The New Creative Director at J Crew
If you’re a fashion fan or follow a TikTok influencer, chances are J. Crew’s name is synonymous with Breton stripes, casual jeans and leopard prints. The brand rose to popularity in the 2010s under its former CEO Mickey Drexler, and Jenna Lyons as creative director.
Now, the company has tapped designer Brendon Babenzien, cofounder of men’s apparel brand Noah and former design director at streetwear giant Supreme, to redefine the label’s masculine offerings. His first collection will debut in the second half of 2022.
Jenna Lyons is the fashion designer known for revitalizing J.Crew in the 2010s, earning her the title “Woman Who Dresses America.” She left the company in 2017 to focus on other projects, including launching an e-commerce website and her own line of fake eyelashes. Lyons has also made headlines for her real-life drama, appearing on season 14 of the Real Housewives of New York City.
She started by studying magazines like Vogue and Mademoiselle, then learned to sew in her home economics class at school. After graduating from Parsons New School of Design, she worked for Donna Karan before joining J. Crew in 1996 as an assistant menswear designer.
Lyons later hosted her own HBO Max series, Stylish with Jenna Lyons, which was both a success and a failure. The show was criticized for its perpendicular aims and Lyons’ inability to control the cast. She has since been in a relationship with photographer Cass Bird and wants to keep her personal life private.
Aside from a sharp spring edit (staff favorites including a laminated trench coat and updated shorts suit) and a splashy celebrity campaign, many of the moves J.Crew has been making lately can be traced back to its womenswear director, Olympia Gayot. The 41-year-old recently took over the position after a seven-year stint at the preppy stronghold, but she’s long had an affinity for its prep-infused basics and has been shopping the brand since she was a kid.
She quickly put her own stamp on the role, bringing in of-the-moment celebrities like Florence Pugh and Julianne Moore to star in campaigns; leaning into pastimes and cultural touchstones that are coming out of hiatus, such as ballet (and a collaboration with the New York City Ballet); and giving consumers the next trend in the fashion zeitgeist before they know it, via things like the re-release of a full skirt suit in a silky chiffon fabric.
Gayot’s presence on social media, in particular TikTok, has given her a dedicated following that extends far beyond the company’s core consumer. The designer’s 1.2 million hashtags on the platform feature TikTok creators gushing about her outfit selections and posing in her looks.
In addition to co-founding Noah clothing, Babenzien was the first creative director of Supreme, James Jebbia’s streetwear and skate culture behemoth. He left the brand in 2003 to launch his own label, but returned in 2006, just as he and Supreme were poised to become the fashion-killing titans they are today.
His debut J.Crew collection—which hit stores and online this week—sandblasted the retailer’s usual prep offerings with a more rugged, lived-in aesthetic. From Shetland sweaters to bleached-out jeans, the pieces skewered the tapered-slim chinos and shearling jackets that have come to define menswear and introduced looser fits and more experimental styles.
His approach might seem simplistic at a company that’s struggling to stay relevant in the face of cratering sales and the pandemic, but Babenzien’s vision could prove transformative. His focus on embracing the past while exploring new frontiers might be just what the mall brand needs to find its way back. At the party held to mark his debut, industry insiders mingled with throngs of youngsters weaned on his brand of streetwear-adjacent cool.
As the company works to rekindle its once-fervent fan base, Wadle must manage a significant drop in sales and a volatile stock price that’s down about 40% since she took over last November, shortly after J.Crew emerged from bankruptcy protection. But she believes there’s a big reservoir of goodwill, especially after the brand’s product misses and e-commerce flubs, to tap into.
She also notes that the brand is seeing a “return to more dressier fits” with the likes of new prints, different, looser leg shape trends at Madewell and mixing denim on the bottom with a tailored suit jacket at J. Crew; areas where it’s well positioned to succeed as competitors like Levi’s and Abercrombie & Fitch struggle.
As for the future, Wadle says J. Crew’s focus will be on evolution rather than reinvention, and on hooking up “solid brand collaborations” with companies like Sperry and Barbour. But she is adamant about not tinkering with the company’s prices, which remain high but far below what rivals charge for similar products.