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Mod Squad Leader
Join Date: May 2003
Location: San Francisco
vogue interview from 2006
Measure of success; As J.Crew’s fashion visionary, Jenna Lyons has dressed millions of American women by appreciating the value of proportions
by Mark Holgate
Early in December, while New York is still deep in a post-Thanksgiving daze, the J.Crew design team is feverishly thinking about the future. It is their big day to unveil their vision of fall 2006 to J.Crew’s Mr. Big, Millard “Mickey” Drexler. “Jenna, Jenna, where are you?” hollers Drexler. Out of the melee of publicists, buyers, marketing executives, and one guy whose job it is to capture all this on a camcorder steps Jenna Lyons, senior vice president of women’s design, who at six feet is way taller than just about everyone else in the room. She quickly goes through the collection’s key pieces-ruffled striped shirts, skinny gilt-button cardigans, nipped-waist polka-dot dresses-before the assembled multitude squeezes into a corridor that Drexler dubs “a trip down Wedding Lane.” On show are the latest versions of the bridal looks that Lyons has helped turn into one of J.Crew’s more lucrative successes of recent times. Drexler leaps onto a display stand and grapples with a mannequin, lifting up a pale-pink cashmere shell to get a better look at the proportions of a floor-length taffeta skirt, the waistband of which is near level with his chest. “Hey, Jenna!” he shouts out, simultaneously playing to the crowd and affectionately teasing Lyons. “This is where the waist sits? Well, I suppose that’s where your waist sits!”
When Jenna Lyons declares that “the DNA of J.Crew is in me,” you believe her. It is undoubtedly something to do with the way she looks. She’s tawny and athletic, with the kind of architecturally planed and angled beauty that recalls the era of models Tatjana Patitz and Cordula Reyer. It’s also the way she wears the label effortlessly, while always bringing something of her own to it. For today’s unveiling, Lyons, 37, is in a cream-and-brown horse-bit-print silk shirtdress stamped sample on the back (to her surprise it fit, so she thought, Why not?) and a pair of tan riding boots. The ensemble would be very collegiate, very classically J.Crew, were it not for those personal touches-a tangle of twisted necklaces; a hip, stacked heel on an otherwise straightforward boot.
But her fifteen-year career at J.Crew is about more than her ability to look the part. In the perilously risky, high-stakes world of mass-brand fashion, she has the ability to intuit where America’s ever-shifting fashion culture is going next and what women will want from it.
“Jenna really engages with matters of style at a cultural level, with how we live today,” says Debra Singer, director of the Kitchen Gallery, who met her through Lyons’s husband, artist Vincent Mazeau. “It’s one thing to observe a trend and quite another to communicate that to people.” Gayle Spannaus, who has worked with Lyons for twelve years, says, “She’s really the litmus test of what works for J.Crew. Her style is unique. It’s not Ralph Lauren or Abercrombie & Fitch, it’s totally her-feminine and modern and uncomplicated.” Drexler sensed those exact qualities when he promoted Lyons to her current role: “It’s like the difference between good music and bad music-you just can tell.”
Lyons has worked hard to bring J.Crew to its current status-fashion-forward but not so out there that it’s permanently stuck on fast-forward. “I know when we’ve made a wrong turn,” she says. “I mean, there was a time when we did one-shouldered tops! For J.Crew! I get it now that it doesn’t matter if asymmetry is the biggest trend in the world-it doesn’t belong here.” Despite a stint at Donna Karan when she first graduated from Parsons School of Design in 1990, she has no interest in being drawn into the mega-drama designer sphere. At J.Crew, Drexler has given Lyons and her team creative autonomy, and the chance to use Shameeza beading and Loro Piana cashmeres and Ratti silks, names usually associated with those who show their latest creations during the Paris haute couture, not in catalogs destined to be crammed into mailboxes across America. “I learned early on that what I wanted to do was something that was approachable and real and that a lot of people could afford,” says Lyons. “Exclusion is not interesting to me.”
One of the peculiar foibles of fashion is that many of those accorded insider status have often spent some deeply influential part of their life as an outsider looking in. Marc Jacobs experienced it. Alber Elbaz experienced it. And so, too, did Jenna Lyons, who struggled to come to terms with her height, which she says used to “make me feel like such an outcast.”
Negotiating her emotions about her stature explains why she has proved to be so good at satisfying the demands of her role at J.Crew; she has to empathize with a multitude of different body types. In her typically modest manner, she admits she hasn’t always got it right. “When I started, our coats were too long,” she recalls, “our pants were too long-they had the inseam I take, which is a 36.” Now J.Crew offers trousers in various leg lengths, and there are shirts for women who are bustier, as well as narrower versions for those, says Lyons, “who, like me, don’t have so much going on there; I’ve always had the height, but not that.”
