Just a few years ago, fashion zealots were in love with J. Crew.
Much of the retailer’s success — and renaissance after an early downturn — was attributed to creative director Jenna Lyons, who started at the company in the ’90s and became an executive in 2008.
In addition to embodying J. Crew’s sartorial voice, Lyons was soon the face of the company, becoming a fashion icon and media darling.
In 2011, New York Magazine described Lyons’ style as “nuanced, personal, layered, a little vintage.”
At the time, the brand’s sales were soaring. First Lady Michelle Obama was regularly spotted wearing its products.
Today, J. Crew is facing a major sales slump that executives blamed on poorly-designed sweaters.
J. Crew profits declined 42% in 2014. The company recently laid off 10% of its corporate employees and parted ways with Tom Mora, previous head of the women’s design department. (Somsack Sikhounmoung of J. Crew’s thriving sister brand, Madewell, is slated to take over).
But through the turmoil, J. Crew’s most visible executive has been noticeably absent.
New York Times style editor Vanessa Friedman addressed Lyons’ mysteriously low profile in an editorial after the layoffs.
“Millard S. Drexler, the chief executive, is taking most of the hits, and Mr. Mora clearly was the first actual fall guy. But Ms. Lyons’s job is to shape the company’s aesthetic strategy, even if she isn’t responsible for shaping every garment, and no one seems to be even querying her part in all this,” she wrote.
“It’s almost as if she hasn’t played a part at all,” Friedman writes. “That suggests either she is being protected, or she is being hidden, or they still have faith in her, or she is on the line. It could be any of the above,” Friedman wrote.
J. Crew declined to comment for this story.
Not your everyday fashion executive
Lyons beat the odds; she was not traditionally beautiful growing up, nor did she have an easy childhood.
She has openly revealed that she struggled with a genetic disease called incontinentia pigment, which left her with bald spots and requiring dentures due to malformed teeth.
She told Fast Company she was bullied mercilessly as a child. “It’s amazing how cruel kids can be and super judgmental and really just downright mean,” she said to the publication.
“I searched for ways to make things more beautiful and surrounded myself with beautiful things because I didn’t feel that in myself,” she said to Fast Company. This ultimately led to drawing — and fashion.
“I felt a huge drive to make clothes that everybody could have because I felt ostracized by that world of beauty and fashion. I never thought I would have a part in it. Never in a million years,” she said to Fast Company.
Lyons told Fast Company that after she graduated Parsons School of Design in 1990, she was an “assistant to an assistant to someone else’s assistant,” at J. Crew, starting out in the men’s department.
Lyons stayed on with the brand for years. But 2002 proved to be a rough year for the preppy brand, one marred by poor financials.
“We were lost soldiers — working away, following orders,” Lyons told New York Magazine in 2011. “I was shell-shocked and burned from what was going on. Fried.” Yet she stayed on board.
And then retail legend Mickey Drexler arrived.
Drexler, who is known as the “the merchant prince,” has been held responsible for transforming Ann Taylor and Gap.
Together, he and Lyons would shape J. Crew for the better.
“We had a lot of things to fix — financially, aesthetically, we needed an overhaul,” Lyons told The Guardian in 2012.
Soon, the company was thriving once again.
An unlikely style icon
J. Crew’s sales soared as the company focused on high-quality, preppy basics like sweaters and ballet flats.
At its peak, “J.Crew felt so colourful, so playful, yet still very authentically rooted and kind of preppy,” retail and branding expert Jessica Navas of Erwin Penland told Business Insider.
The brand’s style mirrored Lyons’ personal look. With her trademark thick-rimmed glasses and eclectic spin on traditional wardrobe staples, she became the poster woman for what a J. Crew customer could be.
Lyons was appointed creative director in 2008, and became president of the company in 2010.
The six-foot-tall woman — who felt so out of place as a child — became an icon. Her geek-chic look was adored by the fashion media, and The New York Times called her “the woman who dresses America” in 2013.
The publication said her glasses had “become the most identifiable signature in fashion since Anna Wintour’s bob.”
J. Crew became even more iconic when Michelle Obama wore a J. Crew ensemble on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
Vogue later showcased Michelle Obama proudly wearing J. Crew’s signature items, and the brand’s popularity soared.
Lyons’ success paralleled the brand’s; in 2012, she won Glamour’s Woman of The Year Award.
The public followed her personal life, from her messy divorce with artist Vincent Mazeau to her subsequent relationship with girlfriend Courtney Crangi.
She also appeared in a 2014 episode of HBO’s “Girls.” J. Crew curated “Jenna’s picks” on a section of its website.
Fading from the limelight
In December 2014, Page Six reported that J. Crew had asked Lyons to cut down her self-promotion, attributing low sales to her celebrity status.
But a J. Crew spokesperson told the website that “this [was] completely inaccurate and couldn’t be farther from reality.”
After all, Lyons’ likable nature and quirky fashion sense had been so inherently linked to J. Crew’s success; how could it be the reason for its decline?
In April, writer Tricia Louvar wrote an open letter to Lyons on The Hairpin, prefacing it with “you are pretty dope,” but stating that all dopeness aside, the clothes J. Crew was selling were unaffordable and not practical. “If only I, an ordinary mother on a modest income, could afford to wear a $US400 cashmere skirt, silk barely-there blouse and belt to a one-time business-casual event,” she wrote.
Customers also complained about ill-fitting cashmere sweaters and allegedly poor quality. Fans of J. Crew’s ballet flats were furious when it started manufacturing the shoes in the US instead of Italy.
Not many brands have fans so devoted that they craft public letters to their creative directors.
“I was a fan of J.Crew for over 20 years,” Louvar later told The New York Post. “But as I look at the catalogues now, I just don’t get it. Back when I was in college, it represented a classic look that was seamless.”
What’s next for J. Crew and Lyons
J. Crew has a difficult road ahead.
The company needs to focus on what made people love the brand in the first place — high-quality basics with a personalised twist — branding expert Navas told Business Insider.
“If they reinvest in the quality of the garments and just bring back a bit more of the classics, that will give them the licence to be experimental,” she said. “And I think that’s what people loved J. Crew for in their heyday, several years ago. It was a notion of taking classics but just making a little twist on them so they felt quirky, a little bit more colourful, and ultimately, we were all legions of women wearing these looks but we felt like we were individuals.”
Lyons has been involved with J. Crew for over 25 years through ups and downs and has weathered challenges before, making it likely she and J. Crew will pull through, Navas told Business Insider.
“I believe that she has the vision. She always has led this brand,” Navas said. “Yes, there have been some missteps, she just has to course correct a bit.”
Navas also pointed out that fashion occurs in cycles, and plenty of brands — including Gap and Ann Taylor, both revived by Drexler — have seen renaissances.
Navas is confident J. Crew and Lyons will make a comeback.
“Not only do I think they will, they will definitely come back. They have heard, they have been humbled, and I think this is just part of the American narrative,” Navas said.