Decorating & Design

January 20, 2012

Interview: Jenna Lyons

There’s something very European about Jenna Lyons, the charismatic president and executive creative director of J.Crew — a very North American company. She has the laissez-faire tresses of a Parisian, the stature of an Italian model, and the allure of a Swiss heiress. But, she’s as warm and friendly as she is fiercely intelligent. When we meet, she’s wearing sky-high heels, which make her almost 6’5″, and a nautical-stripe knit sweater tucked into an iridescent emerald-green skirt — a bold, unexpected pairing that’s more easygoing than haute couture. Her home reads the same way: a dramatic black bedroom is cosy not harsh, and a mod kitchen is family-friendly not cold. Lyons’ innate sense of style has made her a sartorial celebrity. The well-heeled follow her every move, looking to see what the company’s “commander in chic” will choose next. The California native studied design at Parsons, landing her first job at J.Crew in 1990 and has steadily moved up through the ranks. The company has seen unparalleled success in recent years, since CEO Mickey Drexler took over and gave Lyons creative reign, taking the company’s offerings from staid separates to elegant must-haves. She oversees clothing, catalogue, website and store design, and has launched coveted new lines for weddings and children. Like her own quirky style, it’s a nip here, and a flourish there that make all the difference. The company opened their first Canadian store in Toronto last summer.

House & Home: Congratulations on your first international store — right here in Canada.

Jenna Lyons: Yes, it’s exciting. As much as it is international, it feels like New York to me here. It’s very cosmopolitan, and everyone is so nice. It doesn’t feel that different in Canada. It’s subtle.

H&H: How did you get into design?

JL: I was the person who painted my room white with splattered black paint. I hung a few pictures from Yves Klein; everything else was white. My surroundings needed to be pretty. But, I was also the person who was
totally tall, really awkward, incredibly gawky, and just didn’t fit in. I took a home ec class where I had to make something for myself. I made a long, watermelon-printed skirt and found everyone wanted it. It was the first time I felt I could do something on my own; I fell in love with creating things.

H&H: Many of us have seen the photos of your gorgeous Brooklyn brownstone published in Domino and LivingEtc. magazines. Was the design your vision?

JL: Oh yes, that’s all me. Someone said I used a decorator, and I just about died. That’s the fun part for me. I’m a voracious reader of design magazines.

H&H: How would you describe it?

JL: I appreciate any material that ages, and things that have a sense of history. For me, it’s about having that twist of modern, a stark contrast. So where there is something vintage and aged, allow for something really modern, whether it’s a Saarinen table or a beautiful chair with chrome details.

H&H: How is designing a room different from designing clothes?

JL: It’s the same creative process. I might decide I need something graphic and then something soft, a bit of shine, something vintage, a pop of colour, some contrast. It’s the same looking at textiles and paint whether it’s a palette for a store, a room or an outfit. I have rules for how many materials we can use in the stores. But, that’s just me. Someone like Kelly Wearstler, who is incredibly talented, probably has completely different rules. We all have our own visual vernacular.

H&H: So if something works, you’ll repeat it in the next store?

JL: We try to tweak it depending on the location, but there is a consistency in the materials. Raw wood is an unusual thing to put into a store. But, it’s nice that it starts to age and take on a patina. Shiny, varnished floors, to me, have no character. I like the idea of seeing it worn in, seeing where people stopped.

H&H: Do you think J.Crew will ever launch a home decor line?

JL: Mickey, our CEO, and I have talked about this a lot. I would love to, but it’s pretty tricky to get into.

H&H: Do you think the trends in fashion and home decor feed off each other?

JL: I pay attention to this a lot. The home trends obviously move much more slowly — if you buy a sofa for $6,000, you expect it to last. But if you buy a pair of shoes, by next season, you’re on to something else. Right now, people are showing that personal style is more important to them than fitting in, which I think is a new trend overall. Take the idea of the “it bag.” I don’t think there is one right now, which I love. There is a general ease happening in people’s clothing and in their personal style that’s reflected in their homes. It’s more idiosyncratic.

H&H: Whose style inspires you?

JL: Consuelo Castiglioni, who does Marni, has the most beautiful personal style. Giovanna Battaglia — I’m obsessed with her. Also, Diane Kruger, and Lauren Hutton, who styles herself for the J.Crew photos. I also love all the street blogs. Have you read The Man Repeller? The author’s commentary is hysterical. It’s all about outfits she wouldn’t get a date in, but they”e great — quirky and personal.

H&H: Where else do you find inspiration?

JL: Everything from movies and books to a trip, a vintage dress, or an old painting. It’s not ever the same thing. There”s one thing that sparks something. It’s that thing that sits next to something else, and you think, “Wow, those two things look good together,” and that goes on the board, then something else is layered on.

H&H: What’s on your inspiration board right now?

JL: Mickey just bought Andy Warhol’s estate in Montauk, and the caretaker gave him some old photos of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Andy Warhol and Lee Radziwill. So I have these photos that no one’s ever seen before. They’re the very picture of summer, with windblown hair, sun-kissed cheeks, little kids running around with no shirts on. I also just put up a story from Italian Vogue with gorgeous colour mixing. And, I have great photos that Richard Avedon took of Francis Bacon at his studio.

H&H: I see a lot of art books in the store. Is this a passion for you?

JL: It’s a huge source not just of inspiration, but “food.” I think art informs and inspires life. It’s nice to share these things. It gives people perspective into what we’re looking at, like the Cecily Brown book here in the shop.

H&H: J.Crew is great at the classics. What makes something a trend rather than a fad? What gives it staying power?

JL: We’ll make a little trench coat, but underneath there is a huge run of tulle that really pops it out. It’s a classic idea, twisted a little bit to be more feminine and playful. It feels right now, but it won’t feel wrong in three years. I’m not a huge trends person, though. A lot of the things in our catalogue have been running for a few years, but maybe they get a new button or a bright new colour.

H&H: What in the new line excites you?

JL: I’m sort of obsessed with a crewneck sweater, which I bought in five colours. It’s become my fall T-shirt. Also, the Edie bag (shown above on J.Crew October 2011 catalogue cover), which I have in two colours, and the Mona pumps (shown above). I am a big fan of multiples.

H&H: You have a very public persona. What would surprise people about you?

JL: I used to be insanely shy. I had zero confidence. I was afraid of my own shadow. This job has forced me to push through that.

H&H: How do you like to relax?

JL: Well, I know an awful lot about scootering, Big Wheels and Sponge Bob. My son, Beckett, and I have learned to do each other’s thing. I don’t want to be away from him when I’m at home because I work so much.

H&H: What are you the most proud of?

JL: Aside from my incredible, beautiful son, I’m most proud of and grateful for starting at one company and growing up here. I feel proud that I worked hard and stuck it out to get where I am now.

See Jenna’s top 10 picks, including her fave fabric, book and more, in our article and browse our photo gallery of J.Crew looks.

Author: Catherine Sweeney