No Knockoffs, No "Perfection": Jenna Lyons Set The Bar High For Mass Retailers

Late afternoon on Monday, Business of Fashion broke the news that Jenna Lyons and J.Crew had parted ways after an unheard-of 26 years together. Lyons' rags-to-riches story was often repeated: Growing up gawky with a genetic skin and teeth disorder that propelled her love of fashion, she joined the company on the ground floor as an assistant designer straight out of college. By 2003, Lyons was the Vice President of Women’s Design, working with the newly appointed Mickey Drexler who had grand plans to grow the company from a mall-friendly outfitter known mostly for its utilitarian catalog to a retail sensation. In the time between 2003 and yesterday, Lyons was responsible for J.Crew’s fashion bona fides, making its seasonal collection presentation at Fashion Week a must-attend, confirming trends and setting others, while becoming an industry celebrity in her own right. As a result, the brand had as much cache as Céline or Alexander Wang — a rarity for mass retailers, especially those that didn’t earn their prominence by knocking off luxury designers.
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The J.Crew that Jenna Lyons built defined how women dressed from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s. There is no debating it. The look was exuberant and optimistic, prioritizing how you put something together as much as the clothes you were working with in the first place. Signature moves included cuffing your shirt at the elbow or tucking in your tee with just one hand (and slightly off-center); wearing your button-ups with big costume jewelry; turning up the collar of your blazer to expose its lining. That J.Crew look — unwashed wispy up-dos or tight low buns worn with a bright lip and just mascara — became the stateside equivalent of French-girl style. It was our stars-and-stripes version of can’t-give-a-fuck glamour. These were tips for the everywoman who didn’t mind that her clothes reflected the fact that she actually lived in them (and had a good time doing so). It’s incredibly rare for a mass mall retailer to slash at the idea of perfection and celebrate the beauty of always looking slightly undone. J.Crew told us that a wrinkle, a risk, or a rule broken were bigger keys to style than owning the “right” things.
It’s worth noting that Lyons did not invent the chunky, rhinestone-encrusted necklace, or come up with the concept of color-blocking — both massive trends that her name is forever attached to. She was also not the first person to pair sparkly heels with distressed denim, graphic tees with pencil skirts, nor camo with sequins. But, Lyons will forever be synonymous with this brand of styling not because she did it first or did it most artfully, but because she did it in a way that was so fun and effortless it made you believe you could do it, too.
That was the magic of Jenna Lyons’ J.Crew: It was Italian craftsmanship and British tailoring and a Fashion Week stamp of approval, but available at your local mall.
But, as much as fashion people loved this way of thinking and dressing, original J.Crew loyalists, those who built communities around extolling the dependability of the brand’s preppy, reliable basics, were put-off by the higher prices of its Collection pieces, and fashion-forward items not made with the average woman in mind. At the same time, J.Crew uber-fans like J.Crew Aficionada and J.Crew Is My Fav Store noticed that those smart, modest basics that originally won them over began declining in quality while prices kept creeping up. While fashion trends — always the fickle beast — have taken a turn for the more minimal, less preppy, and arguably, more cookie-cutter, J.Crew has stuck with Jenna’s magpie-meets-Mr.-Magoo vision.
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“We have taken important steps to improve our performance and are confident that the team in place will continue these efforts,” Drexler stated in an official statement. Lyons’ executive creative director position will be eliminated, and J.Crew veteran Somsack Sikhounmuong (who has led womenswear under Lyons, and was formerly creative director at the J.Crew-owned Madewell), will oversee all divisions.
It’s undeniable that Lyons’ impact on American fashion — that mix-and-match, old-and-new, feminine-and-masculine, sophisticated-and-silly, high-and-low perspective — has been profound. Under Lyons, J.Crew provided the most optimistic, cheerful version of American fashion you could buy — one where an outfit could become a look by just choosing to button an extra button, or deciding to tie a sweater around your waist (or neck, or shoulders, or…). It was imaginative and resourceful and democratic in the truest sense that a fashion brand could be — J.Crew became covetable among luxury label wearers and mall shoppers alike, without tricks, forgery, or caveats. Today, you can see her version of the retailer expressed in entities as varied as Gucci, Baublebar, Man Repeller, and Zara.
It’s no surprise that news of Lyons’ departure has been covered by nearly every fashion media outlet. What does seem surprising, perhaps, is the lack of chatter among actual J.Crew consumers; a scroll through J.Crew’s Facebook page reveals just one comment about her departure, but many about the actual products (when they’re available, how appealing they are, whether J.Crew can make them shorter/longer/slimmer/bigger). It’s business as usual. In a way, that fact might be a testament of Lyons’ legacy and a reason why it was time for her to apply her vision someplace drastically different (Celebrity styling? Interiors? Magazine art direction?). Now that the Jenna Lyons philosophy is so pervasive that it’s become standard and invisible, her work (at least with the brand that got us all there) is done.
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