“The U.S. still tries to dumb down the message to make it as appealing as possible to as many people as possible,” says Tyler Brûlé, the founder of Monocle magazine and something of a branding obsessive. “In a very clever way, J.Crew has taken the customer up with them rather than going in the opposite direction.” This is a polite way of saying that Lyons has managed to elevate mall tastes to approach her own. “Look, it’s not a hard thing to be a tasteful designer and cater to a small community,” Sperduti says. “That’s an easy thing. For someone to bring a level of taste—to introduce large portions of our country to newer things, interesting notions—that’s the challenge. And she’s done that impeccably well.”
Here’s an experiment to try. Stand across the street from a J.Crew store and take a moment to survey the windows. More likely than not, you’ll recognize in the mannequins some of fashion’s archetypal forms: the aristocratically tweedy huntress, the cardiganed uptown girl, Holly Golightly, any number of Godard heroines. Move closer, however, and the impression skews. Wherever a look would seem to mimic its cultural referent too closely, some trick of styling swoops in to disrupt the cliché: The slim Jackie O. turtleneck is paired with a larksome faux-fur clutch or an Anna Karina trench with pumps the color of Fanta. None of these items is terribly exciting in its own right, or even recognizably J.Crew, but that is exactly the point. You can find a plain silk blouse at Urban Outfitters and cropped navy pants at Forever 21, but only J.Crew combines those items just so, with a leopard calf-hair pump and a skinny leather belt and the shirt in a perfectly executed half-tuck. Today’s good outfit follows the same principle as an addictively well-sourced Tumblr. It is less about sexiness (and label worship) than it is about a gestalt of sophistication, intelligence, and humor.
Most shoppers are not accustomed to asking so much from their clothes. Intricate fashion narratives have historically been the province of runway designers, not mass retailers. Under Drexler and Lyons, however, J.Crew has fudged that line and even reversed a familiar arc of influence. Among the more zeitgeisty designers, there were shades of Jenna Lyons throughout last year’s collections—more rarefied versions of clothes you could almost remember her having worn already. And this fall, the company will appear, for the first time, on the official Fashion Week calendar, presenting on a Tuesday morning before Vera Wang. Within the fashion industry, the outlook for the presentation is sunny. “Given their solid fan base among Fashion Week attendees,” wrote Izzy Grinspan at Racked, “we’re guessing their Lincoln Center audience will probably be packed.”
For a company at J.Crew’s scale and price point, industry cachet alone is like ore: monetizable only when correctly processed. Lyons’s modus operandi for fiddling with national tastes does not entail forcing weird things on a hesitant mainstream audience but instead teasing out the sensually appealing aspects of weird stuff in order to make it less weird. One example of this involves the J.Crew catalogue models, many of whom are fashion-industry favorites with heterodox faces—women like Liu Wen, Karmen Pedaru, and Arizona Muse, who regularly appear on couture runways and in editorials inspired by Flemish Old Masters. In J.Crew, they are given tousled hair, dewy cheeks, and boyfriend cardigans. The effect is unabashedly lovely. Unlike most catalogue models, however, they do not invoke the prettiest girl in your college class or office but, rather, a new kind of aspirational figure: the prettiest civilian on street-fashion blog the Sartorialist, maybe. Lyons’s recruitment of the Karmens and Arizonas may seem uncontroversial; like all models, they are young, slim, and symmetrical. Then again, how many mass retailers share mannequins with Karl Lagerfeld?
In 2009, the then–creative director was awarded a $1 million bonus. This piece of information was met, remarkably, without sour grapes from any corner. It was generally agreed that Lyons played an important role in the company’s strong sales and resilient performance despite a crummy retail climate (sales increased by 14 percent in 2009), but there were plenty of other reasons not to begrudge Lyons her fortune. For one thing, she is a conspicuously nice person; for another, her success—and its partner, her ambition—have always seemed the subsidiaries of her excellent taste. In her case, money doesn’t buy coolness but only enlarges existing opportunities to exercise it. Money buys a yoga teacher to come to the house on Monday nights, a 1969 Mercedes, and a wardrobe big enough to require its own room (with a fireplace). Money replaces the Radio Flyer wagon that has been stolen—twice—from in front of her home. The allure of Lyons’s look is only half grounded in luxury; the other half draws upon a permissive sense of dishabille. With her messy hair and casual cuffs, Lyons offers an appealing kind of modern compromise: You can have it all, because you don’t have to do it all perfectly.