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May 3, 2013

Women of Influence: Jenna Lyons

In our Women of Influence series, meet three extraordinary leaders whose keen instincts and bold ideas have shaped the way we dress, how we connect, and what we talk about.


Photo Credit: Marcus Mam

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STYLE GURU: Jenna Lyons
President and Executive Creative Director, J.Crew

Jenna Lyons has worked at J.Crew for more than 22 years. That may as well be 22 aeons in an industry where emerging designers, like pro ballplayers and cable-news anchors, rarely stay in one place too long, logging a few years here, a few years there. But that hasn't been so for Lyons, 44, who began at J.Crew as an assistant in menswear and, over two decades, worked her way up to president and executive creative director, having led the brand's epic re-invention from purveyor of barn coats and merino wool sweaters to juggernaut of casual-cool American chic. Though J.Crew isn't a luxury brand on par with, say, Balenciaga (one of her favorites), Lyons has nonetheless cultivated an enormous amount of respect and credibility in the notoriously clubby world of high fashion.

J.Crew, once a Main Street also-ran behind Gap and The Limited, is now one of the hot tickets at New York Fashion Week, this year shown at Lincoln Center and attended by every fashion editor, bold-faced blogger, and style star in town. (Last season, Solange and Beyoncé Knowles showed up; this season, Julianne Moore attended.) Under Lyons' watch, J.Crew is looking to conquer Europe next and will open its first overseas storefront, in London, this fall; seven years ago the label launched Madewell, a hip, lower-cost line that seems tailor-made for the coeds who once represented J.Crew's core audience. And then, of course, there is the first lady, a stalwart J.Crew devotee, who, along with her daughters, sported the label at both presidential inaugurations. "To make the first family feel enough pride in our clothes to wear them on the day that they're going to be photographed over and over again—those pictures are going to be a part of history forever—it's just incredible," Lyons tells me, clearly moved.

But the most telling evidence of her growing clout may well be the epic dust storm her personal life has kicked up. Three years ago when she appeared in a J.Crew catalog painting her son Beckett's toes with hot-pink nail polish, conservative pundits on Fox News decried it as "an attack on masculinity." The flap later made news on The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart dubbing the affair "Toemageddon." But that was only a prelude to what would come later. In 2010, Lyons separated from her husband of nine years, artist Vincent Mazeau, and started seeing Courtney Crangi (sister and business partner of jewelry designer Philip Crangi). The gossip columns went berserk covering the messy split. "It's certainly been challenging," Lyons admits. "Someone once said to me, 'If you believe the good, you have to believe the bad.' So I don't read anything. If you listened to what you read in the press, you'd go insane."

Lyons was raised in Palos Verdes, California, just south of Los Angeles, and her parents divorced when she and her kid brother, Spencer, were young. "I'll never forget standing in the grocery store and having to make choices about what to put in the cart. I could feel the stress that [my mother] felt, having to take care of us," Lyons recalls. There were more personal challenges, too. Tall and gangly, she had trouble finding clothes that fit her frame (she stands at six feet today), and a genetic disorder called incontinentia pigmenti gave her bald spots and malformed teeth, for which she still wears dentures.

She eventually moved to New York to attend Parsons School of Design, and after graduating in 1989, took her sketches to Emily Woods, cofounder of J.Crew, then a catalog-driven outpost known for its campus-friendly preppy apparel. She was hired on the spot. As J.Crew grew, Lyons took on more roles, ultimately designing for virtually every division in the company, including lingerie, kidswear, and bath and body. "Things were swelling up underneath me," Lyons says of that period, "and I was always sitting on the raft. I ended up having insane opportunities over time."

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