Style Queen of The Age of Obama

In recent years, Ms. Lyons and Co. have been attempting to lure edgier New Yorkers back to the fold via “curated” specialty stores like the pricey new J. Crew Collection store on the Upper East Side, where a woman can buy a $3,000 gown and a $300 trench, and at the former Liquor Store in Tribeca, which easily attracted its target customer—men—by taking over a popular neighborhood bar and barely renovating.

There, Steven Alan–looking rumpled dress shirts for $59.50 hang for sale alongside an inky blue, vintage-inspired “Mister Freedom foul-weather deck jacket” for $889.95. Only three had initially been produced, said a pretty salesgirl in a knit cap who was strung with copious necklaces. “It’s crazy, you’d think it would be hard to sell stuff like that right now,” she said. But the CEO’s son had bought one; they’d sold another the day it arrived in-store; and now more were on order.

Behind the space’s intact bar, old bottles of Port and Tanqueray and olives were arranged near a case of $2,295 vintage watches and a selection of John Derian paperweights. A bookshelf of worn books included copies of The Exorcist and The Last Steam Railroad in America. Except for a modest, cursive “J. Crew” scribbled on the mirror behind the bar, one would have never guessed this place was connected to a mall staple at all. It felt more like downtown specialty stores like Earnest Sewn and Odin, which stock limited inventory and plenty of other distractions to hold their customers’ attention.

The combination of retail tactics seems to be working.

Analysts say traffic is up and that the brand, while not immune to the economy, is better positioned to weather the storm than its nearest competitor, Banana Republic, and many department stores. Part of this is the company’s shiny new image, upscaled in recent years and disseminated regularly to millions of American households by a catalog featuring top-tier models and styling (Ms. Lyons’ innovation), and, recently, Lauren Hutton on the cover. And part of it is sticking to the same old script.

Ms. Lyons said J. Crew hasn’t increased prices on its core collection; they’ve just added more specialty items and opened the experimental New York shops to showcase them.

And while all this has caught the attention of the more fashionable customer—the only customer who is shopping right now, said Ms. Chen, the retail analyst—Ms. Lyons said the goal is still to cut a broad swath through the populace with upscale basics.

“I work in an office where there are 20-year-old girls walking around, and they wear our toothpick jean; and I’m 40 years old, and I wear our toothpick jean; and my mom is 72, and she wears our toothpick jean,” she said.

Not that they’re trying for total toothpick ubiquity, in these troubled times. “We’re holding our cards close to our chest,” said Ms. Lyons, noting that J. Crew is focusing on quality and service rather than store expansion (with just 200 stores, J. Crew is smaller than both Banana Republic and the Gap). No one yet knows what permanent bump the brand will get from the Obamas, with whom it has had recent confidentiality discussions that barred Ms. Lyons from describing how J. Crew’s designs ended up at the inaugural.

The creative director did describe the mood at the company’s colorful offices at 770 Broadway on Jan. 20, though. “Honestly, it was a lot of tears and a lot of screaming,” she said. “We were actually watching in my office on my computer because I have a large screen, and there were tons of us around and most people didn’t know that there was even a chance that they could be wearing our clothes.”

Style Queen of The Age of Obama