How Olympia Gayot Brought J.Crew Back
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Olympia Gayot, womenswear director of the preppy stronghold J.Crew, is a prolific wearer of her own designs. Since taking the job in late 2020, she’s posted more than 240 mirror selfies to her Instagram account from her corner office at the brand’s headquarters.
The look that started it all was a black, slightly oversize J.Crew tuxedo she posted in December 2021. You could already see the template that’s made Gayot’s looks a phenomenon from the outset: She posed nonchalantly in her office, wearing a vaguely nautical striped polo sweater layered under her satin-lapeled blazer, the buttons undone to reveal a medallion necklace that coordinated with sculptural bangles and large hoop earrings. The toes of patent brogues peeked out from under the fluid trousers’ hem. Subsequent looks, made up almost entirely of J.Crew pieces, have ranged from baggy pink jeans under a cocooning gray turtleneck and black topcoat to a high-collar, rugby-striped navy and cream faux-fur coat styled with dainty ankle socks and pointed-toe black patent heels.
Her style is elegant, relaxed, and tomboyish, but with a strong sense of femininity—and gently incongruous with the maximalist Jenna Lyons era or the New England prep of the ’90s that longtime J.Crew customers know so well.
Gayot, who first worked at the brand from 2010 to 2017 as a womenswear designer under former brand president turned Real Housewives of New York cast member Jenna Lyons, began cataloging her outfits without much of an agenda, except to pull back the curtain on a brand everyone thinks they know. (In fact, her account was private until she chose to open it up with company executives’ encouragement in December of 2021.) Her posts unintentionally led to every mall-brand marketing executive’s dream. Gayot’s personal following has grown from several thousand in spring 2022 to 106,000 today. J.Crew has been hashtagged 46.9 million times on TikTok; Olympia alone, 1.1 million. Her selfies are a green-screen background for armchair fashion analysts to unpack why they love her designs. “J.Crew has finally got my attention, and it’s all because of this woman,” user @tasteofchidera said in a video praising J.Crew for 219,500 viewers, “and if you don’t know who she is, buckle up.” Stylist Allison Bornstein started an episode of her Three Words styling series, which distills a well-known figure’s sense of style into three terms, simply by saying, “We all love Olympia’s style.” In December, Instagram’s director of fashion partnerships, Eva Chen, called Gayot’s account one of the best fashion accounts she follows in an Instagram Stories Q&A and wrote, “She’s going to bring back my J.Crew roll neck sweater.”
Gayot’s mirror is the portal to a new era at J.Crew, and everyone from full-time editors to average shoppers agree the store is back. Gayot herself is part designer, part influencer, but she shrugs off her self-portraits’ subliminal messages to shop. “I really wanted to show things through my eyes, in a…nonselling way. In a completely pure, ‘This is what I love to do. These are some of my outfits’ way,” Gayot says.
Her posts are equal parts self-portrait and styling suggestions, daily tutorials in cultivating an elegant but unstuffy personal look. She shows how to style a suit for both an office commute and handling childcare for small humans or how to translate a vacation-adjacent open-back dress to a city wardrobe. Her exact pieces are tagged for purchase if you really want them. And because she conveys an elusive sense of chic that’s applicable to everyday life, they do sell.
“New and longtime brand fans have flocked to her Instagram to find inspiration and see how she styles her outfits,” J.Crew CEO Libby Wadle writes in an email to Bazaar. “This is a true testament to the impact that Olympia has on the J.Crew brand and customer.”
There are more than enough receipts to quantify Gayot’s impact. “The women’s business has seen consistent growth since Olympia’s collections have been consumer facing,” a representative for J.Crew confirms in an email. “As for the specific styles Olympia posts—we always see a build in sales from her posts.” (The brand declined to share specific sales figures.)
Gayot, 41, has old-fashioned Canadian manners and a streak of refined art-school quirkiness that manifests in Annie Hall–inspired ties and stacks of chunky jewelry. To sit with me in her Tribeca office on a late-October afternoon in New York and unpack what, exactly, has made her reinvention stick, she’s once again in a head-to-ankle J.Crew drip (a cropped cable-knit cardigan, a slouchy chino pant). She doesn’t initially acknowledge her patent silver slingback heels until I follow up for a credit; they’re Celine.
Gayot downplays her success in the style of an employee’s annual self-evaluation: “I think everybody’s really happy with all of it,” she says. She’s grateful for her swelling audience, as well as the tide of DMs complimenting her outfits and requesting tips to mimic her style offline.
But Gayot wants more for J.Crew than five seconds of TikTok fame. She wants J.Crew’s return to the fashion cognoscenti’s good graces to last: “For me, it’s about longevity. It’s a marathon.” She pauses. “I want to make sure that it continues to be beautiful.”
