It’s always been a bit of a mystery what the J in J. Crew stands for—the initial actually isn’t short for anything, according to various reports. But until today, you wouldn’t be alone if you associated that J with Jenna Lyons, the longtime creative director and guiding force of the retailer. Soon, customers will get to see what a J. Crew without Lyons looks like—after 26 years, she is leaving the company, Business of Fashion reported on Monday.
Lyons started at J. Crew in 1990, but it took the 2003 arrival of CEO Mickey Drexler, who will stay at the company beyond Lyons’ departure, for the two to “transform J. Crew into a cultural phenomenon,” as BoF put it. She was credited with bringing a colorful, chic edge to what had been a preppy catalog brand, which earned her not only the admiration of the fashion industry but also growing sales and, in 2010, a promotion to president. Lyons also increasingly became the face of the brand—her “Jenna’s Picks” got a prominent place in the catalog and on the J. Crew site—and a boldfaced name outside of fashion and retail circles, with profiles in magazines, mentions in gossip columns, and a role on Season 3 of TV’s Girls.
All the past success and name recognition in the world means little in retail, though, where you’re only as good as the most recent fiscal year’s sales. And the past few have not been kind to J. Crew, or, in a brutal retail environment, many companies of its size and profile, who find themselves competing with fast fashion and not just the rest of the stores in the mall but any store in existence that has a website. There were also whispers of declining quality, higher prices, and a sense that the designs weren’t as on-point as they had been in J. Crew’s aughts heyday. Something had to change, and the change J. Crew decided on having Lyons follow a path of Tilly sweaters and tweed pencil skirts out the door.
One fashion influencer who made no secret of her penchant for J. Crew was former first lady Michelle Obama, so it’s easy to see the end of the Jenna Lyons years at J. Crew as the end of a larger cultural era. Why didn’t we see how good we had it? For one brief shining moment, there was a first lady who wore accessible American fashion and accessible American fashion that was actually stylish! Melania Trump, in contrast, doesn’t seem like the J. Crew type, and Ivanka only promotes affordable fashion when it comes from her own line and she can directly profit from it. The Trumps are more about millionaire style, opulence for opulence’s sake. It’s hard to imagine them embracing Jenna Lyons’ androgynous silhouette and arty glasses—or the fact that she’s queer and brought along her girlfriend to a White House visit in 2013.
But maybe J. Crew doesn’t make you think of the Obamas. Maybe you associate it with a particular outfit from high school, those flip-flops you wore that summer, or a bridesmaid dress from back when they still made bridesmaid dresses—another era the store recently unceremoniously ended. Fashion is personal, but a company can’t run on nostalgia alone. J. Crew will remake itself and be successful, or it won’t, and Jenna Lyons will come off her unprecedented tenure at the company to do something else cool, or she won’t. J. Crew was an “it” brand and Jenna Lyons was an “it” girl for a moment, but her departure shows that “it” can never last.