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.