Jenna Lyons' Social Life Is the Least of J.Crew's Problems

Jenna Lyons. Photo: Getty Images

On December 21, a gossip item ran in the New York Post stating that J.Crew boss Mickey Drexler asked executive creative director Jenna Lyons to “cut back on the self-promotion,” referring to her 2014 media blitz, including a guest appearance on Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, a recurring role on the Ovation reality show The Fund, and a December meet-and-greet with the Duchess of Cambridge, also known as Kate Middleton.

The supposed reason behind his request? J.Crew’s women’s business is tanking, with losses in the third quarter of 2014 amounting to $607.8 million. A source told Page Six that “J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler is tired of Jenna Lyons being out on the circuit and not paying attention to business.”

That may be true, but what’s not true is the real-life correlation between J.Crew’s problems and Jenna Lyons’ public persona.��

Let’s first acknowledge that we wouldn’t be talking if Lyons were a man. Michael Kors’ 10-season stint on Project Runway was seen as a boon to his multi-billion-dollar brand. Karl Lagerfeld’s omnipresence—from the label of Diet Coke bottles to the runways of Fendi and Chanel—is considered proof of his prolific talent. Part of a modern fashion designer’s job is promoting his or her brand. (Or, in the case of Lagerfeld, brands). The most admired talents are able to design compelling clothes that also sell, all the while serving as chief marketer. You must be able to communicate your brand’s story. You must be the kind of person people love to love. Or at least love to hate.

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Lyons is more loved than hated, and that’s primarily because she is J.Crew’s greatest branding asset. Arguably the most influential American fashion designer of the past 10 years, Lyons draws women in by offering a piece of the pinstriped, sequin-covered world she has created. She is an icon of American design, like Diane von Furstenberg or Anna Wintour. Women admire her as a person, but her style above all. Which means she needs to show her face.

What has happened to J.Crew over the past year is less about Lyons’ social life or overall vision—which is still clear, in my opinion—and more about the fact that retail is an inherently effed up business. Trends come and go, and while Lyons is grounded in what she likes, the masses seem to be moving on. Right now, J.Crew’s product assortment is clearly not on the mark. While sales are up year-over-year, it is still losing money.

To be clear, J.Crew’s competitors are worse off in many ways. The Gap’s overall business is decent shape, but its sales are still down. Much-hyped creative director Rebekka Bay hasn’t been able to transform the product into something the cool kids are willing to endorse. And while Banana Republic’s sales are relatively flat, creative director Marissa Webb’s first collection won’t hit stores until the spring. Webb hails from J.Crew, so there’s certainly an added level of competition there. In general, though, it’s just a really bad time for specialty retailers. Affordable fast-fashion and Internet-based brands have increased the competition. Product needs to be 10 times better than it was 10 years ago if it’s going to be more expensive. The customer has spoken, and she’s saying that J.Crew’s product is not currently cutting it.

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If a company is private, it’s able to ride those dips without the rest of the world knowing the difference. J.Crew is currently private, but because it has a lot of outstanding debt, it must be transparent about its finances and let the world know that it had a really bad year. Then there’s the matter of discounting. The marking down of goods is a major problem in the U.S. in particular: shoppers are now conditioned to paying at least 30% less than the regular price, even at upscale department stores. J.Crew spent years trying to avoid the discount trap, but because of the tactics of its competitive set—Banana Republic, Club Monaco and Gap in particular— its customer expects too much.

To be sure, not everyone agrees with me. Retail analyst Brian Sozzi puts the blame straight on Lyons. And Drexler, too. “Not only does Lyons needs to chill, but so does Mickey Drexler, whose photo is always appearing at some event with a simple tap of the Google News function,” says the Bellus Capital Advisors ceo. “The fact is this: J Crew’s financials are telling you change is overdue at the top.”

While I wouldn’t go that far, there’s no denying that Lyons has a tough year ahead. She must really think about what women want to wear right now, and sprinkle whatever that is with her magic dust. And there’s a huge chance she may not be able to fix it. But to say she needs to stop making so many public appearances is a nasty way to frame a much more complex problem.