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Life With Jenna Lyons! Part I

I spent Monday afternoon with Jenna Lyons, the Creative Director of J.Crew---and the most dynamic person I have ever met. J.Crew is huge. Their offi

I spent Monday afternoon with Jenna Lyons, the Creative Director of J.Crew---and the most dynamic person I have ever met.

J.Crew is huge. Their office takes up two floors, each the size of a city block and includes everything from photo studios to mock-up stores to color libraries to faux store windows to design to merchandising to catalogs to Crewcuts to Madewell. It's seriously, overwhelmingly big.

In two hours, we toured the building and met the various department teams: denim, kids, shoes, bags, jewelry, graphic tees, etc. I tried to grill Jenna on her day to day life but there's just too damn much.

I naively assumed that when one lands in a top position at a major company, one signs off on other people's creative decisions and orchestrates everything from above instead of contributing to every single facet of the business. But no, whether it's deciding what color to paint the staircase in the East Hampton store, which chairs to put in the renovated Prince Street location, sourcing wooden hands on which to display gloves come fall, casting catalog models, deciding how to sell colored pencils at Crewcuts, how one collaborates with a man who makes shirts out of sugar cane, or recruiting artists to collaborate with, Jenna Lyons is deeply, deeply, deeply involved.

Here, we talk collaborations, models and vintage jewels. Monday we'll talk personal history, architectural meetings and Mickey Drexler's bike.

So let's talk about what you do day to day. It's always different! Seriously, it's never the same thing.

Ok, well today then, what'd you do today? Well first thing this morning, I met with our jewelry girl to talk about these vintage Miriam Haskell pieces I picked up this weekend. We're trying to figure out, you know, is there a way to modernize them?

A selection of vintage bracelets on Jenna's desk

Those are amazing. That's the thing, we're trying to decide, you know, I'll ask you. I love this, but I'm not wearing it like this, it's a little old and little matronly and they're all kind of like that. These are collectors items, so the question is - I mean we will be re-selling these, not copying them in any sort of way - is it horrible to kind of take this part off and put it on something longer or on a thicker chain because that's the way I'd wear it?

Where would you re-sell them? Have you guys done that before, re-sold vintage?

Oh yeah, we do it all the time. We sell it at the collection store uptown.

That's why! I never go up there - now I'll have to. I'm a big J.Crew person.

Yeah, we sell them up there and we're re-doing Prince and sell some in Malibu.

Where'd you find the jewels?

At this great vintage store in the Hamptons. I went to check out our new store and found this place. I mean, they're real pearls. They're expensive and I want a really cool girl to be able to buy them but I won't buy them like this. So maybe we take two and alter them and leave two the way they are and see which sells better?

Sounds smart.

Okay, so then, back to my day, actually this is really unbelievable. We had a disaster preparation meeting. Like what would happen if the building burned down, what would we do? And we basically we're talking about how would we handle that from a design perspective. Everything we have here is so - it's not replaceable, so what would be our next step? What would the first week look like if we lost everything?

Jenna's office

Woah. Do you have meetings like that often?

Not necessarily all the time but it's sort of an interesting place to be where you're meeting and talking about all these different random things. I mean it's sort of a funny thing to be involved in. I design! And then I met this woman from Art Co. which basically hooks up artists with brands and he saw the collaboration we did with Alex Katz. That had just happened on a fluke but we were talking about ways we could meet with other artists, artists we don't even know. So that was incredibly interesting and fun. And then I went through a casting meeting for our next book. You know, who are the new girls? Who are we loving? Who's coming up? Who do we want to try and get?

Do people come to you with the model choices and you approve or do you actually hand pick yourself? It's both. I spend a lot of time talking with Gail, who's our stylist, and she and I love watching the shows and I'm always like, "Who's Agnete???" Who's this one, who's this one and then the next time we meet they're like, "Ok, here's who you asked me about - not available, we can try this person. Erin Wasson's back on the scene even though you loved her ages ago or Magdalena Fracoviwak just came in and oh my god she's amazing, or this one's traveling." So it's a very collaborative process. I love looking at the girls.

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I interviewed Behati Prinsloo recently and she raved about modeling for you guys.

Oh god I love her. It's so fun working with girls who just really get and really love the clothes. Once you can find somebody that can wear the clothes well, is a good fit, nicely proportioned, can handle a twelve to fourteen hour day...

You guys go on location a lot, too.

We do, it's about half location, half studio. We mail thirteen to fourteen books a year and it's usually seven/seven or six/eight. And the location shoots are challenging - we were on location last week and I was literally on the phone all weekend with the art director and then there was rain and an issue where the model's super young, a little less experienced and things weren't totally jiving and it ended up all working out but you know, we had to work up contingency plans. And sometimes it's harder to capture the clothes when you're on location, it's easy to capture the mood, but you can't forget the actual clothes. Anyway, so after the casting meeting, I met with some people from a company called Billy Kirk, they make handmade leather goods here in the US so we're talking about doing a collaboration with them.

You guys collaborate with so many people - it's really cool.

Yeah it's really fun. Mickey totally opened the door to that. And it's fun because it's ways to share - I mean do you know Liya Kebede?

Of course, you guys just did LemLem.

Yeah, we send six million catalogs. And people get exposure, but we can give them a whole different kind of exposure. It's hard to reach that many people so it's pretty amazing to be able to do it. We didn't think people would be into it but a lot of them really are. Some want to keep it small, can't produce that much and so we just keep them in the Liquor Store or uptown.

Do people reach out to you for collaborations?

I mean, it's kind of natural. At the beginning it was definitely us reaching out because we'd never done it before and no one really knew that it was even a possibility. But now that we're so open to it we get really great options - and some really bizarre ones, too! It's just so fun, especially from a design perspective, to have the opportunity to work on such random things.

I bet.

I mean we have to be careful, too. It can all get very distracting and we have to remember that we do actually have a job to do. But it's fun to be able to talk to all these interesting people. Like this young jewelry designer we're collaborating with. He came in today and had a totally different perspective on what we were. He was like, "Do you want me to design something for J.Crew?" and I was like, "I'm kind of more interested in your vision, in what happens when you do your thing with J.Crew in the back of your mind."

So how does that work then? Does he sketch something and give it to you for approval and just keep going until you're both happy?

Well he was kind of nervous so I told him no pressure, give us like five of your pieces that you love and we'll get back to you on how we would incorporate them, what we'd do to them to tweak them and make them a little bit more ours and just keep showing him and be like, "Are you cool with that, with this?" and he's totally excited. It's fun because you know, we mail so many catalogs and it's an opportunity for his name to be...

Jenna in the graphic tees department


And it's funny. People really notice. We can track the attention the website got and how people click around. It was interesting how much people were really interested in Liya and her story. So we'll continue to do more and more of it.

So then after the design part of the collaboration's been sorted, who handles production? J.Crew or the person you're pairing with?

It differs. In this particular instance he actually has a partner who is a manufacturer so he has access to that. So he'll be in a few stores and we've talked about, you know, do you want to be in the catalog? But we haven't really ironed that part out yet. It's a big step.

Seriously. That's really exciting for him.

For us, too!

Tune in Monday when we talk about where she's from, how she got here and why she's not going anywhere.