The J. Crew-Jenna Lyons Love Affair Has Ended

illustration by LeAnne Chan
illustration by LeAnne Chan

You could say it was a long time coming. After an exceptionally long tenure— twenty-six years — Jenna Lyons has left J. Crew. On April 3, Lyons stepped down from her roles as brand president and executive creative director, a decision made in collaboration with Millard “Mickey” Drexler, the company’s chief executive. Somsack Sikhounmuong, who headed women’s design, will be named chief design officer, which means he will oversee men’s, women’s and children’s wear.

Although Lyons’s departure caused much commotion in the fashion world — she is nothing short of an icon — J.Crew’s current financial woes seem to demand change. The company has faced two years of dropping sales, in addition to accruing nearly $2 billion in debt. This was, of course, after the brand decided to cut its bridal line. Clearly something about the J. Crew model was no longer effective.

While at J. Crew, Lyons sought to revamp the brand. Once the go-to for high quality but nondescript basics — think khakis or preppy essentials — the company, under Lyons, took a more youthful and daring turn. There was color and costume jewelry, coral-colored sneakers and taffeta skirts to be worn with puffer jackets. There was also pajama-dressing and animal prints and faded denim tuxedos. These looks are now iconic, the collective emblem of a remarkable overhaul of one of America’s most traditional brands. Still, all the eye-popping departures from the virtues of Americana have caught up to the company. Loyal customers reportedly miss the unfussy basics for which they once relied upon J. Crew to provide. We want what we cannot have, we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone, and so on.

Despite the company’s growing challenges, many of which came about during Lyons’s reign, we cannot underestimate the relatively unusual but influential qualities of her role. Take, for example, J. Crew’s competitors, the other bedrocks of the Americana aesthetic like Ann Taylor or L.L. Bean, which do not have ‘It-Girl’ creative directors or even single faces representing their specific brands. This is what makes Jenna Lyons’s role so unique. She not only made J. Crew more fashion-inclined (for the past several seasons the company has put on New York Fashion Week presentations), but also managed to create a chic-quirky image for herself that became synonymous with the brand. It was all about “Jenna’s Picks,” a feature in which Lyons touted her favorite garments, and Jenna’s vision. A vision which bled over from clothing and shoes, and into the look and feel of J. Crew stores across the world. In a way, she became the mascot of the brand, heralding a desirable and potentially-attainable image of the American woman. An American woman who, like Lyons, was both elegant and sporty, chic and nerdy, rustic and sophisticated, fashionable and practical.

So while the holes in such an image and such a role, have now become too apparent to continue to drive sales, Lyons’s mark still stays. Certainly Mickey Drexler’s risk — to pull a lanky and awkward, but nevertheless talented girl from the pits of the design team, and position her as the company’s dynamic mascot — has changed the course of rebranding within the fashion industry. Be it an ultimate triumph or a seeming failure, it certainly emphasize’s the industry’s existential questions. How should designers reconcile heritage with innovation? Emblems with anonymity? Consumer loyalty with consumer fickleness?

At any rate, it will be interesting to see what Lyons and J. Crew do next, now that the brands are no longer one.

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