A Lesson from Lyons

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Recently, J. Crew has become one of the trendiest brands on the market. With their nautical prints, sequins patterns, and preppy Nantucket themes they are winning the eyes and minds of women of all generations, with fans ranging from college students all the way to the FLOTUS herself, Michelle Obama. If you ask the president, Jenna Lyons, if she ever expected to lead a major brand of clothing she’ll be brutally honest and deny it. “It’s taken me years to get here, and I’ve cultivated it so carefully. But I didn’t think it was possible. I just assumed I’d plateau and that there would be no place for me to go,” says Lyons in an interview.

As a child, Lyons dealt with the repercussions of incontinentia pigmenti, a genetic disorder that leads to scarred skin, patchy hair, and lost teeth. She faced constant bullying and judgment from her peers but found sanity in art. “I searched for ways to make things more beautiful and surrounded myself with beautiful things because I didn’t feel that in myself,” she quotes. After taking art classes she discovered her passion and talent in drawing and realized she wanted to go into fashion. Because Lyons had once felt rejected by the world of fashion, she wanted to make clothes that everybody could wear and feel dignified.

Luckily for Lyons she crossed paths with Millard “Mickey” Drexler, the man who transformed Gap from a $400 million company to $14 billion empire. When Drexler became CEO in 2003 he sought after Lyons admiring her honesty, sensitivity, and her ability to lead. As a designer, she is well aware of vulnerability that goes into every sketch and admits that the designs are subjective. Prior to Lyons leadership designs were determined through cost-benefit analysis, with only the most cursory nod toward artistic authenticity. Together, the partnership between Drexler and Lyons would jettison that approach and the company would only brand products that the two fashionistas loved. It was a new era for J. Crew, one in which experimentation and adaptation would be greatly valued. By giving their designers the freedom to design whatever they want – unfettered by corporate performance evaluation – and trusting their creativity, Lyons and Drexler have been able to triple J. Crew’s revenue since 2003.

Nikita Ramanujam

Northwestern University

Further Reading: http://www.fastcompany.com/3007843/creative-conversations/how-jenna-lyonstransformed-jcrew-cult-brand

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