J.Crew president-turned-"Stylish" star Jenna Lyons offers advice on reinventing yourself: "Be open"

The fashion designer appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss her new series and nurturing creativity after J. Crew

Published December 17, 2020 3:00PM (EST)

Former J.Crew president Jenna Lyons is the subject of "Stylish with Jenna Lyons," a new HBO Max original series (Photograph by Squire Fox / HBO Max)
Former J.Crew president Jenna Lyons is the subject of "Stylish with Jenna Lyons," a new HBO Max original series (Photograph by Squire Fox / HBO Max)

What's someone like style icon Jenna Lyons, who spent over 20 years at J.Crew and worked her way up to president of the company, to do after such an impressive tenure? Start a design brand, of course. I spoke with Lyons this week on "Salon Talks," where she shared her favorite Christmas gifts for 2020, some of the pains and joys of reinvention, and how she sourced the diverse young talent featured in her new HBO Max original series "Stylish with Jenna Lyons."

Lyons, who left J. Crew in 2017, says she found the process of sorting out where she would land next freeing, if scary, but took all different kinds of meetings, even if they weren't directly related to her area of expertise. When she was asked to design a couch series for a company in upstate New York, she took the meeting. "I don't know?" she laughed. A meeting with a TV executive a few years ago has actualized into "Stylish," which is part documentary, part competition revolving around the practice of mentoring younger stylists, designers and creatives who are vying for a coveted spot on Lyons' design team. The rest is meant to look verite, with Lyons candidly sharing her ups and downs as a newly minted business owner.

After struggling as a young person who was tall, awkward, and beset by a genetic disorder that altered her appearance, Lyons found a kindred home in fashion and design, where her six-foot height was an asset. First she learned to draw, then sew. The clothes she made allowed her to disappear into the silhouettes, and after college, she started at J. Crew. Fast forward to 2020, where she's redesigning home interiors, advising entrepreneurs in the design space, and actively involved in marketing lifestyle products new to market. It's clear that Lyons has found her footing anew. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Lyons below or read a Q&A of our conversation.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length

Thank you for coming, Jenna. Well, thank you for coming to my attic on Zoom. I've done a number of interviews, in semi-quarantine or wherever in the process we are at this point, and it's so interesting to me because people are doing interviews from their closets or their basements. Folks have gotten really creative with it.
At this point, I just go where the light is. The light's better in my bathroom during some parts of the day.

Where do you sit in the bathroom?
I kind of have a big bathroom. There's a window right over my tub, and so I just put a chair right in front of it and the light streams in and it's actually quite nice. The only problem is it's a lot of marble, so it echoes a little.

It's also customary now for me to ask people if they're wearing pants. 
Most of the time I'm not. I'm wearing sweatpants.

I love it. So this is a little bit of a strange way to get into talking about style and your new HBO Max show, "Stylish with Jenna Lyons," and your expertise in fashion, but I have to ask, have you finished your Christmas shopping, and in pandemic times, how did you do it?
I had a little bit of help because the final episode of the show was always designed to be a pop-up shop. We've had the pop-up shop live on Instagram for about two weeks since the show launched and I basically did 80% of my shopping at the pop-up shop. It was great because it's all things I love, it was all things I'd already picked. So I was like, "Well, I want this so maybe someone else would want it."

That's great. Do you have a big list?
I don't really have that many friends, so it wasn't so bad.

First of all, I can't imagine that's true. It has been such a rough year for so many. What kind of gifts do you think are appropriate this year and what makes for the best and most thoughtful things?
I've been focusing mostly on things that people can use in their home because that's where people are. I'm a huge fan of candles, whether they're candlelight or scented candles. I think it's such an easy thing to give as a gift. It may not be the most exciting thing but it was the thing that we sold the quickest. We had a bunch of vintage candlesticks that were just with taper candles. And then all of the scented candles, they were one of the biggest things that people were looking for, which I get. I think I've also been, I don't know, trying to do things that would make somebody look a little better or feel like they look better at home. I don't know.

Nice. What are some examples of that?
There's a woman who makes clothes called Suzie Kondi and she made this gorgeous, cozy cashmere sweater, which is a splurge for sure. But she also just came out with this new line of velour sweatpants, which I was the receiver of one the other day and I'm totally into them. It's like the old school Juicy Couture. You remember when that craze came?

Oh, my God, yes.
It's got a totally different cut. The colors are sort of a little bit more modern, and I feel cute in it.

But like Juicy, do they make your a** look good?
I don't know if anything could make my a** look good.

Oh, come on, stop being so modest. You have no friends, you're a** doesn't look good . . . 
It really doesn't.

If I could swivel this screen, you would see that I'm sitting next to my a** builder — my Peloton bike.
You bought one?

I did get one at the beginning of pandemic. But disclosure, I'm a spin instructor on the side. I love to teach people. I just said to my husband, I'm like, "I have to get this fricking thing. I understand it feels culty, but it's the best."
I'm so impressed. That's so cool. Literally I just started doing Zoom call workouts a couple of months ago. And it was only because I saw a picture of myself from the back, mainly on the show and I was like, "Wow, wow. My backside resembles a rectangle. I have a hotline to the editor, I'm like, "Listen, I will . . ."

