The J in J.Crew

Jenna Lyons is physically demonstrative. If the creative director and president of J.Crew is baffled by a suggestion, she’ll make a baffled face. If she is shocked by the price of a Hans Wegner chair, she’ll pantomime a backward stagger. When a knit dress strikes her as drab, she’ll enunciate the word argh. Lyons is discerning, but she’s also six-foot-five in heels, and the fact that there’s an awful lot of her means that even the subtlest expressions come across loud and clear.

This trait surfaces during a recent five-hour meeting to plot out a couple of J.Crew children’s catalogues. A dozen employees are gathered to discuss neon leggings, polka dots, and the problem of photographing kids’ pants without resorting to—as Lyons puts it, grimacing—a “crotch shot of a child.” The meeting moves swiftly, with small talk, interruptions, and problem-solving all blending into a kind of shorthand made possible by the fact that J.Crew employees appear to live, breathe, and dream J.Crew. “Mickey’s really excited about leggings,” the senior designer Jenny Cooper tells Lyons, referring to Millard “Mickey” Drexler, the company’s chairman and CEO. “I e-mailed you about that—or did I dream that I e-mailed it to you?” Lyons checks her phone to find out.

Next up: clogs. The group pools around a table laden with teensy samples, prodding at the shoes and raising the question of when children can start wearing them. Four and a half years old is the consensus, though Lyons points out that “it’s not the best acoustical situation on a hardwood floor,” then mimics the sound of a child thundering about in hard-soled shoes. Onward to dresses, which are presented rapidly in groups of three. At the sight of one trio, Lyons tilts her head and says, “Solid and solid and solid. It just gets locked in. It needs—”

“—a little novelty to freshen it up,” finishes an employee. Yes, precisely. Employees not only complete each other’s sentences, and sometimes their boss’s sentences; they also dress alike, in stripes, sandals, and neutrals daubed with bursts of color. Both the groupspeak and groupdress suggest that Lyons has, at least in an operational sense, trained her employees to think like her. “Let’s put a sparkly shoe with this,” she says, holding a white cotton dress flush against her body. “It’ll make the dress more of an idea as opposed to …” The thought goes unfinished. In addition to speaking in fragments, Lyons tends to evaluate clothing in abstract rather than visual terms—items need to be “engaging” or “elevated”—and she speaks in a collage of overlapping sentences. The same aesthetic extends to her office, which is a scrapbook in three dimensions: skirts, Sharpies, drawings, Lucian Freud and Egon Schiele books, a Céline bag, a sweating Starbucks iced coffee, and an entire wall of magazine cutouts and notes from the artist Tom Sachs. (“Dear Jenna, Thank you for the meatloaf sandwich. Love, Tom Sachs.”)

At another meeting, this one for the forthcoming fall catalogue for adults, Lyons sits two chairs to the left of her boss, wearing cream-colored jeans and a blue seersucker men’s shirt unbuttoned to several inches below her sternum. Drexler eyes his second-in-command between bites of a toasted bialy, then poses a question to the group of twenty executives: “How do we get more women to wear men’s shirts, like Jenna is wearing?”

“Show ’em a picture of Jenna,” someone says. This is a joke, but it’s also the right answer, and it hints at the power that Lyons has come to wield over the aspirations of young and youngish women. (A second hint: “Jenna Lyons girl crush” brings up half a million Google hits.) “Everyone from industry professionals to the younger generation of bloggers is crazy about her sense of style,” says Nina Garcia, the fashion director at Marie Claire. “Jenna has mastered the art of the high-low mix.”

The first thing you notice about Lyons—after her height—is that she doesn’t look much like anyone else in fashion. She has an emphatic jaw, flower-bud mouth, and warm eyes. Unlike many of the J.Crew employees’ dark tans, hers looks incidental, not cosmetic, and the overall effect is of a woman who knows the might of her presence and handles it carefully. This is an honest stance but also a complicated one, as I learn when Lyons casually mentions that all her teeth are fake. “I’m not at all shy about it,” she says of a genetic disease called incontinentia pigmenti. “I have quite a few scars on my skin, my teeth are conical”—hence the dentures—“and I have huge bald spots on my hair that are mostly closed up, but they’re still there.”

