Over the course of its nearly 80-year history, J.Crew has created an aesthetic so distinctive that the brand’s name is practically synonymous with Breton stripes, casual jeans, leopard prints, and over-the-shoulder sweaters that take the phrase “All-American” to heart. For a while it was also synonymous with the name of the previous creative director, Jenna Lyons, whose work made J.Crew an It-brand for millennials in the 2010s. Lately, for fashion fans on TikTok, another name has come to the forefront: Olympia Gayot, the brand’s current head of womenswear and kids design.
With a following of 60,000 people on Instagram, Gayot is the kind of designer-meets-It girl who understands that connecting with her customers online is part of her job in an increasingly digital fashion industry. And so, when Gayot joined J.Crew in 2020, she started using her own style as a way to capture a new generation of fans for the brand. While Gayot doesn’t have a public account on TikTok, as of August 2022, searches for her name on the platform have grown to over 800 million views, with creators and fashion fans dissecting her outfits of the day, which often involve slip dresses, sweaters, colorblocked workwear, and denim-on-denim looks. “She is single-handedly helping the J.Crew comeback with her Instagram stories,” said creator Malia Curi in a recent video as she shared screenshots of Gayot’s outfits. Another creator, who goes by @caitforshort, revealed she hasn’t been “this passionate about J.Crew since the Jenna Lyons days.”
“It’s been really exciting and inspiring to see people so interested and supportive of both J.Crew and my relationship to it,” Gayot tells Refinery29. “I love hearing the analysis on TikTok as people draw their own conclusions as to how my style relates to the brand.”
Back in the 2010s, J.Crew’s former leading lady, Jenna Lyons, was one of fashion’s biggest trendsetters, making thick eyeglasses, high-low style combos, bedazzled sweaters, and a cuffed button-down some of the decade's must-haves. For years, her style represented J.Crew’s point of view for fashion fans, who looked to the brand’s leader for inspiration. Still, for all the fame Lyons earned during her tenure at J.Crew, the designer wasn’t as quick to adapt to the rise of Instagram’s designer-customer relationship, only joining the app in 2020, after she had left the company. While J.Crew enjoyed a good run as one of America’s favorite brands for years, by the mid-2010s, it became just another casualty of millennials’ appetite for increasingly digital brands and authentic connections and aversion to all things cookie-cutter… or found in a mall.
“We never had a parasocial relationship with Jenna Lyons,” says Chidera Nwankwo, a TikTok creator whose video on Olympia Gayot’s J.Crew has grown over 200,000 views. “The appeal now is being able to almost have that relationship with J.Crew through Olympia.” Nwankwo’s perspective is a shared one among Gayot’s fans on TikTok: They see the designer as someone who’s unveiling the curtain of a traditionally exclusive industry and inviting them behind-the-scenes, essentially making them feel like, if they shop from the brand, they’re not only supporting the company, but an internet friend.
For years now, both start-ups and established fashion players have recognized that millennials and Gen Z, who grew up in the era of behind-the-scenes YouTube videos and industry-focused reality TV shows, are interested in the people that make a brand.
This phenomenon has given rise to figures like Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, who is as popular as the brand he helms, thanks to his social media following, as well as Gen Z entrepreneurs like Frankies Bikinis’s Francesca Aiello and Rogue’s Emma Rogue, who are digital influencers in their own right. Similarly, Gayot is the face of the company, with a separate category for her picks on the brand’s website, as well as her famous mirror selfies on J.Crew’s Instagram page.
While it may all look carefully curated, both Gayot and Derek Yarbrough, J.Crew’s chief marketing officer, say there hasn’t been much strategy behind Gayot viral popularity. “Obviously I wear a ton of J.Crew and try to show a snapshot of behind the scenes, and I am capturing what I’m actually wearing day to day, so it’s great to see people gravitating to it,” says Gayot, who describes her personal style as classic and mainly focused on comfort and longevity. This aesthetic is in line with J.Crew’s return to its roots — seasonless clothing that can stand beyond the trends, a dramatic shift from the ultra-trendy, maximalist styles the brand championed in the 2010s, and that’s largely credited for its decline over the past few years.
Still, that doesn’t mean J.Crew lacks the viral trendiness of the TikTok era. In fact, many of the brand’s heritage staples — stripes, straight-leg denim, and classic button-down shirts — fit in with today’s biggest aesthetics, from Coastal Grandmother and Light Academia to Soft Girl. “I think J.Crew is resonating [right now] because we are a natural fit for many niche aesthetics due to the variety of signature items found within our collections,” says Yarbrough, adding that “Coastal Grandmother” is the best example. “Our classic yet elevated product lens acts as the foundational approach that lets customers thoughtfully build their wardrobe and express their own personal take on classic style.”
Yet, for creators like Nwankwo, the biggest appeal continues to be Gayot’s unfiltered approach. “It's almost like we all wished more brands would do this,” she says. “She needs to get on TikTok.”