American classics for all: Jenna Lyons on J.Crew finally going global
For years, J.Crew was known as the company that produced the affordably priced, wear-anywhere clothes that everyone coveted, but only Americans could actually buy. Thanks to Michelle Obama, the rest of the world was introduced to the brand’s colorful, up-beat cardigans and pencil skirts that appealed because they sat just to the left of classic — meaning, trend-conscious enough without the risk of being out of style six months later. And then there’s Jenna Lyons, the President and Executive Creative Director of J.Crew, whose fashion celebrity seems to grow by the day. Her off-beat personal style and knack for seamlessly mixing high and low has become inextricably linked with the brand, not to mention a full-blown fashion blogger obsession. We talk to Lyons about the company’s recent decision to go global (they now ship to 107 countries) after only being available in the U.S. for nearly 30 years.
What makes now the right time to expand internationally?
We were finding that a lot of customers were calling our New York store and asking for things to be shipped overseas. But we had to get our ducks in a row first. We had the U.S. expansion that we were working on and we were in the process of launching a few really big projects that we needed to have all hands on deck for first. We wanted to do it right.
How do you think J.Crew’s American sensibility will translate to a global audience?
Some brands have a very specific look. But we expect you to put your own quirk on it. We’re not trying to present it as only one way of dressing or looking. We’re trying to deliver the clothes as themselves. I love it when we shoot [for our catalogs] in other places. It’s great to see what our [staff] come back with. For example, someone will come back with this great Guatemalan piece worn with chinos and loafers. And I can’t wait to see the same thing happen with our shoppers in Russia. Or to see what someone in China might do.
The brand is much more popular with fashion insiders than it was years ago. For example, Manolo Blahnik collaborated with you on your a/w ‘12 show and you’re now selling Comme des Garçons Play. What led to the change?
I think Mickey Drexler [Chairman and CEO] has allowed us to step out of the box of what we’ve done before. We’ve really tried to develop a clear visual over the last four or five years that’s a tad bit more fashion. We can take someone like Fenton/ Fallon and put her in our catalog and introduce her brand to this massive audience. Working with the CFDA has also been a big help, getting more intimately acquainted with the designers and people like Diane von Furstenberg and Anna Wintour. People began to have a different trust level with us. People [in the fashion industry] began to view us as being on the inside rather than the outside.
How are you managing to please both your fans who love high fashion and the ones who are only looking for the affordable basics?
It’s a challenge to mix aspiration with approachability. It’s about striking that balance between high and low, it’s a part of our DNA. We don’t consider ourselves a luxury brand and we don’t consider ourselves a high street brand. We have a wide range of customers. We’re not positioning ourselves as a luxury brand, we’re offering you a cohesive way to shop. We don’t want to be exclusive, we want people to feel like they can have a piece of the brand. We want to show that you can make anything cool.
Many people associate the look of J.Crew women’s wear with you. As your cult of personality grows, do you feel an increasing pressure to get dressed in the morning?
You know it’s funny because I was in the airport in London last week and my I drop my handbag and my lipstick rolls across the floor and this woman came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, are you Jenna Lyons?’ [Imitates the British accent.] And it was so great to have this direct connection with a new audience. But if anything, I feel an interesting amount of pressure to not do anything bizarre in public now. But getting dressed? Not so much that part.
Your autumn/winter ’12 show famously featured a model who could have been your twin. Did you guys intentionally seek her out?
It’s funny because she was being used for Madewell and for one shoot they put glasses on her. The person doing the casting came up to me and said, ‘You know this girl looks like you.” But I don’t think so. The next day a blog asked, ‘Is Jenna Lyons trying to make Madewell like herself?’ Not in a million years would I do that! Can you imagine the narcissism? Plus, she’s like 20 years younger than I am. But we brought her in for the J.Crew show because we like her. She’s a smart girl.
Five J. Crew items that Jenna will be living in this spring
1) Men’s Ludlow two-button suit jacket and classic suit paint
“I’m tall, so I look better in men’s things sometimes. I wear the men’s Ludlow suit and have them tailored to fit,” she says.
2) Cafe capri pant in paisley
“I love that they look like a scarf. These are one of my favorites.”
3) Leather placket tunic
“If it looks a touch Amish, I’m happy.”
4) Silk high waisted pant
“I’m obsessed with them on this model. It’s really just me hoping that I will look like her in these pants.”
5) Neon boy shirt
“I wear button down shirts all the time. And I love big, juicy colors. This one will be in heavy rotation.”