For a while, Jenna Lyons was not just in sync with the desires of her customers, she was anticipating them.
As president and creative director of J. Crew, Lyons saw the future and tested it out for her fans. She helped her customers fill their closets with an eccentric mashup that included sequins for day, plaid shirts with tuxedo trousers, perfectly worn denim with ruffled blouses and an endless array of pencil skirts paired with shrunken cardigans. Lyons’ vision for J. Crew was quirky and full of personality. Its foundation was built on American basics, but it became a towering and fashionable empire that prided itself on tapping Italian cashmere mills for its sweaters and finding inspiration in the rigors of British tailoring.
But after multiple years of mounting debt and disgruntled customers, J. Crew announced that Lyons is leaving. Stepping into the role of chief creative officer is Somsack Sikhounmuong, the head of women’s design.
It’s hard to feign shock that Lyons is out. But it is sad that so much white-hot fashion energy — and so much accessible, wearable, affordable fashion — has so profoundly petered out.
Lyons was a designer who was right for the times. She joined J. Crew after graduating college in 1990, but began to hit her stride in 2003 when she became head of womenswear and slowly put her personal imprint on the company’s aesthetic. Over time, Lyons was no longer just designing the clothes; she was becoming the face of the brand. She was her own muse: tall and lean with slicked-back hair, a hint of androgyny, nerdy eyeglasses and bold lipstick. Lyons crafted an aesthetic that gave a nod to both sophistication and downtown cool. At a time when hipster culture was obsessed with reclaimed wood, Edison light bulbs and $25 craft cocktails, Lyons created fashion that perfectly costumed people for that world. A world in which she lived. There’s Lyons in sequins and denim during Fashion Week. There she is in a family photo painting her son’s toenails. Look, there’s her Brooklyn townhouse featured in Domino magazine. Because her work at J. Crew was so linked to her own life, the sales pitch felt authentic.
J. Crew capitalized on the magnetism of Lyons. It didn’t send out a catalog. It mailed out style guides. That’s what it was selling, after all: style. Lyons’s style. Piece by piece, J. Crew’s merchandise wasn’t particularly interesting. Lyons wasn’t re-inventing the dress or coming up with new silhouettes. What made her work stand out was the way it was all assembled. Lyons advocated mixing one retina-searing color with another. She encouraged shoppers to mix stripes and polka dots. And in case anyone had any doubts about how to accomplish the J. Crew look, Lyons was regularly photographed as the living embodiment of the J. Crew aesthetic — proof that it worked out there in the real world.
Getting the look right required work. And for a while, folks were willing to make the effort. They also had the example and encouragement of high-profile women like Michelle Obama. The former first lady regularly wore J. Crew, and helped shoppers envision it as a brand that an executive woman could wear into the office. Obama underscored Lyons’s own mantra of mixing high-end fashion with more affordable finds. She was proof that it fit regular women and could be age-appropriate for a multitude of them. Obama put J. Crew front and center in the cultural conversation.
But it’s hard for brands that burn white hot to do so indefinitely. Over time, even Obama moved on. Everyone did. Fashion became more enamored with the ease of athleisure. Pulling on a pair of leggings, status sneakers and a bomber jacket doesn’t require nearly as much work or imagination as it does to make J. Crew’s separates look interesting. Social media stars were obsessing about Balmain, Fenty, Yeezy, Balenciaga and banal chic of Vetements. Brooklyn hipsters became a cliche, and the quirkiness that once defined J. Crew became simultaneously dull and costume-like.
A few seasons ago, the brand tried going back to basics. It offered up a preppy melange of gingham and denim. But Lyons was still out front, counseling young designers and walking the red carpet. One had the feeling that Lyons would not wear the very clothes that J. Crew was now serving up. And if J. Crew wasn’t Jenna Lyons anymore, what was it?
J. Crew has been battling a host of business problems ranging from quality-control screw-ups to merchandising failures. Would-be customers are frustrated by seeing some sparkly skirt or leopard-print trousers in the company’s mailers, only to find them unavailable in stores or online. Shoppers complain about inconsistent sizing. But J. Crew also lost its ability to speak the language of fashion in a way that was both knowing and welcoming.
Lyons lent J. Crew her signature style. It wasn’t classic or timeless. It was highly personal. Lyons remains as stylish as ever.
But fashion has moved on.