Some teenagers will just accept the monotony of school uniforms. Not Jenna Lyons. By seventh grade, she had already sprouted to six feet – mostly legs – when she made the switch to a French school in a Los Angeles suburb, where the mandated ensemble required what she felt was creative modification. "I would buy the skirts really small and the shirts really big so the proportions really shifted," she recalls, adding that she preferred the boys' boxy blazers and oversized sweaters to the girls' versions. "It was fun and I couldn't help myself."
Lyons, now 43, doesn't go as far as tracing a direct line from that moment to her current position as president and creative director at J.Crew, but it's impossible to dismiss how her precocious restyling might have influenced her bold reshaping of a preppy apparel brand famous for its catalogue into a nexus of effortless cool.
During a recent media meet-and-greet with Lyons at J.Crew's new store in Toronto, the girl-crush quotient among the assembled fashion reporters registers off the charts. As she reveals in an interview, her involvement in every detail of the 5,000-square-foot Yorkdale Shopping Centre space, the retailer's first outside the U.S., is typical of the way she works. From the Serge Mouille light fixture to the array of art books on display to the bell jars containing pretty baubles, the look is patented Lyons: part aspirational and part everyday American.
Featuring rackfuls of neutral work and weekend wear, the Canadian store also bursts with an assortment of vibrantly hued cashmere sweaters, skinny corduroy pants, lacy underwear and nail lacquers. The merchandise, of course, is carefully curated, but it doesn't feel forced. For Lyons, who has worked at J.Crew for 20 years, this balance comes naturally, she says.
"I don't know how to do it any other way," she explains. "Even when picking models or doing hair and makeup for the catalogue, it has to feel a touch tousled – not perfect," she adds, shrugging her shoulders. "We left the floor unfinished in the store so it will age over time. I can't wait until it gets scuffed up."
With the introduction three years ago of Jenna's Picks – a list of her favourite items that accompanies each of the 14 catalogues per year – she has become a spokesperson of sorts, lending the brand a viewpoint it didn't have before.
For the most part, Lyons thinks that her choices have held up over the years, but she is also okay with any duds. "Listen, I am the hugest mistake maker; there are things I do sometimes and I don't know what I was thinking. But I think there needs to be an allowance for [that]. It might have felt right at that time, but I'm sure if I gave it a second look, I'd say, 'Ohmigod.' I [experience] that with my own outfits. I'll look at a picture and think, 'Ugh!'"
On this occasion, Lyons is wearing a midnight-blue crewneck sweater and an electric-green sequined skirt; her hair is pulled back into a pretty mess. Her goal, she says, is "touchability."
"I want to be able to touch someone's hair [or] put my arms around a friend and play with their sweater. I'm an affectionate person and I want people to look touchable."
As creative director, Lyons oversees a 100-or-so-person design team
that produces the J.Crew collections, including men's, kids', bridal, swimwear and accessories lines. Last week,
a profile in New York magazine suggested just how influential Lyons has become, noting that J.Crew now informs designer collections rather than the other way around.
"When someone uses you as an adjective, that's pretty incredible – to be part of the vocabulary," she says. "But it's also scary because we have to keep reinventing and pushing forward and not doing the same thing we did last month. How do you make it still feel 'J.Crew' but current? That's where my head is at all the time."
For now, the Toronto location only carries women's clothes, but Lyons, who lives in Brooklyn with her artist husband, Vincent Mazeau, and their four-year-old son, Beckett, hasn't forgotten the guys: "We have a [men's] site [in the works]," she says. "I can't give you a date, but we're hot on the trail."
As the guests start leaving the Yorkdale event, they are handed tote bags printed with a map of Toronto. One contains an abstract floral-print scarf, a chain necklace with faceted black beads and hibiscus-pink nail polish. On their own, the tokens are charming enough, but it's the message on the gift tag that stands out even more: "Enclosed are a few handpicked gifts that I thought you would enjoy – they're some of my personal favourites for fall."
Call it the Lyons touch.