On the day I first met her, Lyons wore a loud combination of neon-pink T-shirt, color-blocked Céline skirt, and a dozen mismatched bangles. In navy Manolo Blahnik heels, she was taller than Dwyane Wade. It worked, somehow, just as her feathered skirts, gold sequined pants, and Henry Kissinger glasses somehow work. Where feathers and sequins meet J.Crew is largely a matter of styling, and though Lyons dislikes the word preppy, her choices always invoke the core prep values of ease, cleanliness, and conservatism. If her company has always prized a kind of sartorial comfort—nothing too tight, too short, too synthetic—then Lyons, with her bare face and occasional bralessness, is what happens when comfort meets chic.

The same goes for her Park Slope townhouse, which is a merry (but careful) assemblage of fur throws, drooping roses, and worn staircases. Her environs, as well as Lyons’s husband and son, have been heavily photographed—or, less charitably, branded—by J.Crew since 2008, when the company introduced the “Jenna’s Picks” feature in its catalogue and on its website. Jenna’s Picks, which collects her favorite items from J.Crew and beyond, now comes out fourteen times a year to the ardent scrutiny of blogs like I Love J.Crew and J.CrewAholics, and points of contact between Lyons and J.Crew customers have quickly multiplied. She has given Oprah a tour of her closet, shared style tips with Lucky, Glamour, Details, and InStyle, and appeared on the cover of the late Domino magazine. (“Every girl I know has saved that issue,” says Anthony Sperduti, a co-founder of the store-cum-advertising agency Partners & Spade and a friend of Lyons’s.) At this point, she has shared with customers her favorite ice-cream sandwich, lip color, bangle, spectator pump, notebook, bikini, statement necklace, diaper bag, and distressed sneaker. “I can’t tell you the amount of women for whom Jenna invariably comes up in conversation,” Sperduti says. “I don’t know that many designers in her role that you could say the same thing about. Not from a company of that scale.”

An unexpected measure of Lyons’s celebrity was taken this April when a catalogue photo of Lyons and her son, Beckett, ignited a scandal nicknamed Toemaggedon by Jon Stewart. The project began innocently enough, when J.Crew’s catalogue director asked Lyons if she would document her weekend with a few snapshots for a “Saturday With Jenna” weekendwear promotion. Lyons recruited her husband, the artist Vincent Mazeau, to take some photos: a toasted English muffin, comfy moccasins, the New York Times, and Lyons painting Beckett’s toenails neon pink. The toenail image, with all the liberal gender-bending it implied, immediately popped up on the network news shows, and Fox News’ website featured an anti-Lyons piece advancing vaguely eugenicist notions. (“Why not make race the next frontier?” wrote Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and Fox News contributor, referring to the identity crisis Lyons had apparently exposed her son to. “What would be so wrong with people deciding to tattoo themselves dark brown and claim African-American heritage?”) On The Daily Show, Stewart upbraided the newscasters for treating the photograph as though it were “a story about incest or cannibalism.”

Lyons found out about the clamor through a J.Crew Google alert. Neither she nor the company chose to comment. “It was about sweatpants and moccasins and reading the paper,” she says. “And that’s what we were doing: I was painting my nails and Beckett wanted his nails painted, too. I’m not surprised that he was interested in what I was doing. My God, my toes went from white to hot pink—it was very exciting.”

Not a political statement, maybe, but Lyons’s inclusion of her child in the catalogue, along with her slippers and breakfast, is precisely the kind of statement that makes her appealing to an audience looking for personalized, customizable fashion. “You can be running one of the biggest fashion retailers in America, but at the same time, you want it to feel tangible and touchable,” says Mark Holgate, fashion-news director at Vogue. “You want people to connect with it.” Her style, he says, is “nuanced, personal, layered, a little vintage. With the rise of the eBay generation, people are interested in making a statement with things that feel personal rather than just new.” Lyons, he says, “understands how to bring together the fashion impulse with the sense of lifestyle.”

This is not a role that Lyons will readily admit to, and when I bring up a word that is often applied to her, she expresses a shuddering distaste. “My goal is not to be a tastemaker,” she says. “It has never been that. I don’t consider myself that at all. The idea that you can make taste or influence someone’s taste is a very precarious and overly presumptuous concept.” But isn’t that, in large part, what she is paid to do? Lyons frowns. “Hubris is not so cute.”

