In June, I bought a dress from J.Crew. Called the Apron Dress, it's made of thick, drapey cotton, and has roomy patch pockets and criss-cross straps across an open back. I have a photo of my late grandmother in one just like it circa the early 1960s, popping a hip against her kitchen's Formica countertops.
This wasn't a standard purchase for me. Yes, I tend to draw stylistic influence from deceased elders, but not often have I done so from J.Crew. Not recently, anyway. (According to the "Receipts" folder in my inbox, the last time I had spent money with the brand was in 2018.) But this time, I was influenced — and not by your typical influencer collecting an affiliate check on the opposite end of my purchase: I bought the Apron Dress because a woman named Olympia Gayot convinced me to (on Instagram, of course).
Who is Olympia Gayot? On paper, she's been J.Crew's top womenswear dog since 2020, having previously served as the retailer's design director, from 2010 to 2017. (In between, Gayot did a stint at Victoria's Secret, working as its vice president of design.) But that's not what made me buy the Apron Dress.
Off paper, Gayot is painfully chic, nonchalantly pairing crisp, starched button-downs with Dr. Woo tattoos, and convincing me I simply must invest in a chartreuse linen suit. I'm not alone, as it turns out: At press time, the #OlympiaGayot hashtag on TikTok has garnered more than 550,000 video views. At least one of them came courtesy of Heather Hurst, a Washington, D.C.-based creator and J.Crew customer who posts under the handle @pigmami.
"When I first heard about Olympia, I immediately went to stalk her online to see who she was, this woman who's the new head of this company that filed for bankruptcy," she says. "And I think that's exactly just what social media has us all doing."
It's the sort of enthusiasm the label hasn't garnered since the days of — dare I say it — one Jenna Lyons. What does this mean for the brand's big rebuild?
In November 2020, just six months after its bankruptcy filing, J.Crew promoted former Madewell head Libby Wadle to CEO, and last May, it tasked downtown New York designer Brendon Babenzien to reinvent its men's business. With Gayot as executive vice president of women's design, could J.Crew be on the path to "getting it?"
A graduate of New York City's School of Visual Arts, Gayot began her career as a painter, but kept a foot in fashion out of habit. Her mother worked as a designer when Gayot was growing up. "There was something about the energy and the pace that was glamorous in its own way," she says. "Especially as a young girl, I was very excited by that."
Gayot initially joined J.Crew's design team in 2010, after nailing an interview with Lyons. Throughout the years, she remembers amassing more and more categories, eventually leading activewear, swimwear and the Holy Grail of them all: sweaters. "There was so much emphasis on making great products and designing with creativity in mind that it was easy to stay because it was always exciting," she says.
In our interview, Gayot describes her design philosophy as being twofold — "simplifying with confidence" and "making it personal." Both, she argues, go hand in hand.
"You can get dressed in a simple way and a comfortable way, so it's not the clothes that dress you," she says. "I've always told my friends and colleagues that it's just about finding what looks good on you. Looking at what you find beautiful about yourself, whether it's your hair or your waist or your wrists — that's what you accentuate. You're the most important thing; the clothes are secondary."
The notion that you make your clothes and not the other way around trickles into Gayot's own social media presence. On Instagram, where her follower count now clocks in around 65,000-, she highlights her penchant for oversized silhouettes, girlish footwear and irreverent jewelry, the bulk of which is J.Crew. "If you can't wear the clothes, there's something wrong," she says. "You have to wear the clothes every day."
"I don't follow J.Crew, I follow her," says Boston-based TikTok creator Chidera Nwankwo, aka @tasteofchidera. "Her Instagram is the gateway to J.Crew. It's like, she's J.Crew's running Pinterest board of these ideas and how they're being brought to life."
Much of those ideas, Gayot explains, lie in the preppy-adjacent wardrobe basics that put J.Crew on the map in the first place — namely, the retailer's catalog heyday of the late '80s and early '90s. But what worked 40, 20, even just five years ago won't today. As Babenzien told GQ this past July: "Either we make better products, we encourage people to shop better, wiser, smarter, whatever you want to call it, or we're done." So, what does that look like?
"As much as J. Crew is its own brand, it's also, really, a fashion brand," says Gayot. "It's not uber-trendy, but it takes the fashion that's happening and puts it through that lens to create the J.Crew version. For me, it was a big goal to revitalize and modernize the basics."
One way Gayot is doing so is by combing through the J.Crew archives, the process of which she documents on Instagram, posting the covers of decades-old catalogs alongside her regular sartorial fare. The practice has taught her that J.Crew may have its heritage, but it's not exempt from the trend cycle altogether. Where the '80s and '90s offered up Hyannis Port staples with a grungy flair, the early aughts brought something more maximal and feminine — "all that 'Sex and the City' stuff," she says.
Today, the trend du jour is a bit more difficult to define. But whatever it is, Nwankwo is buying it.
"If you follow Olympia on Instagram, you know she constantly references the J.Crew archive," she says. "And that's probably my favorite part about following her, that you get to see the development of how a piece came to be. Everything doesn't need to be this fresh, innovative, new idea. We don't need to see jeans worn as tops. We're not looking for something revolutionary, but something that just works."
This is the J.Crew DNA, after all: effortless, unpretentious and aspirational clothing you could really, truly live your life in. Only now, the lives Olympia is designing for are different. In many cases, they're younger, perhaps Gen Z- and millennial-aged consumers shopping on Instagram or thumbing through TikTok, engaging with the influencers that align with their values. Influencers like Gayot.
"Influencers deliver this personal touch for brands," says Hurst. "The fact that Olympia posts so much and is very transparent about her creative process is helping in restructuring their narrative and making their products more appealing. Olympia is making J.Crew more accessible to the general public. Some of the ways she styles the pieces are not so preppy."
It's not just Gayot: J.Crew is going all in on influencer culture. For its latest spring campaign, the brand partnered with TikTok to utilize its Spark Ads tool, boosting native content from a wide network of creators. (To date, it has amassed nearly 20 million views combined.) There's also the J.Crew Collective, a "creative community of ambassadors, collaborators and muses" that, effectively, helps promote the brand across their respective platforms. Gayot even tells me about a high-school student who recently slid into her DMs — one of many followers who reach out for shopping or styling advice — to ask what sweater she should wear with her school uniform.
"That's the beauty of J.Crew, is that it's for grandmothers, mothers, daughters — it's for a multi-generational customer," says Gayot. "It's interesting to think about all these different women and their different lives, and what they need. 'Do I have the right stuff for this person?' If not, I better design it."