J.Crew knew it needed a renaissance before it hired Gayot back from Victoria’s Secret, where she’d taken a post designing lingerie in 2017. The same year, J.Crew had entered a phase shoppers of a certain generation might call its “flop era.” The brand’s most recognizable personalities, CEO Mickey Drexler and brand president Lyons, had each left their respective roles. Designs became stagnant; so did sales. Two CEO reshufflings and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy later, Libby Wadle was appointed to chief executive officer in November 2020 to potentially, finally steer J.Crew back to steadier ground.
Wadle brought Gayot on board shortly after. Gayot was several months pregnant and ready to revitalize the brand where she’d spent the bulk of her professional career. “I just felt like I had to take the leap,” Gayot recalls. “J.Crew has always been close to my heart.”
Under Jenna Lyons, who herself became a fashion celebrity and proto-influencer, the brand was one of the first to insist affordable clothing could sit alongside designer brands like Saint Laurent and Prada; it was sold on Net-a-Porter and famously celebrated by then–first lady Michelle Obama. Gayot, who grew up in Canada sketching the outfits of women and girls around her and moved to New York to study painting at the School of Visual Arts, applied for what would become her first role at J.Crew after deciding she wanted a full-time job. “As much as I thought I wanted this career as a painter, something always kept drawing me back into fashion,” she explains. Lyons interviewed Gayot for the position and she “got the job right away.” Working together, Gayot says, “was so inspiring and very creative. I just can’t say better things.” In the intervening years, Gayot married art consultant and gallerist Matt Black and had two children.
Arriving at J.Crew for the second time, Gayot had her work cut out for her—personally and professionally. Her inner monologue during the interview process went something like this: “Oh my gosh, if I go to J.Crew while I’m pregnant, during a pandemic, and I have to, like, turn this ship or figure out how to really make things happen—this is going to be so much work.” The company had an enormous amount of debt ($2 billion, per Reuters) at the time of its mid-pandemic bankruptcy filing. And in the average woman’s mind, it wasn’t so much an affordable fashion darling as an out-of-touch, slightly oppressive monument to preppy clothing.
No roadblock could ultimately intimidate the designer out of a role she knew she could tackle. “I’m kind of crazy in that I just love a challenge,” she says, remembering that she told herself, “I’m just going to do it, and we’ll figure it out.”
Gayot, like any designer brought in to revamp a brand that’s lost its luster, had a checklist to complete at warp speed: improve the products, elevate the branding, bump up sales. But she put down the playbook and approached the rebrand in her own way, before the internet got clued in, like tasking high-fashion and art photographer Collier Schorr with shooting the brand’s spring 2021 campaign, starring megawatt talent like Florence Pugh. She followed it last September with a social-media-first campaign highlighting J.Crew’s “classic remixes,” rolled out on Instagram by Julianne Moore, Ayo Edebiri, Sadie Sink, and the woman Gayot called “the original muse,” Diane Keaton.
Even the talent was aware that the range in ages represented was special. “It isn’t often you get these opportunities for fashion at my age,” Keaton says of appearing in the campaign, “but then, why not!” The actor appeared in a laminated trench Gayot has included in two collections so far; to her, the feeling of being included was more memorable than the specific outfit: “Everyone was so kind at the shoot and let me be me.”
Wadle calls Gayot a “true creative visionary,” someone who treats getting dressed like an art form. Gayot seems to do organically what other designers strive for with paid celebrities and flashy store-opening events: elevate her brand in the eyes of the general public and get people shopping there again. J.Crew womenswear hasn’t had its version of menswear design lead Brendon Babenzien’s giant-fit chino, a sold-out trophy of menswear Twitter last summer, but it wasn’t necessary. The J.Crew spokesperson says more than half of total sales at J.Crew are attributed to womenswear. And Gayot’s J.Crew has managed to catch the attention of various fashion outlets (including this one) without a runaway viral hit—save Gayot herself.
Far more important than the star power of the brand’s campaigns or the strength of one product has been Gayot’s general elevation of the clothes themselves.
The designer watches runway fashion with a collector’s eye. She lists the brands she tracks most closely in a breath: “I love Gucci or Prada. Always love Stella McCartney. I’ve always loved Phoebe Philo, whatever she’s done.” She’s also passionate about New York City–based designers, name-checking Eckhaus Latta and Maryam Nassir Zadeh.
This isn’t to accuse Gayot of getting into the business of knockoffs. Instead, inspired by the considered shapes, superior quality, and latent individuality of her favorite designer labels, Gayot is making J.Crew a design-led brand again. Her collections have stayed true to J.Crew’s cable-knit DNA in part. Nothing looks like it’s intended to go on sale in two months (though steep discounts are a constant between this J.Crew and past eras).
