After creative director Jenna Lyons left a floundering J.Crew in 2017 — reportedly a mutual decision between her and the company she helped grow from a catalog of laid-back preppy basics into a bona fide fashion behemoth — she needed a break.
“It was a really strange time,” Lyons, 51, told The Post of her exit. “I had to decompress. You don’t realize how intense and how hard you have been driving until you stop. I was mentally and physically exhausted.” Free of that previously unrelenting gig (she oversaw J.Crew, its factory brand and Madewell), she planned to brush up on her French, learn how to dance and maybe whip her body into killer shape.
“I did none of those things. I was struggling. I think I was probably depressed. I had a real internal crisis. I didn’t realize how much of my identity was connected to the brand,” said Lyons, who recalled being stopped in a London airport by a woman asking if she was “Jenna Crew.”
“I was like, ‘No… well, sort of.’ ”
Indeed, Lyons’ entire adult life was tied to J.Crew, where she worked for 26 years. Raised in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Lyons attended Parsons School of Design and joined the company in 1990 as a design assistant in menswear. In 2008, then-CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler elevated her to creative director, urging her to use her own personal style sensibility as a blueprint. With her lanky 6-foot frame, bold black nerdy glasses, eye-popping orange-red lipstick and habit of wearing sequins in the daylight, she became J.Crew’s avatar and a cult figure among both fashionistas and suburban women mesmerized by her accessible but highly curated look.
Her aesthetic was also distilled through her popular email lifestyle newsletter “Jenna’s Picks” (which initially confused her mother, whom, Lyons was informed by corporate, thought the emails were meant for her specifically and would respond with personal messages. “One of them was literally instructions on where to find her will,” she said with a laugh.)
Under Lyons, Michelle Obama, the first daughters and Beyoncé wore J.Crew. Lyons shook up the stodgy red-carpet scene rocking ensembles such as a denim jacket and magenta satin skirt to the Met Gala. Her personal life also became fodder for the gossip mill. In 2011, she divorced her artist-husband Vincent Mazeau, and the next year, Page Six reported that she was dating a woman, Courtney Crangi. Although she maintained her cool publicly, she said the revelation caused a panic behind the scenes.
“I had told no one in my life,” she said of her then-burgeoning relationship. “If you were in my close intimate circle, my mother — who did not know — or in the office, yeah, it might have been a little scandalous. I wasn’t even totally sure what I was doing. It was totally in the beginning stages, and I was dipping my toe in the water. I am super lucky because everyone around me was completely supportive. It was a challenging time, and I could not have gotten through it without the incredible support I got from the company, Mickey in particular.”
Eventually, though, her persona began to outshine the brand. After leaving her post, she suddenly wasn’t in our inboxes, wowing us with her red-carpet rebellion or even on Page Six. (She and Crangi split in 2017.) She retreated to the couch in her Soho apartment, waiting for the phone to ring with another opportunity in fashion.
“That just didn’t happen,” she said. “So I started to get a little scared.”
She took any lunch invitation that came her way, and eventually opened herself up to non-fashion ventures.
She was approached about doing a line of furniture, and it led to working on a boutique hotel in the Bahamas where she is overseeing everything from retail, design and staff uniforms. There was talk about a television show, which turned into a documentary competition series “Stylish With Jenna Lyons,” premiering on HBO Max in December. And a beauty idea morphed into LoveSeen, a line of faux eyelashes launched in September.
“I opened the door to things I never would have even considered before. I would’ve said, ‘I’m too busy, I don’t have the time, I’m scared.’ Every answer you could have imagined. I felt like I didn’t have those answers anymore, because I didn’t have a job. There was no safety net,” she explained.
LoveSeen — a collaboration with her makeup artist friend Troi Ollieverre — is personal. Lyons suffers from a genetic disorder, incontinentia pigmenti, which affects the skin, teeth and hair. Without brows of her own (she’s had microblading, a common, refined tattooing procedure) and only a few sparse eyelashes, she became interested in the false variety through both Instagram beauty tutorials that featured voluminous, Kardashian-esque tarantula-looking lashes and her fellow J.Crew employees who used extensions in a more understated way.
“There was no variation. It was full glam or natural extensions but nothing to marry the two.”
A set of LoveSeen lashes start at $20, and next month, the company is releasing a patented tool, which is a tweezer and eyelash-curler hybrid that aims to make the application simpler. “The response has been amazing, and it’s particularly phenomenal considering we launched a business during COVID,” Lyons said, adding, “Thank God it wasn’t lipstick.”
Like many other mask-wearers, she, too, has let go of bright lip colors — and pared down her look entirely. “I don’t need that anymore,” said Lyons, who is currently single.
She’s even swapped her thick framed glasses for more subtle pairs.
“I realized a couple of times my glasses broke, and I had to wear an old pair that were delicate, and I walked into a restaurant, and someone said, ‘I hardly recognized you,’ ” she said. “I was like, ‘Cool.’ ”
And then there’s motherhood. When her son, Beckett, was 2, the pair appeared in a photo on the J.Crew site with Lyons painting his toenails pink, and it caused a stir among some social conservatives, who said it unnecessarily blurred gender lines. Now 14 with a large mop of blond hair, whiz kid Beckett is the de facto “head of technology” at Lyons’ enterprise, helping her stay connected, so she can work remotely on all her creative projects.
“I can see he is really liking that and feeling the energy,” she said. “I think what he really wants is for me to be a full person.”
Although she’s still enamored with creating beautiful clothing, Lyons is glad to find her footing outside the finicky fashion bubble. “I miss feeling connected to it and knowing what was going on . . . People are really supportive and nice when you are inside of it,” she said. “And I am not in there anymore.”