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.
The production team that brought you Alexander McQueen’s legendary shows can take the most implausible brief and get things moving
Founded in 2000 out of a desire pick their own clients, create their own schedules and play by their own rules, Sam Gainsbury and Anna Whiting’s company has become a cornerstone of innovative fashion production. With Sam working on the creative concepts and Anna as the ‘realist’ who brings them to life, they can pull together production teams from across all creative fields, thanks to the diverse background they share in film, art, theatre and music. This gives them a clear advantage over the competition, and was the reason why McQueen chose them to realise his shows: he didn’t want a generic fashion approach to staging his collections. It also leaves them better equipped to facilitate the fashion industry’s current fascination with moving image. Indeed, last year they decided to go back to their moving-image roots and set up a film division, Gainsbury & Whiting Associates, which now represents the pioneers of fashion film, including Steven Klein (whose ‘Alejandro’ video they produced), Nick Knight, Sam Taylor Wood and Ruth Hogben.
Written by Rana Toofanian
Photographed by Ben Weller
Your shows with McQueen really pushed the standard of innovative show production, creating an expectation for other brands to stage bigger or more provocative presentations…
S: When we first started producing Lee’s shows, I was aware he was quite unique and for me, he continued to remain unique as his shows were so deeply connected to his collections. They were never just about bringing in an interesting backdrop or collaborating with an artist for its own sake. Lee’s showmanship was about wanting the audience to feel something. Whether they were shocked, repelled or impressed, he wanted to solicit a reaction from them. He consciously designed those shows to make people think — not to be the ‘enfant terrible’ that he was always made out to be.
A lot of your work involves masterminding ‘creative solutions’ or problem-solving. How do you trust that the solution will always arrive?
S: Because there is a solution to everything. Sometimes clients don’t want to know the solution but you have to give it to them! If you are telling someone they have to make a certain compromise, you have to offer them an alternative that doesn’t make them feel like they’re being compromised.
A: It’s about having a lateral approach and knowing that the formulaic way of achieving something isn’t always the only way you can get there.
Is an elaborate show still the best way for a designer to market his or her brand?
S: If I were a young designer now, I would definitely choose to do a film. It’s not only more relevant but I’d want to spend the smallest amount possible too. It’s a huge amount of money to do the smallest show, even in a crappy warehouse with no heating and a couple of seats. On the other hand, if you’re an established house, you want people to see the craftsmanship of your clothing and you don’t want to get rid of that piece of history: all these people meeting in a city to watch your show. Ultimately, there’s a place for the fashion show and the fashion film — they’re not mutually exclusive and should work alongside one another.
What’s the value of the show for the consumer?
S: Exclusivity. It’s the enigma of the designer and all these people they’ve heard about — Anna Wintour or Suzy Menkes — on the front row in Paris, the fashion capital of world. All the glamour people associate with fashion is the reason why they go into H&M to buy themselves a jumper that looks like something off the runway.
Are films the best way to present fashion now?
S: Film is more instant. You can put a film out whenever, so you have time to do post-production and can choose whether to put it out instantly or hold it until the collection is in stores. I’m quite cynical about fashion film. Everybody has jumped on the fashion film bandwagon, but there are only a few fashion photographers doing film who are actually any good, who are able to translate their aesthetic and keep their signature in the films they create — like Nick Knight or Steven Klein.
A: They understand fashion too…
S: Big film directors tend to be asked to shoot campaigns and fragrances, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it creates a competitive edge, but they don’t necessarily understand fashion. Unless you really love fashion, you can’t portray it well. We’ve worked in film and we know that the film industry can be very patronising about fashion. Whenever we employ directors of photography from film, all they do is sit around and laugh all day at the frivolity, going: “Why are there so many Diptyque candles on this set?”(laughs)
A: It’s funny looking back, because I actually remember most of the references from directors doing commercials or music videos we produced coming from fashion.
S: It was always the work of people like Nick, Steven, David Sims or Corinne Day. That’s exactly who they referenced-stroke-ripped off.
What excites you about fashion film?
S: Like in the early days of fashion photography, there are no rules for the new generation of photographers and directors coming through doing fashion film. It’s ground zero and they’re making up the rules as they go along. In the film industry, there are all these really strict rules about the sacrilege of not shooting in film and the editing process. A lot of film photographers and editors working in fashion film are self-taught; they’ve learnt how to use the cameras and technology themselves, which I think makes the whole genre more exciting. There’s a b-roll on every shoot now, which is in a way ridiculous because it’s just someone shooting the hair and make-up department, a little bit of the photographer, a shot of the moodboard and some music. That’s not a fashion film. Nick basically came up with that process. Showstudio has been presenting fashion in really interesting ways, and they’ve encapsulated that into the b-roll: a behind-the-scenes Max-Factor ad for luxury brands! People want to click on and see what goes on behind the scenes, but that’s not really an honest interpretation of it — it’s just as fake as the final image!
Do you think there’s been an overall decline in creativity in fashion?
A: It’s more difficult to be seen because now we can all pick up our camera or our phone and make something if we choose to, which means sifting through it all to see the talent.