The designer also says she’s spent hours upon hours studying old catalogs. The icons of J.Crew prep—Fair Isle knitwear, waxed barn jackets, wool blazers—are all present and accounted for. But never will you hear her use “prep” to describe the label. “Remixed classics” and “returns to the catalog” are what she prefers. Dresses possess a surprisingly sexy undercurrent; tiered apron dresses last spring came with a fully open back, and a city mermaid dress (coated in scaly black sequins, with a high-thigh slit) was a fast-selling standout from holiday 2022. Gayot has plucked some items from J.Crew’s earlier decades out of retirement with minor fabrication upgrades, like a striped faux-fur coat released in November. Then there’s the suiting, refined from first-summer-internship proportions of the late-2010s collections with longer blazers and more fluid hemlines. “It’s taking things that are design tropes that are classic to the brand and modernizing them,” she summarizes. Fits across categories are more sophisticated and classic; gone are the awkwardly boxy tops and midcalf pants of past years.
Down the hall from Gayot’s office, the design team she leads sits near racks of vintage clothing plucked from flea markets and thrift stores, all to inspire upcoming collections and refine their techniques. Gayot has personally selected collaborators—including the sibling founders of Eveliina Vintage, a thrift store specializing in romantic 1940s and 1950s dresses; French shirting expert Marie Marot; and contemporary painter Cassi Namoda—for limited-edition capsules more befitting of a Marais boutique than a suburban American mall. The designer has a merchandising intuition that means these new initiatives actually sell, allowing her to push J.Crew ever so slightly in fresh aesthetic directions. Take the ’90s-style slipdresses Gayot says she’s always worn with Oxfords. She wanted to introduce a J.Crew rendition, but “I wasn’t sure it was going to work because traditionally our customer wasn’t interested in that type of thing.” The label trusted her to release one anyway. The first version sold out, and it’s since been remade in several colors.
Commenters online aren’t shy about saying these pieces don’t just look new—they suddenly feel more expensive than they are. Gayot concedes that the brand’s quality had fallen under past leadership. These days, she and her CEO appear to have convinced the board that quality matters again. Online, a crystal-embellished $798 wool topcoat from Italy’s Mario Bellucci mill and $288 velvet peep-toe heels sit beside $39.50 tissue turtlenecks and $128 straight-leg jeans. Cashmere, a J.Crew pillar, is now its “softest ever” and most sustainably sourced, at least according to the marketing materials. Factories that had shut down during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic have also returned online, meaning J.Crew can play with sequins, feathers, and specialty fabrics again. “We’re not being forced to dip,” Gayot says.
How do you feel, I ask, hearing people say J.Crew is back? Gayot needs to pause before she answers, one hand fiddling with her cascade of blond curls. This is what she finally lands on: “I guess I’m excited. I don’t really take it in the wrong way. I think it’s great that people are talking about us again, that people are interested.”
And, she adds, J.Crew didn’t make it back on paid #content from friends of the brand, like so many other modern fashion revivals. “It’s so amazing because those people are actually seeing it and we’re not telling them that that’s happening. They’re telling us.”
Writer Aminatou Sow, who appeared in a 2021 J.Crew campaign, was drawn to Gayot’s personal styling sensibilities, as well as the fresh energy she’s bringing to the brand at large. “Even though she works for a ginormous clothing company, it is very refreshing to see someone who repeats outfits and specific pieces,” Sow tells me, “and also talks about building an outfit in a way that is thoughtful and not just focused on buying every single thing that you can buy.”
Sow doesn’t shop often, but she’s made J.Crew purchases during the Gayot era. For her, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that J.Crew has extended sizing in both clothing and footwear. Between the improved quality and the gradual size expansion, “I’ve heard from a lot of friends who used to shop there that they’re shopping there again.”
The men’s side of the business has made a splash with store redesigns and a party during Fashion Week featuring a performance by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If more obvious plans for J.Crew women’s stores to become fashion destinations are in motion, Gayot isn’t revealing them yet. “It’s definitely something we’re planning on doing in the future,” she says. Offhandedly, she mentions a hope for J.Crew to make its way into fashion editorials and the magazine space.
For now, her reach is still somewhat limited to the digital sphere. J.Crew’s mainline stores still look the same as in their middling middle-ground era: stacks and stacks of sweaters, a corner devoted to children’s wear, perpetual sales—with the exception that the stores weren’t empty when I visited. Racks of “Olympia’s Picks” (a button-down with feather-trimmed cuffs, a wool blazer jacket) were positioned just inside the front door at three Manhattan locations. A cashier at a Fifth Avenue store, in the Flatiron neighborhood, told me he’s never encountered a shopper looking for Olympia’s selects.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t know who I am, and that’s fine too,” Gayot says. “And they’re actually buying the clothes because they’re just like, ‘Oh, something’s changed,’ and they’re noticing a shift regardless.”
Gayot says there will be more to see in the year ahead. J.Crew’s 40th anniversary is this year, and the designer and her team are going “full-force into heritage modern” for the milestone year. So far, the victory lap collections have included re-issues of select bags, shoes, and denim from the archive, plus a drop of "covetable classics" for spring including cashmere rugby sweaters and pastel Mary Jane heels.
Gayot makes only one request of her followers over the course of our conversation: “I want to see more of the brand on all different types of women. Not just me and my mirror.”
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