It all started with the yellow outfit -- the Pembridge dot pencil skirt, the Italian deco tank and the color-block cardigan. Michelle Obama wore them for an appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in October, revealing that she had purchased the items online from J.Crew.
The skirt, the shirt, the sweater -- all sold out in a matter of days.
It happened again in April when the first lady chose the crystal constellation cardigan and dazzling dots pencil skirt for a visit to 10 Downing Street in London. The sweater sold out by 10 a.m. East Coast time.
“Michelle Obama is the best thing that ever happened to J.Crew,” the New York Daily News announced.
But industry experts and fans of the label’s $88 pencil skirts and $78 beaded cardigans might nominate another candidate: Jenna Lyons.
Lyons is creative director for the brand that’s become the go-to for women who demand designer style (“custom tailored accents,” one fashion blogger noted) without designer prices. That title means she’s in charge of every design element of the company, website and catalog, and it’s her attention to detail -- delicate beading, raw edges, crepe de Chine ruffles -- that sets J.Crew apart from other mall stores. The company’s ability to be both aspirational and attainable has made it popular with Indianapolis career women and Birkin-toting Malibu trophy wives alike.
Lyons “is my fashion guru,” says Harpo Films President Kate Forte, who first contacted Lyons to help her select an outfit for the “Cadillac Records” movie premiere last year. “I was wearing Alexander McQueen, Chloe and Stella McCartney and spending tons and tons of money on it. Then last summer, I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’
“I have worn J.Crew to movie premieres and industry breakfasts and I still get the same compliments that I used to.”
Despite the retail rut, under Lyons’ creative direction the company has continued to expand -- including a new store in Malibu that features higher-end items produced in limited quantities -- and recently beat analysts’ expectations for the first quarter by reporting a 2% uptick in sales over the same time last year. Though the company’s profits fell 33%, the sales increase was enough to send stock shares up 18%.
Some of fashion’s biggest names have noticed. Derek Lam, the New York designer of opulent fur coats and delicate silk dresses and a classmate of Lyons’ at New York’s Parsons the New School for Design, understands her appeal.
“Jenna brings a fashion editor’s eye to an accessible brand,” he says.
Bloggers evaluate her personal as well as professional style, contributing to the budding cult of Jenna. They wax eloquently about her love of neutral colors, Sharpie pens and Maybelline Cool Watermelon lipstick. And they comment on “Jenna’s Picks,” a monthly report of the designer’s favorite pieces that is used online, in stores and in company catalogs. Shelter magazines have featured her Brooklyn brownstone, and her “favorite stuff” has been listed in Vanity Fair.
But praise in the blogosphere can’t guarantee a surge in sales of all those pencil skirts and cardigans. “Nobody needs another one-pocket tee or twin set or pleat-front skirt,” says Richard Jaffe, a retail analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus and Co. “Your closet is full of them.” The challenge for Lyons is to keep reinventing.
Lyons, the daughter of an insurance agent father and a stay-at-home mother, grew up in Palos Verdes and attended the Le Lycee Francais de Los Angeles and Rolling Hills High School. Even then, her own aesthetic was well-suited to J.Crew’s business of basics with a twist.
“I was a school uniform rebel,” she says, sporting her signature masculine-feminine look of a man’s blazer, cropped pants, thick black eyeglasses and a tangle of glittery necklaces. “I used to shorten my skirts way too much and alter my shirts to make them really tight. I would shorten the sleeves on my blazer and put cute buttons on my cashmere sweaters.”
Lyons spent summers working as a lifeguard and shopping on trendy Melrose Avenue. She frequented stores such as Circle Jerks and Black Fly, removing buttons and notions and sewing them onto other pieces. She also ordered clothes from J.Crew. “There was a rayon double chiffon tee that I had in every color.”
After she finished high school, she enrolled in a fashion program at Otis Parsons in L.A., transferring to the New York campus for her sophomore year. Her first job after graduation was as a design assistant at Donna Karan, but Lyons found it frustrating because she and her friends could not afford the clothes. In 1990, at age 21, she interviewed at J.Crew, which seven years earlier had launched as a mail-order business focusing on preppy clothes. “When I took the job [as a men’s knitwear designer] I forgot to ask what the salary was because I was so excited.”
But even after she switched to designing women’s garments, she didn’t want to wear most of the clothes in those early years. It was, she said, about selling, not about fashion. Merchandise managers “would give us a list beforehand that said they needed three $78 pants, six $58 sweaters and 10 $78 sweaters.”
Reviewing a stack of J.Crew catalogs from the 1990s, Lyons seems embarrassed. “Oh my God, I sketched this dress,” she says, looking at a sleeveless drop-waist olive green linen dress on the back of the spring 1993 catalog.
“That black-and-white tipped cardigan was a Jenna special,” she offers, pausing over a design from spring 1998. “And look, we even sold Peds!”
