NEW YORK — Former J. Crew President Jenna Lyons knows a thing or two about building a brand, but now she’s ditched corporate life to build her own.
Lyons started working as a J. Crew designer right out of school and took the brand from a floundering preppie catalogue to a more upscale but accessible style hub that featured tailored looks in unexpected bright colours, with mixes of patterns and textures.
Her star rose considerably after Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama wore J. Crew to the Presidential Inauguration in 2009. She worked her way up to president and creative director before leaving the company in 2017 amid poor sales.
While determining her next move, she took lunches with anyone who asked, and one was a TV executive who thought her unique personal style and personality would work on a reality show.
Her new HBO Max show, “Stylish with Jenna Lyons,” launches this week, featuring her new businesses that bring her design acumen to home, fashion and beauty projects. It’s part documentary, part competition as she auditions a group of young style acolytes vying for a spot on her team.
Unlike most of the scripted, so-called “reality TV” that dominates the genre, Lyons purposely includes production mistakes, awkward moments and candid confessionals, punctuated with snarky graphics and sound effects.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, she explained why she keeps it real, how she had to learn about making a TV series and who’s the show’s breakout star.
AP: How did you approach developing the show?
Lyons: I like watching reality television. I enjoy it. But I knew it wasn’t for me. I did not want to make a reality television show under the auspices of what I knew existed in the world. I didn’t want to make something that heightened drama or architected a story. I was not comfortable with that. And so, I really sought out to shift those gears.
AP: Why is it important to you to be real?
Lyons: There’s a lot going on in the world where everything looks so perfect — from the world of Instagram, where people present a life that isn’t necessarily real. People that I relate to are the people who show the messy stuff, and I feel better. You know, I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and most people aren’t, and I think allowing people to see, like we’re making mistakes, we’re goofy! No one shoots it out of the park every time. And I think that honesty and integrity is something we wanted to share.
AP: You’re also honest about how you felt after leaving J. Crew.
Lyons: I honestly feel so lucky that I’m getting a second chance. I was really scared that I wouldn’t. And I think being honest about the fact that, yes, I had this job and I had this title and I was called this, that and the other thing, and I have gotten a lot of accolades. And while I’m thrilled and really honoured, the fact of the matter is, I have hard days, too, and I struggle, and that’s pretty honest and normal. And I’m not afraid to say that.
AP: How does being that vulnerable feel?
Lyons: In some ways, a relief. You know, I had to live a pretty guarded and poised life in my previous job. I was on the board. I had to really represent the company. So, everything I did was not just about me, but it was about the company.
AP: You’re the star and executive producer of the show. What have you learned?
Lyons: I’ve learned how I know nothing about television! I made every mistake in the book. I did everything wrong. I mean you name it, I didn’t get it right. I really struggled. I didn’t understand the process, so I didn’t know what happened, what had to happen. You know, we were involved in literally everything from the graphics to the music to the editing to the colour. We were attentive to all of that. But I didn’t understand how I was supposed to go about it.
AP: You offer many style tips — is it important to make style feel accessible?
Lyons: I enjoyed going through an airport and seeing people wearing our (J. Crew’s) double cloth coat. That felt good to me. And so it was important to me to do something that felt like it would connect to the people that I maybe had as an audience prior, and also to my friends and family… I really wanted to talk about style in a little bit more of a deeper conversation.
AP: Your dog, Popeye, seems to be enjoying the spotlight.
Lyons: He loves every second. So much so that I think I have to get him an agent! (laughs) Honestly. It’s a problem.
Brooke Lefferts, The Associated Press