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May 3, 2013

Women of Influence: Jenna Lyons

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Photo Credit: Marcus Mam

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Lyons is empathetic that her success has been years in the making. "There's this idea that everybody has to have everything right away. But you have to let the slow burn happen," she says. This is particularly true in fashion, she adds, where there's increasing pressure to hit the big time fast, like Proenza Schouler, the New York–based design duo who had their very first collection picked up by Barneys, and fashion blogger Tavi Gevenson, front row at Prada at age 13. "Those people are incredibly special. The fact of the matter is, I wasn't. I wasn't the superstar. I had to work for it. Really long hours. I didn't have any friends."

In 2003, Millard "Mickey" Drexler, the former CEO of Gap widely credited for turning that label into an American classic, took the helm of J.Crew. Drexler wanted to upgrade the brand and give it more cultural resonance—better designers with better designs, higher-quality materials, more color and vivacity. He gave Lyons, then the newly installed creative director, wide berth to execute his vision. "When someone trusts you that much, ultimately what happens is you won't want to fail. You work harder because you don't want to disappoint," she says.

While Lyons doesn't design anymore, her imprimatur is everywhere. For each of the six core divisions—J.Crew women's, men's, kids, bridal, Madewell, and J.Crew Factory—Lyons approves each outfit before it's shot for the catalogs. (There are several shoots a day, nearly every day of the year.) She has a hand in store locations and decor, the Web design, themes and locations for catalog shoots, and even the labels on the clothes. She's an open-door-policy kind of boss who tore down a wall in her office so her designers can hold up something for her to look at, even when she's in the middle of meetings. Since 2008, she has appeared in J.Crew catalogs, a move that helped nurture her celebrity, first among J.Crew's fans and soon after among style bloggers who'd seized upon her eclectic flair—the Clark Kent glasses and inspired mix-and-matching. Her own style is emblematic of the brand's: daring without being intimidating.

Yet despite J.Crew's tremendous success, Lyons is committed to its affordability. She is nothing if not accessible and democratic, a style icon for the digital era. "I just don't want people to feel like you have to live a certain way to have access to the brand. It's not who we are. I certainly didn't grow up that way. If you did, awesome, more power to you. You can afford to buy anything you want," she says. "Hopefully, you'll buy us, too."

Lyons' Tips for Success

STAY TRUE TO YOUR VALUES: "I don't want people to feel they have to live a certain way to have access to the brand. I certainly didn't grow up that way."

BIG BREAKS COME DURING MOMENTS OF FLUX : Lyons designed for virtually every division at J.Crew. "Things were swelling up underneath me, and I was always sitting on the raft. I ended up having insane opportunities."

THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS OVERNIGHT SUCCESS: "There's this idea that everybody has to have everything right away. But you have to let the slow burn happen. I wasn't the superstar. I had to work for it. Really long hours."

ALLY WITH SUPERIORS WHO RESPECT YOUR TALENTS: Lyons instantly clicked with J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler. "When someone trusts you that much, ultimately what happens is you won't want to fail."


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