Lyons, who was born in Boston and moved to Rancho Palos Verdes in California when she was four, reached the six-foot mark early in life: at age twelve. She comes from a lofty family-her father is six feet seven, her mother five feet ten, her various siblings and half-siblings are all around six feet-and yet. . . . “I always felt like a giant,” Lyons says. “My dad would say, ‘One day you’ll love it, you’ll be so proud’-and all I thought was, You’re a guy; what do you know!?” There were various humiliations to be endured, including being the first in line during the July 4 parades not only because she was the tallest but because, says Lyons, “my mother was a piano teacher, and I actually had some rhythm.” Toughest by far, though, was reaching adolescence and realizing that she was exempt, on height grounds, from joining the clique of girls who could pull off the sloppily big sweatshirt and supershort skirt combo, which on her was clumsy, not cool. “I had a boyfriend who asked me,” says Lyons, ” ‘Why can’t you look like all the other girls?’ ”
She tells me this over lunch on a sunny January Saturday in one of her West Chelsea neighborhood restaurants, Cookshop, which she and Mazeau frequent. That morning she’d seen her trainer, Ray Scalvino, who is helping with what she calls her “thutt” problem: “He’s trying to separate my thighs from my butt,” she says, laughing. Lyons likes to eat, and she and Scalvino have worked out the terms of their relationship: As long as her weight stays the same, he has accepted that his client will continue to drink Monsordo Ceretto and indulge in Ciao Bella espresso gelato, and occasionally savor some of the ripe, odorous Reblochon cheese she loves so much. Yet there are other reasons Lyons is committed to her trainer. It is a way for her to deal with the body-image issues that stem from a rare and serious genetic disorder, incontinentia pigmenti, which means, among other things, that her skin is patchy. “It was too easy to fall back on looking good in clothes because I was tall,” she says. “I wanted to feel better about my body without them. It will never look perfect, but I’d like there to be a shape under my clothes.”
The acceptance of the possibilities that her height, and fashion, offered to her came in the form of Manhattan, Parsons, and Toronto’s Guild Electric company, in that order. She arrived in New York to study, and her roommate, Amy Lengyel, whose father ran said company, offered to let her borrow an Azzedine Alaia dress. Until that point, Lyons had had the dysmorphia that many tall yet slim women experience, buying a size 14 because only that would be long enough to fit.
“I had always just thought I was this big lump of a girl,” says Lyons, who actually takes a 6, “and that Alaia dress was the first time I had ever worn something close to my body, and I was staggered, just staggered, by the reaction.” Lyons observed something else about New York, though: Regardless of height, women wore heels. “Suddenly, I saw that if I wanted to wear six-inch stilettos, then people would think that was cool and interesting, that it was OK to look different, to accentuate what’s positive. I remember thinking, Moving to New York was the best thing that could have happened to me, and I am never going home.”
New York has become home to Lyons so much that David Maupin, co-owner of the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Manhattan, says that “if you had to caricature a New York fashion person, it would be a drawing of Jenna. She’s someone who touches every part of contemporary culture.” With her current living situation, Lyons can’t escape culture. She and Mazeau are temporarily decamped at his studio while waiting for their two-year Park Slope brownstone renovation to wrap up, and are sharing the limited space with Mazeau’s artist colleagues Paul Myoda, Julian LaVerdiere, and Aida Ruilova, who is currently preparing a short film based on Jean Rollin’s French vampire erotica movies of the 1960s (it will be shown at the fourth Berlin Biennale this spring). It would be surprising to find a major player at J.Crew living in this anything-but-bourgeois environment, if that player weren’t Lyons. “The thing with Jenna,” says Singer, “is that she is immersed in the art world, the design world, not just the fashion scene. It’s why she is able to draw on all sorts of wonderfully arcane references.”
The communal living is coming to an end, though: Lyons and Mazeau will move to Brooklyn this month, all being well. She has worked hard to come up with a space that will be mentally and physically conducive, which means tall-friendly, as Mazeau is also six feet. There has been the matter of raising the bathroom units five inches higher so she doesn’t have to stoop to clean her teeth; the sourcing of higher toilets, which are forties Deco, and a vintage seven-foot claw tub, from DEA Bathroom Machineries in Murphys, California. Lyons hasn’t quite decided on the color of the George Sherlock sofa she wants, which will replace the Zanotta couch that was “so low I couldn’t get out of it.”
The move will also mean that Lyons can have her beloved collection of clothes back under one roof, as they are currently housed at Mazeau’s studio as well as at three units at Manhattan Mini Storage. En masse, it will be quite a treasure trove: a J.Crew fur-lined trench (“My favorite thing ever”); a Chanel tweed jacket (fastenings lowered to match her waist); a Balenciaga peacoat from one of Ghesquiere’s earliest collections (“See? The labels were still written by hand”); a plunging, floor-length Etro dress (“I can do dramatic sexy; not cute sexy”); the 38-inseam Okura jeans (sourced in Japan, of all places); heels in size 81/2 from Gucci, Louboutin, Proenza Schouler (“Stores always assume that I’m an 11. My dad has small feet too; it’s a hereditary thing”); the Chloe that she snapped up on eBay (the lacy, ruffly tops will go with her-the fringed leather jacket that saw her design team play Cher’s “Half Breed” at her last birthday party will not); and her ever-growing collection of Derek Lam. The Lyons-Lam connection goes way back to Parsons. “She’s moved from the very casual Californian thing to this very polished, sophisticated look,” Lam says. “I bumped into Jenna at the Air France lounge in Paris a few years ago, and she had all these Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent shopping bags. Sometimes, with fashion people, you never quite know why they’re buying the clothes, but with Jenna, you just know she’s going to love wearing them.”
Lam’s fall 2006 show is, in fact, the backdrop for my final meeting with Jenna. She’s thrilled to be there (“It’s not like I get asked to a lot of fashion shows”) and also more than happy to provide a running commentary on what she will-and what she won’t-be ordering next season. She gives a nod to a camel coat with huge fur cuffs (“Someone needs to see me running down the street in that”), a smoke-gray ruffled shirt (“So chic”), a green-and-black fitted dress (“It will mean more crunches and sit-ups”). She stops for a moment, rapt in the models flitting by on the runway. A vivid emerald trench appears. There’s a sharp intake of breath, and then she dissolves into laughter as she renders a mental image of herself wearing it. “I don’t think the world’s ready for all six feet of me in that.”
(life in fashion and in print)
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