But even after she switched to designing women's garments, she didn't want to wear most of the clothes in those early years. It was, she said, about selling, not about fashion. Merchandise managers "would give us a list beforehand that said they needed three $78 pants, six $58 sweaters and 10 $78 sweaters."
Reviewing a stack of J.Crew catalogs from the 1990s, Lyons seems embarrassed. "Oh my God, I sketched this dress," she says, looking at a sleeveless drop-waist olive green linen dress on the back of the spring 1993 catalog.
"That black-and-white tipped cardigan was a Jenna special," she offers, pausing over a design from spring 1998. "And look, we even sold Peds!"
After a private equity firm bought a majority stake in the company in 1997, J.Crew went through three chief executives in five years. A new chapter began when Millard "Mickey" Drexler, newly ousted from the Gap, arrived as chairman and chief executive in January 2003.
The night before Drexler started in 2003, Lyons stayed up late researching him online. "I had just done a complete redo of the line six months before, and I knew I was going to have to do it all over again -- if I still had a job."
The next morning, he held a meeting with the company's senior merchants, designers and stylists to go through the fall collection piece by piece.
"Do you love it or hate it?" he asked Lyons, who was the head of women's design reporting to another creative director at the time.
"It does $1 million but I hate it," she said of a pair of run-of-the-mill stretch pants.
"Then throw them on the floor," he replied.
The same thing happened with a "poodle" yarn turtleneck, a stiff leather jacket and other items.
"I had to be honest because I didn't know what else to do," she says.
Drexler then fired all of the senior level designers except for two, promoted Lyons, and charged her with filling in the holes in the collection.
Gayle Spannaus, J.Crew's head women's stylist, who styles all the catalog shoots, remembers that Drexler loved the outfit Lyons was wearing that day -- high heels and cargo pants. "He asked her, 'Why don't you design what you're wearing?' "
The outfit's juxtaposition of hard and soft, casual and dressed up, masculine and feminine, became the foundation for Lyons' J.Crew.
A matching pair
The change was quick. J.Crew went from basic rugbys, drab workaday trouser skirts and silk shells to Liberty of London floral-print button-down shirts and silk Jacquard dresses "woven in the same style as the French haute couture."
"What she does is an art and a science," Drexler says.
Each season (spring, summer, fall, winter), it is Lyons' job to come up with a design story. For this coming fall, she started with the idea of three women -- opera singer Maria Callas, actress Lauren Hutton and '60s-era socialite Slim Keith -- and imagined what it would be like if they shared one closet. The collection is an unexpected mix of pieces: a blush-colored tiered lace top worn with sporty rolled-up jeans, a gray feather skirt with a long navy boyfriend cardigan, gray wool houndstooth shorts with a ladylike coat with a jeweled collar.
Although she supervises a team of 25 women's and 15 men's designers, Lyons ultimately must approve thousands of pieces a year. She also oversees the catalog, website and store design.
Drexler doesn't get involved with the initial collection concepts, Lyons says. "But that doesn't mean along the way that he won't call me and say, 'I saw a girl wearing a cute fedora. Should we be doing fedoras?' It's a constant dialogue. He is not directing where we should go, but my BlackBerry is on fire all the time."
The chief executive and the designer behave a little like a father-daughter team. Over lunch at Cecconi's in West Hollywood, she tells him that "being back here even for one day, all my insecurities come back. Women here are in such great shape. Everyone is blond and beautiful. Girls are trying on bathing suits and coming out of the dressing rooms and I'm like, 'Just stay in there!' "
On a shopping expedition at Fred Segal, he wants to show her a reversible men's Junya Watanabe jacket -- navy on one side and gingham check on the other. Lyons tries it on as the salesman explains how it is really four jackets in one. "This is genius," she says, her eyes wide. Drexler urges her to buy the $2,175 jacket on the company credit card. For research.
Lyons is passionate about fashion, and not just J.Crew. She had to convert a room in the Park Slope town house she shares with her artist husband Vincent Mazeau and their 2-year-old son Beckett into a closet to accommodate all her clothes. And one senses sometimes that she wishes she were designing loftier things.