Tina Leung sneaks behind the scenes at J. Crew’s headquarters in New York, where President and Executive Creative Director Jenna Lyons reveals the secrets behind the brand’s stellar rise and it’s plans for expansion into Asia
I remember J. Crew as a kid growing up in southern California. It was where my mother bought her basics and maybe a pretty dress now and then. Fast forwar20 years and the brand has grown from a catalogue-only business into a multi-channel retailer, with more than 200 stores and an online shop that ships to 107 countries. More than 40 million copies of Style Guide, J.Crew’s catalogue, are mailed out each year and in the first half of 2012 alone, the company turned over US$1 billion in sales. Not only that, the brand now comes with some serious fashion heft. How serious? J.Crew has been seen on everyone from its best-known fan, the US First Lady Michelle Obama, to the street-style darlings snapped by bloggers the world over. If you need further proof that J.Crew is now as hip as they come, consider the fact that from this month, the label will be hanging alongside the likes of Alexander McQueen and Azzedine Alaïa at Lane Crawford, the most stylish destination of them all. President and Executive Creative Director Jenna Lyons has been with the brand for more than 20 years, and when we sit down to talk about the evolution of this multi-billion-dollar company and its exciting foray into Asia with Lane Crawford, she speaks passionately about her job, the brand, and the man behind it all, Millard “Mickey” Drexler.
Why don’t we start from the very beginning? What made you want to be in the world of fashion in the first place?
I was incredibly tall and awkward and gawky. Nothing fit me because I was so tall and skinny. When I was young, I took a home-economics class and I made a skirt. It was probably the first thing I had ever made and when I wore it, everyone asked me where I’d gotten it and if I’d make them one. This was the first time I’d ever gotten a compliment. I’ve always felt uncomfortable in my clothes and my skin, so this was a strange and very rewarding experience. That’s where it all started for me. My grandmother also gave me a subscription to Vogue that Christmas and since then, I’ve never looked back. I read Vogue cover to cover – every model, every designer, every price, every stylist. Cover to cover. It was my bible and my start to loving fashion.
And how did that lead you to J.Crew?
I had an art teacher who encouraged me to go to Parsons [School of Design] and during my senior year there I was interning at Donna Karan. At the end of senior year, I wasn’t sure they’d have a place for me. There was this bulletin board at school that posted opportunities and things, and J.Crew was up there. I thought, “Oh, that’d be fun.” I went for an interview and nothing happened. Then Donna Karan offered me a job at the end of the summer, but I was totally fried and I needed a break. So I went home for the summer and at the end of summer, J.Crew called me up and asked, “Hey, do you want to do men’s rugby shirts?” I was like, “Sure!” They flew me back to New York. I interviewed with the woman who ran the company and she hired me on the spot.
J. Crew started as a catalogue business, but has now grown to be a fashion powerhouse. How did that come to be?
I think it’s been an evolutionary process. A lot of things have changed. I think the market has changed. The people have changed. You mentioned style blogs, which today are such a huge influence. There’s an ambition to be different and to have your own style. When I was growing up, it was about looking like everyone else and if you didn’t look like everyone else, then you were an outsider. People are more interested in being individuals now. One of the biggest changes to happen in the company was [current CEO] Mickey Drexler. Mickey joined in 2002 and he really changed the ethos of the brand. He believed in quality clothing. He believed in giving the customer the best possible thing…He wanted every single piece to be special and to be the best. He was less concerned about prices and more about delivering the best product. What happened before Mickey joined was, we’d have a discussion where we needed a US$70 pant, a US$90 pant and a US$150 pant. Then we’d look at all these fabrics and think, “OK, this will fit this price point and this will fit this price point,” and that was how we worked. So we didn’t push the boundaries; we were always working within a set idea. It wasn’t about inspiration, it was about filling the needs of the business and looking back now, it was a strange way to work. When Mickey arrived, he said to us, “I don’t care what you think we need, I want you to show us what you think we should have.” We slowly and carefully elevated and cultivated a bigger, broader line. It was a slow process and we didn’t do it overnight, but we’re in a very different place now.
How would you define the J.Crew look?
I struggle with defining the J.Crew look specifically. We’re pretty eclectic. If youlook at our catalogue, we don’t style anything the same way anytime. I definitely think colour is very important to us, and classic menswear tailoring. I like natural sexiness and we’re looking for that and not something overtly sexy. There’s always a bit of menswear in every look. Even if a girl is wearing a crazy sparkly necklace, she’s wearing a shirt buttoned all the way up. There’s always something that counteracts; we’re never head-to-toe girlie.
I’m sure you get asked this every day, but I have to ask you about Michelle Obama. How was it seeing her in J.Crew? Was that arranged at all or were you all taken by surprise?
We helped with the inauguration, but everything else she’s worn, we’ve had zero contact. It’s amazing that this is the question that everyone’s been asking us. We’re so appreciative. One of the reasons I went into fashion is that connection to people and one of the things she’s done is connect. We get letters coming in saying, “I have the same sweater that Michelle Obama has.” They feel so connected to her through that and she’s ordering it, just like everyone else, from the catalogue, or going online at night. Our customers are doing the same thing and that’s exactly why our customers have that connection to her. She’s opened that door, like she’s one of them. Can most of America afford all of J.Crew? No, but they can afford some of it. There’s something out there for everyone and I think that connection to her is the most magical thing.
Let’s talk about Lane Crawford. How did that happen, and why now?
We invited Lane Crawford to our press presentation and [Fashion Director] Sarah Rutson came to our past autumn/winter show. I was so bowled over. I’ve seen her before on blogs wearing J.Crew. She’s one of the most stylish women ever and she was waxing poetic saying how much she loved everything and I couldn’t believe it. She reached out to me a week later saying, “We love the collection; we want to buy it.” We were in the middle of another deal with another company, not in Hong Kong and, honestly, we put the brakes on everything and turned our attention to Lane Crawford. During our meeting, they could not have been nicer. They were talking to us like we were Karl Lagerfeld. It was an incredible meeting and they bought the looks the way we showed them. Lane Crawford’s made it bigger, better and more elevated; so much bigger than what we were really thinking. It’s really been a pleasure to work with them.
What can we expect to see at Lane Crawford?
Lane Crawford will launch with an installation taking our men’s store as inspiration, recreating part of our Liquor Store [in New York]. After the launch, we’re going to a have an ongoing section in the store. We’ve worked really hard with them and we’re so excited. Who better to introduce us to Asia than Lane Crawford?
Interview photos by Sean Lee Davies
Originally published in Prestige Hong Kong’s October 2012 issue