After a private equity firm bought a majority stake in the company in 1997, J.Crew went through three chief executives in five years. A new chapter began when Millard “Mickey” Drexler, newly ousted from the Gap, arrived as chairman and chief executive in January 2003.
The night before Drexler started in 2003, Lyons stayed up late researching him online. “I had just done a complete redo of the line six months before, and I knew I was going to have to do it all over again -- if I still had a job.”
The next morning, he held a meeting with the company’s senior merchants, designers and stylists to go through the fall collection piece by piece.
“Do you love it or hate it?” he asked Lyons, who was the head of women’s design reporting to another creative director at the time.
“It does $1 million but I hate it,” she said of a pair of run-of-the-mill stretch pants.
“Then throw them on the floor,” he replied.
The same thing happened with a “poodle” yarn turtleneck, a stiff leather jacket and other items.
“I had to be honest because I didn’t know what else to do,” she says.
Drexler then fired all of the senior level designers except for two, promoted Lyons, and charged her with filling in the holes in the collection.
Gayle Spannaus, J.Crew’s head women’s stylist, who styles all the catalog shoots, remembers that Drexler loved the outfit Lyons was wearing that day -- high heels and cargo pants. “He asked her, ‘Why don’t you design what you’re wearing?’ ”
The outfit’s juxtaposition of hard and soft, casual and dressed up, masculine and feminine, became the foundation for Lyons’ J.Crew.
A matching pair
The change was quick. J.Crew went from basic rugbys, drab workaday trouser skirts and silk shells to Liberty of London floral-print button-down shirts and silk Jacquard dresses “woven in the same style as the French haute couture.”
“What she does is an art and a science,” Drexler says.
Each season (spring, summer, fall, winter), it is Lyons’ job to come up with a design story. For this coming fall, she started with the idea of three women -- opera singer Maria Callas, actress Lauren Hutton and ‘60s-era socialite Slim Keith -- and imagined what it would be like if they shared one closet. The collection is an unexpected mix of pieces: a blush-colored tiered lace top worn with sporty rolled-up jeans, a gray feather skirt with a long navy boyfriend cardigan, gray wool houndstooth shorts with a ladylike coat with a jeweled collar.
Although she supervises a team of 25 women’s and 15 men’s designers, Lyons ultimately must approve thousands of pieces a year. She also oversees the catalog, website and store design.
Drexler doesn’t get involved with the initial collection concepts, Lyons says. “But that doesn’t mean along the way that he won’t call me and say, ‘I saw a girl wearing a cute fedora. Should we be doing fedoras?’ It’s a constant dialogue. He is not directing where we should go, but my BlackBerry is on fire all the time.”
The chief executive and the designer behave a little like a father-daughter team. Over lunch at Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, she tells him that “being back here even for one day, all my insecurities come back. Women here are in such great shape. Everyone is blond and beautiful. Girls are trying on bathing suits and coming out of the dressing rooms and I’m like, ‘Just stay in there!’ ”
On a shopping expedition at Fred Segal, he wants to show her a reversible men’s Junya Watanabe jacket -- navy on one side and gingham check on the other. Lyons tries it on as the salesman explains how it is really four jackets in one. “This is genius,” she says, her eyes wide. Drexler urges her to buy the $2,175 jacket on the company credit card. For research.
Lyons is passionate about fashion, and not just J.Crew. She had to convert a room in the Park Slope town house she shares with her artist husband Vincent Mazeau and their 2-year-old son Beckett into a closet to accommodate all her clothes. And one senses sometimes that she wishes she were designing loftier things.
No doubt that is why J.Crew launched its higher-priced Collection pieces such as $3,000 tortoise-colored sequin jackets (“I bought it and I paid full price,” the designer says), a $495 silk dupioni rosette dress and $395 snakeskin flats. Lyons is also working on expanding the company’s bridal wear, perhaps even opening bridal boutiques.
“Jenna’s head is in the clouds and Mickey’s feet are on the ground,” says Jaffe, the retail analyst. The high-end pieces are a small piece of the business, but “they have a halo effect.”
The same thing could be said of Michelle Obama.
J.Crew found itself in the spotlight again at the presidential inauguration when Obama accessorized her outfit with cashmere-lined green leather J.Crew gloves and daughters Malia and Sasha were dressed almost entirely in fashions from the retailer. (In October, versions of the girls’ coats and dresses will be available at Crewcuts stores and online.) When the Obama daughters arrived in Moscow a few days ago they wore trench coats and flats from J. Crew and Crewcuts.
“The items [Obama] wore did really well but J.Crew has thousands of items,” Jaffe says. “It’s more important to deliver on the promise that moment of publicity provides, to make sure that the Obama sweater isn’t the only sweater people find appealing, but that there are 20 more.”
So Jenna Lyons is undoubtedly looking for new sleeves to shorten, ruffles to add and new risks to take. Her BlackBerry will be on fire.