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J.Crew's Jenna Lyons is building an empire

Michelle Obama has given the company a big bump in sales, but to many fans, it's the creative director who embodies the brand's elegantly casual essence.

July 12, 2009|Booth Moore | Fashion Critic

It all started with the yellow outfit -- the Pembridge dot pencil skirt, the Italian deco tank and the color-block cardigan. Michelle Obama wore them for an appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" in October, revealing that she had purchased the items online from J.Crew.

The skirt, the shirt, the sweater -- all sold out in a matter of days.

It happened again in April when the first lady chose the crystal constellation cardigan and dazzling dots pencil skirt for a visit to 10 Downing Street in London. The sweater sold out by 10 a.m. East Coast time.

"Michelle Obama is the best thing that ever happened to J.Crew," the New York Daily News announced.

But industry experts and fans of the label's $88 pencil skirts and $78 beaded cardigans might nominate another candidate: Jenna Lyons.

Lyons is creative director for the brand that's become the go-to for women who demand designer style ("custom tailored accents," one fashion blogger noted) without designer prices. That title means she's in charge of every design element of the company, website and catalog, and it's her attention to detail -- delicate beading, raw edges, crepe de Chine ruffles -- that sets J.Crew apart from other mall stores. The company's ability to be both aspirational and attainable has made it popular with Indianapolis career women and Birkin-toting Malibu trophy wives alike.

Lyons "is my fashion guru," says Harpo Films President Kate Forte, who first contacted Lyons to help her select an outfit for the "Cadillac Records" movie premiere last year. "I was wearing Alexander McQueen, Chloe and Stella McCartney and spending tons and tons of money on it. Then last summer, I thought, 'This is ridiculous.'

"I have worn J.Crew to movie premieres and industry breakfasts and I still get the same compliments that I used to."

Despite the retail rut, under Lyons' creative direction the company has continued to expand -- including a new store in Malibu that features higher-end items produced in limited quantities -- and recently beat analysts' expectations for the first quarter by reporting a 2% uptick in sales over the same time last year. Though the company's profits fell 33%, the sales increase was enough to send stock shares up 18%.

Some of fashion's biggest names have noticed. Derek Lam, the New York designer of opulent fur coats and delicate silk dresses and a classmate of Lyons' at New York's Parsons the New School for Design, understands her appeal.

"Jenna brings a fashion editor's eye to an accessible brand," he says.

Bloggers evaluate her personal as well as professional style, contributing to the budding cult of Jenna. They wax eloquently about her love of neutral colors, Sharpie pens and Maybelline Cool Watermelon lipstick. And they comment on "Jenna's Picks," a monthly report of the designer's favorite pieces that is used online, in stores and in company catalogs. Shelter magazines have featured her Brooklyn brownstone, and her "favorite stuff" has been listed in Vanity Fair.

But praise in the blogosphere can't guarantee a surge in sales of all those pencil skirts and cardigans. "Nobody needs another one-pocket tee or twin set or pleat-front skirt," says Richard Jaffe, a retail analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus and Co. "Your closet is full of them." The challenge for Lyons is to keep reinventing.

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'Uniform rebel'

Lyons, the daughter of an insurance agent father and a stay-at-home mother, grew up in Palos Verdes and attended the Le Lycee Francais de Los Angeles and Rolling Hills High School. Even then, her own aesthetic was well-suited to J.Crew's business of basics with a twist.

"I was a school uniform rebel," she says, sporting her signature masculine-feminine look of a man's blazer, cropped pants, thick black eyeglasses and a tangle of glittery necklaces. "I used to shorten my skirts way too much and alter my shirts to make them really tight. I would shorten the sleeves on my blazer and put cute buttons on my cashmere sweaters."

Lyons spent summers working as a lifeguard and shopping on trendy Melrose Avenue. She frequented stores such as Circle Jerks and Black Fly, removing buttons and notions and sewing them onto other pieces. She also ordered clothes from J.Crew. "There was a rayon double chiffon tee that I had in every color."

After she finished high school, she enrolled in a fashion program at Otis Parsons in L.A., transferring to the New York campus for her sophomore year. Her first job after graduation was as a design assistant at Donna Karan, but Lyons found it frustrating because she and her friends could not afford the clothes. In 1990, at age 21, she interviewed at J.Crew, which seven years earlier had launched as a mail-order business focusing on preppy clothes. "When I took the job [as a men's knitwear designer] I forgot to ask what the salary was because I was so excited."

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