When Jenna Lyons announced, in 2017, that she was parting ways with the American mass retailer J Crew, it sent shockwaves through the fashion industry.
While her official title was group president and executive creative director, in many ways she was the unofficial face of the brand. Her own look — a clever blend of masculine and feminine, always topped with her trademark outsize glasses — showed off the formula that made her J Crew so successful in the 2010s, taking classic American garments and reworking them with a touch of whimsy and high-fashion brio. Her designs were fawned over by Vogue, worn by Michelle Obama and, with annual sales topping $2bn, worn by a good chunk of the rest of America as well.
Three years after she stepped out of the limelight, she’s back with two new companies: a creative agency called Lyons LAD, which oversees a broad range of projects, from branding and strategy to interior design, and Loveseen, a fake eyelash line inspired by a genetic condition she has that prevents her from having battable lashes.
Oh, and that acronym, LAD? It stands for “Life After Death”.
“It felt like part of me was dying,” she says by phone from New York, of leaving the company where she had spent the entirety of her professional life. “I had become so synonymous with the brand that people would call me Jenna Crew. I had been intrinsically involved and I think that I — unknowingly and unwittingly — connected my persona and my self-worth and . . . my identity to this job.” She pauses. “That’s a really strange thing. And it has a big impact on how you go forward.”
And as if launching Lyons LAD weren’t hard enough, she’s also chronicling it in a reality-competition-show-meets-docuseries called Stylish With Jenna Lyons, available to stream on HBO Max.
In it, she — along with two colleagues, J Crew veterans Kyle DeFord and Sarah Clary — interviews potential employees and puts them through a series of tests that serve as a sort of job interview by fire. (It has roots in other fashion world reality shows such as Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model and, as such, takes an aspirational, breezy approach rather than offering an incisive look at the high-stakes realities of building a profitable company.)
But why welcome in prying eyes as you attempt to launch a company and potentially fall on your face? Especially when you are someone who had pretty much disappeared from the public eye?
“In all honesty, I was so worried about not having a job that I took every call,” Lyons says, between bites of lunch, as her dog, Popeye, yaps in the background. After years on top of the fashion heap, one would assume she’s a hot commodity, but she maintains that wasn’t so. “Everyone said my phone would be ringing off the hook. It rang, but it was definitely on the hook.”
However, the calls that did come through mostly panned out: “I started the conversation about the television show and it was completely unrelated to the business. I wish I could say it was all very strategic, but it wasn’t.”
One can’t help but think that the producers at HBO were hoping for drama. However, the show hinges on Lyons’s warmth and cool-girl mystique over the back-stabbing that often characterises reality shows. In fact, despite being meticulous when it comes to work, she radiates a maternal energy with the would-be employees, not to mention a naughty-silly rapport with DeFord and Clary. And there’s plenty of ribald humour and four-letter words — this is HBO after all.
The Devil Wears Prada, this is not. “One consistent bit of feedback I got from the crew was: Oh, you’re super approachable,” she says. “They said, ‘I thought you’d be super formal or uptight.’ But I’m not that uptight,” she laughs. “But, when people hear a title, or see the size of your office, they decide something about you. It can influence the way people perceive you.”
The pilot episode demonstrates just how intimate a project this ended up being. Lyons works out of her own SoHo loft — which meant welcoming a full film crew into her home (“They used up every bit of toilet paper I had. There were things in my recycling that were not recyclable”) — and her first project isn’t just a professional risk, it’s a personal one: she’s tasked with redecorating the townhouse of two close pals.
And while Lyons typically radiates a sunny disposition, she experienced a tough adjustment period after leaving J Crew.
“It’s hard to even describe,” she says. She had two longtime assistants and a nanny, and a calendar booked back-to-back. She had the fate of a multibillion-dollar company in her hands. She was at the centre of the glamorous fashion industry, and then — bam — she wasn’t. “I had a lot of people in my life who took care of me and managed my life. And all of a sudden, all of it was gone. It was a really hard transition for all of the reasons you can imagine, and some that you can’t.”
“I had to learn how to do several things all over again,” she continues. “The last time I took care of my personal bills, I wrote a cheque and put it in the mail.” She laughs before going quiet: “It was lonely. It was hard and kind of dark.”
J Crew, it should be said, has experienced some dark times of its own: the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May, and last month replaced its chief executive — its third in as many years.
Lyons says that when she left, she made big plans. She’d get fit, learn to cook, bake. “I didn’t do any of that,” she says. “I was just fried. I was like an overblown mattress that needed to release the valve and lay flat for a while.”
That echoes a familiar fashion industry concern, that the demands of social media and endless collections have destroyed work-life balance and time for creativity. Her new chapter is separate from the traditional fashion industry, and has given Lyons time to expand the idea of what she can do.
“I’ve learned over these past three years that being open to possibilities is actually really fortuitous,” she says. “We’re trying to stay more open.”
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