The designer driving the big brand that’s making America dress better

Written by Erik Torstensson

Portrait by Tom Allen

There are plenty of high street brands trying to persuade us that they’re design-led these days. But J. Crew is the only chain whose aesthetic is deemed high-end enough by Net-a-Porter to be worthy of inclusion on its list of designer names. It’s a dramatic turnaround for a company that 10 years ago was saddled with a reputation for being an unremarkable catalogue brand. Jenna Lyons remembers the bad old days, having joined J. Crew in 1990 as a lowly design assistant on men’s knitwear. ‘I’ve worked for every single department,’ she says. ‘I’ve done swim. I’ve done lingerie. Sweaters. Shoes. Sunglasses. Bags. I’ve been involved in every aspect of the business.’ It was the label’s egalitarian affordability that had attracted her in the first place, but the creative aspect of her work suffered after a private equity firm took over in 1997 and commerciality became the only priority. ‘When I started I really loved being here but slowly things went downhill. I was loyal and I wanted it to get better. I didn’t realise how bad it actually was until Mickey arrived.’

Mickey Drexler came in from Gap as J. Crew’s CEO in 2003 and quickly recognised the talent the Parsons-trained designer, who was in heading up womenswear at the time. ‘Mickey went through the rail and asked my opinion on the collection. He held up a pair of stretch pants: “What do you think of this?” I said, “I don’t really like it, but I think it’ll make a lot of money.” And he said, “Throw it on the floor.” Next. “What’s this?” “It’s a poodle sweater that we’ve been running.” “What do you think of it?” “I hate it with all of my life… but it’s a million-dollar piece.” “Throw it on the floor.” At the end of the meeting, half the line was on the floor.’ This little bonfire of the banalities cleared the way for a new-look J. Crew. ‘We pulled a team together, did some sketches, went vintage shopping and got on a plane to Hong Kong to redo the line all over again!’

Even before Lyons was invited to give her creativity free rein, one factor that stood in J. Crew’s favour was its humble mail-order roots: this meant its distribution structure was already in place as the rest of the high street rushed to migrate online. Now Lyons is very much the face of the brand on the J. Crew site, with her ‘Jenna’s Picks’ page guiding the customer through how to assemble a look that she would wear herself. Not that J. Crew’s etail operation has eclipsed the importance of its catalogue, whose reach remains immense: published 14 times a year under Lyons’s supervision, three million issues are mailed out each month. ‘We see a dramatic uptake in sales when the catalogue goes out. It’s a sort of a magazine for the customer; it allows us to reinvent J. Crew every month. That’s where the creativity and the fun comes in because so few brands can do this. I mean, how many brands get to do five women’s photoshoot stories without any advertising?’

She also oversees the interiors of its 229 stores, all within the US; outside of Net-a-Porter, J. Crew’s reach is not yet international, although that may change next year. She’s careful not to grow the brand too quickly, focusing on taking it up-market before breaking it in new markets. She launched the pricier J. Crew Collection in 2007, a line that has included such artisanal pieces as a $2,000 dress decorated with hand-cut sequins in a limited edition of eight. Then there’s the innovative J. Crew ads in which models are shown with products from other brands too (their websites are even generously included); and the Liquor Store, a J. Crew menswear flagship converted from an old Tribeca off-licence, more unique concept store than identikit chain. All in the name of making J. Crew creatively credible while keeping its appeal as broad (and its prices as low) as possible. ‘I want my mum to be able to wear the clothes. I want to be able to wear the clothes and I want the girls from Harper’s Bazaar to wear them. How you do that? It’s hard.’ Hard maybe, but Lyons appears to be succeeding.