At 43 years old, Lyons has split her life almost evenly between New York, where she moved in 1987 to attend Parsons, and Palos Verdes, California, where she grew up. Adolescence was the iffy experience you’d expect for a beanpole with a severe cutaneous condition. Two good things, however, happened in seventh grade: Lyons took a home-economics class and learned to sew, and her grandmother gave her a subscription to Vogue. The first issue that arrived, in 1982, featured a blushing Isabella Rossellini on the cover and an Issey Miyake spread inside. It did not take Lyons long to memorize every price, designer’s name, stylist, and model in the magazine. “I knew mastheads. I would read them cover to cover, and then I would go back and read them again. They were dog-eared,” she says. Squishes of face cream, Borghese lipsticks, tweedy clothes that must have weighed a hundred pounds: The ads and editorials of those first Vogues are catalogued neatly in Lyons’s mind, and less neatly in leaning towers around her office.

It was during this period that Lyons sewed her first piece of clothing, a yellow rayon skirt printed with jumbo watermelons. Long, liquid, and cut on the bias, with an elastic waistband and a hand-stitched hem, the skirt turned out to be an epochal piece of rayon. It fit the preteen’s Gumby proportions, it wasn’t from the big-and-tall section of the store, and the coolest girl in school, Dana Peterson, told Lyons that she liked it. “When I put the skirt on, I looked like a totally different person,” she remembers. By the time she got to high school, Lyons was sewing with whatever she could scrounge up from the fabric store in Palos Verdes: calicos in ditzy florals, quilting fabrics. When she moved to New York in the late eighties, the spoils of the city had a talismanic effect. A four-ply silk crêpe at B&J Fabrics, Lyons says, almost brought her to her knees.

“I can’t tell you the amount of women for whom Jenna invariably comes up in conversation.”

J.Crew was a small company in 1990, when Lyons went in for an interview. The brand styled itself as an energetic all-American label that was neither Talbots nor Ralph Lauren nor L.L. Bean. “J.Crew was the life that you could have,” Lyons says. “It was about hanging out. There was no price of entry. You might have a house in Maine on the beach, but you didn’t have a yacht and twelve horses.” For a brand that specialized in unisex wardrobe essentials, it also managed to be slightly hip: People like Ingrid Sischy wore J.Crew, and the company advertised in Spy magazine.

There was no job for Lyons when she interviewed, but the head of recruiting made an unusual request: “She asked if she could have Xeroxes of my portfolio, which is kind of unorthodox,” Lyons says. “But I trusted her.” In the meantime, she moved back home, donned a white polyester polo shirt, and went to work as a waitress. At the end of the summer, J.Crew called Lyons back to New York to meet with someone in men’s knits. She auditioned with a set of eight sketches that were Fed­Exed to Emily Woods, J.Crew’s co-founder, in California. Woods, enthused by the sketches, requested that Lyons fly back and meet with her at home, where she offered the young graduate a job on the spot. Lyons accepted without asking what her salary would be.

By the early 2000s, the brand had foundered. Boxy acrylic cardigans shared catalogue space with poly-cotton sleepwear and chinos lined in flannel. There were stretch velvet pants and sueded football jerseys, and zip-cardigans in a pattern that looked like bathroom tile. Four CEOs had cycled through in five years. The company’s credit rating was cut, profits faded, and morale was low enough that Lyons can only describe the time in battle metaphors. “We were lost soldiers—working away, following orders,” she says. “I was shell-shocked and burned from what was going on. Fried.” There was the prevailing sense, internally, that things could not possibly get worse.

On a Sunday night in January 2003, Lyons received a call from the company’s then-CEO explaining that he was out and Mickey Drexler would be in charge of J.Crew starting at eight the following morning. “I spent the whole night online reading about Mickey and having a panic attack,” Lyons remembers. On Monday, the new boss corralled his team and informed them that they would all, in effect, be interviewing for their jobs. He did not mince words. Stores would be redesigned, old inventory disposed of. Within three months, all but two executives had been fired.

“Mickey was the best thing since sliced bread,” Lyons says. “I loved him from the minute he walked in the door.” It went both ways. Drexler intuited her coolness, asked diagnostic questions, attended closely to the answers, and figured out what the action was. “There’s a certain antenna you develop in evaluating people,” Drexler says. “Especially in an urgent environment. And with Jenna, I felt it, I saw how she thought, I saw the aesthetic. It’s a gut instinct.” Drexler allowed Lyons to prune the line, snipping away offensive but lucrative items: a hairy poodle sweater, a stretch chino, a “weird, drapey” cardigan. In place of those garments, Lyons brought in trim, tailored jackets in Italian wool and design collaborations with high-fashion names like Prabal Gurung and Dana Lorenz.

“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

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.

The J in J.Crew