Cut those back shots out! Good for you for the Zoom workouts. So the show, let's talk about it. "Stylish with Jenna Lyons" is part documentary with some really entertaining graphic asides. I liked them a lot.
We really worked hard on that.

Did you write the scripts for those?
It's amazing you don't realize how much your own personal voice is connected to things. They would write things at the beginning and I was like, "No, that would not make any sense." And so yes, we've spent a lot of time really touching all of the graphics and really trying to make the words make sense with what was up on the screen.

And part of the show is competition and it appears to have been shot pre pandemic. Is that correct to assume?
The first seven episodes [were], and then the final episode we filmed in the middle of the pandemic. When we were in the pandemic we had a very tight crew because there was only a certain number of people that were allowed on set and we also kept the set very closed. So only the people that needed to be on set were allowed, and in a lot of ways it was better. It was more intimate. There were less mess ups and somebody dropping something or coughing and us having to start over again. And it just felt more, I don't know, intimate. So I think it's going to definitely impact the way that we would move forward if HBO Max wants us back.

Was styling homes something that was completely new to you?
It wasn't new to me in the sense that I've done so many stores and I've done renovations on my own and have had them photographed. And I feel comfortable. I had never done it for another person, but I knew that I would only do it if the person would let me do whatever I wanted.

I want to get into the themes that we see a lot in "Stylish": reinvention, creativity, and really courage, and the courage, in fact, to reinvent oneself. How did they become the hallmarks of your show and what did you hope to gain by documenting your experience as sort of a newly minted entrepreneur having left J. Crew?
I mean, it wasn't calculated. Honestly, the whole thing kind of happened, I don't want to say by accident, but it just sort of happened. I didn't have a job. I was not sure what I was going to do. Someone asked if I wanted to do TV, and I said no. And then he said, "Well, let's just talk." And then he's like, "Can I just put you in front of a network executive?" And then I had a really nice conversation with them. And then all of a sudden we were doing this show and it sort of evolved on its own. I mean, I think we wanted it to feel authentic. 

We wanted it to not feel so reality. We wanted it to feel warm and inviting for people and also not intimidating. We wanted people to have a takeaway where they were actually going to learn something and maybe come away with some tips that could actually help them in the process. And so, yeah, I wish I could say it was really strategic and we set out to do X, Y, and Z, and we accomplished it. But it really wasn't like that. It was really an evolutionary process, which, like I said, now that I know, I've seen also the feedback, I understand what people are responding to and what we could do better.

Exactly, learning comes in what you can improve. Part of the show revolves around this practice of mentoring younger stylists and designers and creatives. Was that a big part of your experience earlier in your career, and then later as management at J. Crew? And if I could ask who was your greatest mentor?
I think I have two that stand out to me. One is Mickey Drexler, who I learned a tremendous amount from and will always have the utmost respect and regard for. And Scott Formby, who was the other person who was really my first boss and I think really taught me how to see in a different way and also how to find my voice, which I had not done and came into the company very shy and not sure of myself. Both of them gave me a lot of learnings mostly about confidence, honestly, and how important that is and how sticking to your word and understanding your voices. And I think it's also nice, one of the things I loved about working with Mickey especially towards the end, is that he invited everyone to the table.

It wasn't just the senior management that he was getting information from. He wanted to hear from everyone. He wanted to know what everyone in the company thought about X thing, whether it was an item of clothing or where we should put our next store. I think he was good at really bringing people to the table and making sure that the voices were varied that were at the table. And that is important. You know, I'm a 52-year-old white woman. I have the experience that I have. I shouldn't be speaking for everyone. I need people at the table to give me information and feedback and guidance so that I can talk to an audience wider than just myself. And that's super important. I believe in having people who have something different to say. That's amazing and that's where collaboration really happens.

You certainly see a manifestation of that philosophy by the younger creatives that you chose to appear in the show. What was the casting process like?
We talked a lot about diversity and representation. It was important mostly because I think I wanted anyone who watched the show to feel like they would have a chance. We talked a lot about it and it was important. It was hard because I was casting for people I could potentially hire. And of course the network was like, "Well, is this person good TV?" And I'm like, "I don't know. I don't know." But I can look at this person's resume and say, "Oh, I really want to meet this person and this person sounds really interesting." And so, yeah, it was very considered, it was intentional, and I feel great. The team was incredible.
You spoke about confidence. A lot of people are seeking a fresh start in their careers and lives, especially now with the pandemic. You've done reinvention at many steps of your career and probably other areas of your life as well. What are your top three tenets of successful reinvention?
I think the most important thing is I didn't have a preconceived idea. I was actually not getting calls in the industry that I knew and so it did make me much more open. And I think I took calls and did have conversations I never would have had. So just be open. You never know where something is going to lead. I had calls with people who . . . I mean, one call was some random person is like, "Do you want to design a line of furniture out of Rochester, New York?" I'm like, "I don't know. That sounds like fun." I went to the lunch and now I'm doing a hotel in the Bahamas because it led to something else. So I think just being open and listening and seeing. I wasn't before. I really thought I knew it all, thought I know exactly where I was going to end up and the kind of job I was going to have. And it just didn't happen at all. That's the biggest one.

"Stylish With Jenna Lyons" is streaming on HBO Max.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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