I have always admired Jenna Lyons. She left J Crew after 26 years, a company that had her imprint and style all over it…here she talks about reinvention.
Nine months after leaving J. Crew, former executive creative director Jenna Lyons sat down with us for an intimate conversation about reinvention. From her formative years in Southern California to her massively influential, 26-year-long career at J. Crew, she’s no stranger to the concept. But “what’s next” is a difficult question, especially now. We invited her to the Chandelier Penthouse to tell us about her journey.
When did you first experience the power of reinvention?
I grew up in Southern California, where I spent all of my time just trying to fit in. I remember I took a sewing class and I made this skirt that actually fit me. I didn’t know that I was actually an okay size, because nothing had ever fit me in a regular store. I was constantly going to the big and tall section. I made this skirt with watermelons on it and wore it to school. One of the popular girls leaned over to me in Social Studies and said, “Where is your skirt from?” I was like, “I made it.” I remember it was the first time I’d had any positive attention about the way I looked. It was really meaningful to me. On top of that, I enjoyed making it. It was pretty magical. It made me realize that clothes, while people think they are frivolous, can actually be somewhat transformative.
And that was also in thanks to your grandmother. That Christmas, my grandmother sent me a subscription to Vogue and a sewing machine. I remember poring through the pages. This was back when Vogue was a different magazine. Things were very experimental back then. There were no rules, it was the wild, wild west. Issey Miyake was inside with women with black bands across their face and huge gowns, things I’d never seen before. Norma Kamali and YSL… it was breathtaking, the clothes that were in there.
Then a few years later, you moved to New York. Which is a great city to reinvent yourself in.
I got into Parsons, came to New York, and then I met my first gay man, which was really amazing. He used to work at Macy’s and one day, took me to the makeup counter there and had one of his friends make me up. I remember looking at myself in the mirror afterwards like, “Whoa. Who’s that?” I was walking down the street and people looked at me in a way that I’d never been looked at before. Even in California, even though I felt better about myself in California, I was not attractive. In New York, somehow…
And then a guy looking at you on the street had a car accident.
Yeah, we were coming across the street and I was wearing a tiny little black dress, high heels, had all of my makeup done, and this guy drove past and got in a car accident when he saw me. I know that’s an awful thing to say, but it was pretty transformative for me. No one had ever looked at me before. And then, someone was so busy looking at me that they forgot that they were driving a car.
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