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The Globe and Mail

J.Crew's unlikely role as sociocultural provocateur

Jenna Lyons, creative director and president of J.Crew, is no conventional beauty: Standing 6-foot-5, she has a large triangle nose, Jelly Tots for eyes and polygamist's-wife long hair that hides bald spots from a rare genetic disease.

But she is gorgeous, and J.Crew's renewed relevance is in no small part due to cleverly packaging Lyons's offbeat version of beauty.

In fact, Lyons, 43, may have helped J.Crew become too relevant. Argyle socks and cardigans are not usually the stuff of scandal (well, who knows what Mr. Rogers was up to), yet, twice this year, J.Crew, formerly known as a conservative, all-American mall brand, has been accused of espousing radical sexual politics.

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While super-CEO Mickey Drexler – reputed to have saved The Gap in the nineties – arrived in 2003 to revive the brand, it was Lyons who has become the face of J.Crew.

The catalogue often features photo essays of her life as a working mom in her Park Slope brownstone with her artist husband and foppishly named young son, Beckett.

Her popularity crested this fall, when she was much interviewed about J.Crew's expansion of its international operations (Toronto got Canada's first store in August). Lyons was also the talk of New York Fashion Week, where J.Crew, for the first time, showed a collection among the couture tents, elevating its status to designer label.

Despite Lyons's gawky, likeable outsider persona – "This is like going to prom!" she gushed during Fashion Week – she has become a lightning rod for sexual-identity fury. In April, the catalogue featured Lyons painting her son's toenails pink, along with the line "Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon." Conservative media busted a vein, with commentator Erin Brown calling the image "propaganda celebrating transgendered children." Jon Stewart tagged the episode "Toemaggedon" and quipped on The Daily Show, "We all know transgendered children should not be celebrated – they should be shunned!"

Now Lyons is reportedly going through a messy divorce, undercutting those cheerful domestic advertorials. But the story got even more tantalizing when unconfirmed reports suggested she was seeing a woman, Courtney Crangi, sister and business partner of jewellery designer Philip Crangi. Fox News pundit Keith Ablow weighed in: "My worry that Ms. Lyons might be expressing her own discomfort with masculinity and projecting it onto her son – and mine, and yours – seems to have been justified."

As far as I can tell, my son's masculinity actually seems totally okay with Lyons's new relationship. The told-you-so hysteria in this slippery-slope theory – first, nail polish; next stop: homosexuality! – is stunning retro-ignorance. But if Lyons is gay (though what happened to "bisexual"?), the repercussions are interesting, for both politics and style. The fashion industry is dominated by gay men. As The Advocate website wrote of the Lyons gossip, "We need more lesbian power couples in fashion."

Or: We need different kinds of power in fashion. Often, regular women feel excluded from high-end design, but they don't want to be relegated to mom jeans, either. Lyons made motherhood good-looking.

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J.Crew is the master of the high/low mix, with clothes that can go from work to evening or fancy up sufficiently for a presidential inauguration, as the three female Obamas demonstrated.

One of J.Crew's most striking Fashion Week outfits was a men's denim shirt tucked into a long, horizontally striped multicoloured skirt. The masculine/feminine mix is another Lyons trademark (don't tell Ablow; he'll have to untwist and then return his J.Crew boxers). Before this scandal, Lyons said she's working on outfits for same-sex weddings.

And "Jenna Lyons girl crush" gets 1.4 million Google hits, presumably from all sides of the sexual-preference spectrum.

She's a sign of flexibility in design and in attitude, an example of fashion either reflecting changing social mores or nudging those shifts along.

If couture is there to explore women's fantasies, the Lyons image attempts to tell us something about women's lives – albeit a WASPy, hyper-privileged swath of life, with cracks in the façade. But if Lyons continues to be the face of J.Crew post-divorce, it's an opportunity to update the much-marketed image of a happy, straight, nuclear family to a happy, divorced, un-straight family. Her maybe partner has three children and, if J.Crew is smart, they'll show this blended brood in all their finery, reflecting the reality of many (less good-looking) families.

As Lyons made headlines, Rick Mercer was making his plea for gay public figures to stop being "invisible." If Lyons is gay – and comes out – maybe her private life will shift from titillation to impact, especially if J.Crew doesn't abandon her narrative. Maybe some kid will see Lyons and see a life – even an aspirational, fantastical, fashionista life – that is, in some way, as inclusive as it is imperfect.

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