Girls crushing on cool, successful girls is de rigueur these days. And one of fashion’s most successful, ultra cool girls is J. Crew’s president and creative director, Jenna Lyons. The 46-year-old style icon, who has worked her way up at the American sportswear company for over two-and-a-half decades, is a true original whose creative direction has been cited as the reason J. Crew became a cult brand. The bespectacled, six-foot Boston-born beauty has mastered the mix when it comes to sartorial panache, and in doing so, has set an inspiring example for those who appreciate the art of juxtaposition in dress. Although J. Crew has seen its share of tough times over the past few months in a retail landscape that is increasingly challenging, Lyons is soldiering on and recently paid a visit to Toronto to meet with adoring customers. I had the luxury of cozying up with Jenna Lyons over coffee to talk about the “casualization” of fashion, the magic of the mix, and what’s ultimately at the heart of truly great personal style.
J.Crew has planted itself firmly in people’s minds as a great American sportswear brand. But in the light of globalization, does that really mean anything anymore?
Only in that there’s this sense that things don’t last anymore. There aren’t a lot of things that have any staying power and there isn’t necessarily a sense of style that has staying power. Things now are so transient. Things switch so quickly, and so I do think there’s something relatively iconic about American sportswear that seems to resonate with our customers, whether it’s the undertone of men’s wear or the idea of mixing cashmere and pearls and ripped jeans — those kind of things where there’s that dichotomy and mix of things. That’s always been important to us. I think there’s some iconography associated with American style. It was the first place that saw casualization of clothing. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s everyone else’s decision to make. But Americans pioneered jeans and chinos and all that. I just happen to like them with heels!
Do you see that “casualization” of fashion continuing?
I think that it’s continuing. Listen, I’ve never seen so many people wearing yoga pants on the weekends! It’s a totally dif- ferent world. I completely appreciate and want people to be comfortable. I remem- ber when women were burning their bras and all that. Of course, that should be a personal choice. And I remember when casual Fridays first happened and then there was kind of a revolt, particularly with men. They’ve sort of gone back to wanting to dress in haberdashery, being a little bit more suited up. So I think that people are also wanting to retreat a little bit back to a sense of tradition. Both things are happen- ing at the same time — dressing up and dressing down. And men’s wear may be shifting in a bit of different direction than women’s wear. But I do think that as the casualization continues to happen, there are people who are going the opposite way and wanting to dress up. I will never go for casual Fridays. I’ll go for mixed casual everyday, but never a full head-to-toe casual.
The first time I met you backstage at the New York shows, I was struck by the wild, bold mix that you had going on both in the way you personally dressed and in the way the J. Crew collection was styled. Now we see that bold mix on high fashion European runways...
Yeah, it’s interesting. There are two completely different waves happening now. Gucci is taking things in that direction of incredible luxury and textures and mixing fabrics and colours. And there’s gender fluidity: Boys being girls and girls being boys, and we’re sharing each other’s clothes, which I love. I’ve always appreciated the idea of men’s clothes for women. And then there’s this very sexy, sultry Balmain section of what’s happening in the world. And that’s a totally different vibe. What’s interesting to me is that they’re probably both popular. Then Céline has been reigning in terms of that very clean, very paired-down look. And then look what’s happening, you know with Raf Simons leaving Dior and Alber Elbaz leaving Lanvin...I mean, God! There’s a massive shift. But meanwhile, the styles that pervade are all so different: the super-clean, simple, paired-down palette, then the sexy, amped-up beauty glamour, and then the Bloomsbury mash up, with a little bit of sultry sexiness in it. That’s kind of awesome. I love that, and it makes me excited.
But we are living in such an image-driven time. People are living through these Instagram images and how popular you are according to how many likes you’re getting. Everyone just wants to please. Do you think it’s going to change?
I’ll be really interested to see what happens with the younger generation. I have a nine-year-old and he wants to have his own Youtube channel, and I’m like, “No, that’s not happening!” I hope that at some point there becomes a critical mass where people want to slow down. People often ask me what’s the best way to get a job or what’s the best advice and I’m like, “Take out a piece of paper, take out a pen and write something...like a thank you note. Or write me and ask for a job.” I think that there is this over-reliance that you can live your entire life through your phone. And I just don’t think that’s true. The things that feel meaningful are those personal touches, like sending a physical note. Don’t send me a thank you note with an email. It’s just not okay. I think that the part that scares me the most is that people aren’t picking up the phone and calling each other. If my son is near a phone, I’m like, “Call me. I want to talk to you.” He should call me because when he asks me for something in a text, I always say no. But when he calls me, I’m like, “Awwwww...” I hear his voice and I melt. And I’m like, “You can have whatever you want.”
The power of personal contact!
It’s huge. Huge.
And the power of people far beyond the trappings of the style world. People look at you as an amazing clothes- horse and a source of inspiration. But what really shines through with you is that humanity beneath the fabulous garments. I think it’s something you must have consciously worked on, despite the fact that you work in the trenches of material fashion.
I just feel so connected to the personal side of it, not the glamorous side. Don’t get me wrong: I love a party and a little red carpet action. But what I really enjoy is getting to meet or sit next to someone amazing. There’s no question that style goes far beyond what you wear. The people who I think are the most elegant are the people who make good eye contact, have a firm handshake, smile. That’s one of the reasons I worry so much about some of the younger generation. I’m constantly telling my son to look people in the eye when you talk to them, don’t look down when you’re talking to the waitress. When someone comes up to talk to you, look up and say hello. I was a waitress. I remember what it felt like when some people didn’t look at me when I came over to the table. It felt awful. And people will remember the way you treated them more than they will remember your outfit. And that’s important and that is part of style. I think those things add up far more deeply and sort of have much more weight in the end than being able to put a couple of things together that look cute.
This interview has been condensed and edited.Report Typo/Error