with contributing to one of the most successful rebranding campaigns ever* – the company’s shares rose by 8.2% when Obama made an earlier reference to her J Crew ensemble during an appearance on The Tonight Show in 2008 – J Crew has had more than the First Lady and embellishment in its armoury. Now on the schedule for New York Fashion Week, and with the launch of a UK flagship store, the brand is now the global go-to for bright colours and wearable separates. More than that, it also cannily sells a certain lifestyle to its customer; a unique sense of styling that travels from the mannequins in the window right through to Lyons herself.
Today, creative director and (since 2010) company president, Lyons has thrown Céline into her J Crew ensemble – an enviable mix of classic and quirk – and is quick to throw a compliment my way. “I love that you’re wearing kooky Sacai with classic Ferragamos – it shouldn’t work but it does!” We’re sat in J Crew’s flagship Regent Street store, right near the shoes, drinking tea and being offered macarons by a waiter (not normally available for shoppers, in case you’re wondering). “God, what are you doing to me?” she says as a macaron is proffered her way. She doesn’t take one.
Despite her status – J Crew currently has a revenue nearing $2 billion dollars – Lyons is not the intimidating president some might expect, constantly peppering her rapid-fire speech with “I don’t know…” or “Gosh…” Her career and her unique look – she is six foot tall, with signature black-rimmed glasses and an eclectic sense of style – have made her someone that many aspire to follow, even leading to a cameo role in Girls (she’s playing Lena Dunham’s boss in one episode). But Lyons is clearly not someone who was born with that take-it-for-granted self confidence. “I was super tall at a young age and pretty gawky,” she says of her childhood. “Women’s clothes didn’t really make sense for me. I had a really hard time finding clothes. I found myself in this weird and awkward place.” Instead of remaining in that awkward place, Lyons took a home economics class and learned to sew and make her own clothes. “I remember going to school and it was the first time anybody paid attention to the way I looked,” she laughs. “People would ask, ‘Oh where did you get that skirt?’ and I’d say, ‘I made it.’ It was an unusual experience that a) people thought I looked nice and that b) they wanted something I made. I was excited about that.”
A Vogue subscription from her grandmother elevated her burgeoning passion. “What was interesting to me was that the thing that I was so drawn to was the place that I felt most excluded from. I didn’t feel cool or attractive and yet I was so drawn to fashion. It’s a hard thing to reconcile.”
Having felt the allure of fashion as a way of overcoming teenage insecurities too, I find myself nodding. It also explains a lot. Lyons’ candour obviously accounts for both her own self-effacing manner and J Crew’s democratic appeal. With a CEO who knows what it’s like to be excluded, the brand takes care to ensure its clothes cater for everyone.
“I remember getting an incredible letter years ago from a woman who was a stem cell research scientist,” she recalls fondly. “She had to give a talk and she had never spoken in public before. She was incredibly nervous. She had gone to J Crew to get an outfit for her talk… On the way up to the podium, three people told her how fantastic she looked. That to me is what it’s all about. That person, whose life focus is somewhere else and [who is] doing something bigger than fashion… in that moment, you’re making her feel good and special and that’s just as important to me as Michelle Obama wearing the clothes. It’s more meaningful because I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. I did not feel comfortable in the way I looked and dressed. I can relate to that feeling.”
Following a fashion design course at Parson’s School of Design in New York, Lyons’ first job, aged 21, was as the assistant of an assistant, sitting in a hallway without a desk. The company? J Crew. A preppy mail order company with catalogue shots of Linda Evangelista in chinos and sweaters, Lyons’ career grew with the brand; from womenswear designer to executive creative director under CEO Mickey Drexler, to present day. “J Crew today and back then are almost two different entities,” she says.
She thinks of her team as family. “The sort of people I’m attracted to are like the strange little kids in the playground,” she laughs. “There’s a unique personality. They often have deep obsessions and that shows a rich sense of curiosity, not because they want to further their career or their job but just because they want to further their own minds. I’m really attracted to that.”
She scoffs at the idea of ‘managing’ her team because she largely leaves them to their own devices. “I believe in hiring people who are more talented than I am and smarter than I am,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time I had to have a ‘conversation’ with people. It’s incredibly rare.” Nor does she think a woman’s success should be applauded because of her gender. “It feels odd that there’s this expectation you might not do well because you’re a woman. People have come up to me and said, ‘It’s so great to see a woman doing so well!’ It’s like you’re doing well, in spite of yourself. I look forward to the day when gender isn’t talked about.”
As for her own success, Lyons puts it down to her desire to want to do better, as opposed to cut-throat ambition. “I’m less inclined to give promotions and raises to people who constantly ask for it: ‘Hey, I’ve been here a while, don’t you think I should get a raise or promoted?’ And I think, ‘Time has nothing to do with it. You want to get promoted? Do your job bigger. Think about everything you’re doing and do the best you can.’ That’s the thing that gets you to the next level. When you enjoy what you do, you’re probably nice, you’re probably thoughtful, you’re probably listening to other people’s ideas, you’re probably thinking outside the box because you want to make things better – you end up doing the things to get you to that level without even realising it’s happening.”
I depart from our chat on this rousing note, inspired by Lyons’ ‘be nice, work hard’ ethos that’s often undervalued in an age of expected instant success (and secretly chuffed that Jenna Lyons liked my outfit). Most refreshing of all is Lyons’ transparency. “I feel really fortunate to be in my position. I didn’t go to a fancy college or get a fancy degree [but] for some insane reason, which I still sometimes pinch myself about, I’m graced with the title of being president of a $2 billion company. I never expected that.”