"Jenna and I got together and we both agreed it was time for a change,” J.Crew chief executive Millard "Mickey" Drexler told BoF in an exclusive interview. "That being said, she’s got plans to do other things. It’s been a great run. There’s a lot of mutual respect between Jenna and me.”
“It has been beyond my wildest dreams to work with such an amazing team of people at such an incredible brand and alongside Mickey — one of retail’s most talented visionaries,” Lyons said in a statement. "I am excited about the next chapter for J.Crew as well as the opportunity for other creative leaders within the organisation to step up and take on new responsibilities. Having spent the better part of my life with J.Crew, I feel an immense pride and love for everyone at the company.”
Current J.Crew women’s head of design Somsack Sikhounmuong — who previously led sister label Madewell’s design and has been with the company since 2001 — will be promoted to chief design officer, overseeing the women’s, men’s and children's design teams effective immediately. All other creative departments that were reporting to Lyons — who was also president of the company — will now report to Drexler. Lyons will stay on as a creative advisor until the end of her current contract, which expires in December 2017.
"Somsack and our design teams have a deep understanding of the aesthetic and style our customers rely on us to deliver, with a proven track record of driving creative vision in-line with our brand DNA,” Drexler said. "We are excited to extend Somsack’s vision across all design categories and look forward to the team’s contributions. As always, delivering the very best product, value and brand experience across channels is our top priority.”
Lyons joined J.Crew in 1990, although her role was elevated after Drexler came on board in 2003. Through their unique partnership, they transformed J.Crew into a cultural phenomenon, shaping the way an entire generation of American men and women dress, with Lyons' energised, tongue-in-cheek take on classic preppy tropes. Her candy-coloured designs — from the now-classic "Bubble" necklace to the "No. 2" pencil skirt — impressed themselves on current fashion in a way rarely seen at the mass level. In 2010, Drexler promoted her to president, reflecting her growing influence in design at the company.
Along the way, Lyons became something of a cultural icon in her own right, someone whose personal style — statement eyewear, oversized suiting, sequins for day — was copied the world over. Just this past Friday, Lyons was captured on J.Crew’s Instagram handle celebrating the retailer’s self-made holiday, National Stripes Day.
However, some say that more recently Lyons' role had transitioned from day-to-day design duties as she became more of a public a face for the brand. And, like many specialty retailers, J.Crew has been squeezed by discount culture, the casualisation of dress and the consumer's penchant for fast fashion, which relies less on one well-defined aesthetic and more on moving trends quickly to the market.
The impact of these market forces have weighed on the company's results. In its 2016 fiscal year, net sales at J.Crew were $2 billion, down 6 percent from the previous year. Sales at stores open at least one year were down 8 percent. Turnaround efforts — including a return to the preppy “basics” that performed so well in the past and a move into athleisure with a multi-season collaboration with New Balance — have yet to move the needle.
The company’s top line has been boosted somewhat by the growth of Madewell, which saw net sales in 2016 increase 14 percent to $341.6 million, with comparable sales up 5 percent. But the company's debt — which totalled $1.5 billion, net of discount and deferred financing costs, at the end of last year — has proven an albatross, and has reportedly led the company to consider a debt restructuring.
Indeed, this announcement is expected to be the first in a series of strategic changes that will allow it to perform in its next iteration. As for Lyons' post-J.Crew plans, these are not yet known. The indelible mark she has made in defining American fashion for the past decade cannot go unacknowledged.