Giving primacy to design involves more than a shift in the power structure. It means running the business in a completely different way. Before Drexler came to J.Crew, designers were ordered to develop products that would meet specific merchandising goals. “We were told we need ‘this bucket’ and ‘this bucket’ and ‘this bucket,’” says J.Crew head of women’s design Tom Mora. “‘I need a merino sweater that is $48 that has a stripe.’ And you are jamming your design into a bucket and that’s what you got—a design in a bucket.” Drexler told Lyons not only to scrap the buckets but also, she says, “‘Don’t tell me what you’re doing, don’t show any of the merchants, just go and do it and then show me.’”
In generating those designs, Lyons’s style and manner give her staff implicit permission to take risks. “Jenna leads by example,” says a former J.Crew employee who worked for Lyons in men’s wear. “She’ll be wearing an oversize men’s cashmere sweater and a maxi skirt of feathers. If you described it to a famous fashion person, it would sound ridiculous. But it’s liberating for everyone who works for her.” Three years ago, J.Crew designer Emily Lovecchio floated an idea for an organza jacket. The fabric was unusual for such a garment because of its delicacy, but Lyons told the team to try it anyway. The jacket ended up on the cover of the J.Crew catalog. When experiments don’t work out as well, all Lyons requires is for her staff to assume responsibility. “Jenna really loves people who are themselves, flaws and all,” says Lovecchio. “If you mess up or totally do the wrong thing, you have to look her in the eye and say ‘I messed this up,’ and she will always say, ‘Okay, we’ll fix it.’
Over at J.Crew, a new arrival is the ‘plantation madras’ button-down, a breezy, colorful shirt just in time for the annual thaw, not to mention a thing whose name I can’t help but associate with slavery. Of course, perhaps I’m being hypersensitive. Because not all plantations got fat off slave-labor and it’s a bit silly to necessarily associate the two. Then again, would anyone ever sell a ‘plantation bullwhip’? J. Peterman might. The company Seinfeld so often mocked seems more eager to revel in blue-blooded patriarchy than a Buckley sipping highballs on a yacht on Long Island Sound. Here’s the company’s description of a pair of its tweed slacks: ‘Did you know that Verdi wrote ‘Falstaff’ when he was 80? … Verdi, Walt Whitman, the Mellons. Hard workers from solid European stock. Just like these pants.’ Well then! At that point, I say to hell with the subtlety; call them the Sorry, Darkie Breeches: ‘From solid European stock and for solid European stockholders.’
Thankfully, even more direct is J. Peterman’s ‘owner’s hat,’ introduced thusly: ‘Some of us work on the plantation. Some of us own the plantation.’
Today’s over-accessorizing brought to you by the fine folks at J. Crew.