Jenna Lyons, the creative director of J. Crew, was on the phone, discussing her Fashion Week plans. “I would love to go,” she said, her voice streaming buoyantly through the receiver. “Omigod, it would be so much fun.” She was hoping to squeeze the shows of Derek Lam (a friend from Parsons) and Chris Benz (a former J. Crew dress designer) into her schedule. But she had pressing matters to focus on: sketches for the 2009 holiday season, due that day; a Malibu store opening in March; and the company’s sudden heightened visibility after the Obama family J. Crewed their inaugural wardrobe, from the first lady’s green gloves to the president’s white tie to their daughters’ entire outfits.
“I would love to be Alber Elbaz,” Ms. Lyons said, invoking the designer of the high-end French label Lanvin, “but it’s not in the cards!”
At J. Crew these days, thanks in large measure to her influence, chalky pink T-shirts are festooned with girlish chiffon rosettes, and Loro Piano cashmere from Italy (on sale for $125) abuts friendly customer-service counters where brides-to-be pore over their attendants dresses in colors like spiced wine, espresso and tea rose. After a disappointing last quarter of 2008—partly because of the economy; partly because of a botched Web site upgrade that disrupted online orders and left the company with excess inventory—Ms. Lyons is greeting the coming year with optimism, rolling out a frilly spring collection in pale, makeup hues.
“I think happy is important,” she said. “I think, you know, smiles and warmth and all of those things are going to mean a lot right now. As much as black is important, it can be somber, and there’s no question that color affects people’s moods. So we’re going to try and keep it really upbeat.”
Ms. Lyons, 40, has assumed increasing creative control in the six years since former Gap CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler began a much admired resuscitation of this all-American brand. She has worked at the company almost half her life, rising up through the ranks of women’s design and now overseeing all the clothes, the Web site, the store design and the catalog. Six feet tall, she has been photographed at fashion parties around the city in black-rimmed glasses and lots of jewelry; she lives in a crisp, moody-hued Park Slope brownstone with her artist husband, Vincent Mazeau, and quirkily named son (the house was featured in Domino in flusher times). And she is the reason people no longer think of J. Crew as a place to get a barn jacket.
“I meet people sometimes and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know J. Crew, I have a roll-neck sweater,’” Ms. Lyons said, groaning. “And I’m like ‘Oh, no, no, that’s not the J. Crew I’m talking about!’”
THE ‘UNDULATING’ WARDROBE
In the years since Mr. Drexler took over, the brand has wedged itself into what is arguably a new retail sweet spot: Call it the Middle.
Ignored for years as shoppers heaped love on the idea of high-low, the Middle is having a moment. Perhaps it began when Isaac Mizrahi, who basically invented masstige at Target, jumped ship last year to Liz Claiborne, a classic (if ailing) American brand in its own right. Mr. Mizrahi’s first prim, colorfully upscale collection for the brand hits stores this month. It is also embodied by Tory Burch, a breakout success story of the past few years who built her business on Oprah, colorful tunics, ballet flats and accessible $200 and $300 price points.
It’s not that shoppers are eschewing H&M. But throwaway fashion can seem wasteful nowadays.
“I think a lot of [J. Crew’s] higher-price-point items are actually doing well because they are more specialized and they are better quality and they have a lot more fashion in them,” said retail analyst Christine Chen of Needham & Company in San Francisco. “So the customer sees it as value. … In this environment, the definition is really value, and value is not necessarily price. If you look at Old Navy’s performance, they have some of the cheapest price points out there and they’re still struggling.” (Ms. Chen said that J. Crew’s more fashion-driven items are selling better than their basics in this climate.)
Ms. Lyons said her customers have arrived at this new Middle from both ends of the spectrum. “It’s been really interesting; we’ve been getting people either trading up or trading down,” she said. After all, if J. Crew’s prices are prohibitive to some customers, they are positively a relief to others.
“The woman who would ordinarily shop designer feels comforable shopping at that price point, and for the woman who would normally shop at H&M, it’s a splurge,” said Vogue’s statuesque senior market editor, Meredith Melling Burke, who recently featured J. Crew in the magazine’s Index section and on story subject Jill Biden (sparkling in the brand’s gold lamé skirt for a photo in the November issue). “It’s kind of that very comfortable zone for a lot of people.”
For Ms. Melling Burke, who grew up in Boston, the classic J. Crew aesthetic is nothing to be ashamed of. She recalled “the multi-striped button-down that I had, it was great stripes and red stripes and blue stripes, and that was sort of like the shirt. The new catalog would come and I’d sit on the phone with my friends and get first dibs on who was getting what in what color.”
While we’re on the subject of nostalgia: Could the Middle be just another way of expressing a return to the ’80s sounding concept of sportswear?
“I never use words like that,” said designer Bryan Bradley of the pricey label Tuleh, who is creating a more accessible, Middle-friendly line under his own name and shipping it to stores this fall, where it will retail for $158 to $488. “It’s clothes to go to work in. It’s clothes to go out in.”
But the term holds no stigma for Ms. Lyons. “I feel like we sort of consider ourselves American sportswear,” she said. “But truthfully, if you look at what defined sportswear back when it first came to be, that moniker has changed and morphed so much.” Back then, it was “classic, sporty, it really was sports-influenced; I think of it as just mixing separates and not necessarily doing the whole outfit. Modern sportswear to me is really about … being able to sort of move your wardrobe around and have it be an undulating wardrobe. It’s about sort of being able to change up your look by buying new pieces and infusing new things into your wardrobe.”
And J. Crew is offering many “new things” … some of them old.
“If you click on jewelry, you can get a great sort of fun and colorful necklace for a hundred and something dollars, but then you can also, if you want to, buy an heirloom locket for $500,” Ms. Melling Burke pointed out. “They lure you in with something a little more attainable but then present you with something else.”
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.”