What can’t Jenna Lyons do?

One would have to wonder, after listening to her 90-minute talk with Fern Mallis Tuesday night that recapped a 27-year run at J. Crew, her “Real Housewives of New York City” role, multiple business ventures, celebrity connections and personal challenges. A crowd of 600 attended the 92NY event and others tuned in online.

Bravo fans can rest easy knowing that she is filming her second season. Lyons joined Coveteur as editor in chief (at large) a few months ago, has offered creative input to Rockefeller Center and cautioned aspiring designers to not think that success happens overnight with people becoming stars online in a heartbeat. “I have seen just as many people start, rise and fall. Slow and steady wins the race. You don’t need to be a star tomorrow,” she said. “Let it happen over time. Get experience. It’s OK to make mistakes. But it’s also OK to learn from someone else and to understand there’s a carrot dangling.”

Asked about her next idea for a brand launch, Lyons offered “Hurkle-durkle” — “Does anybody know what hurkle-durkle is? Google it.” (It’s a Scottish term meaning to lie in bed or lounge about when one should be up and about.)

Lyons was more precise and open in discussing how her personal life has played out publicly including the end of a nine-year marriage. But back to Bravo. The 55-year-old Lyons said the prospect of being the first gay “RHONYC” housewife had initially piqued her interest — so much so that she had jokingly DM’d Andy Cohen, the executive producer. Although it was not one thing that made her return for a second season, part of it was wanting to boost awareness for her eyelash company LoveSeen. As for the air date, Lyons said, “We don’t know.”

“There are some people who have joined that are not designers and they are closer to her in age. That has been an interesting dynamic,” she said, adding that she was older than many of the first season’s cast members. “A lot of the girls are gorgeous and young. I’m like old. It was nice to have a little backup.”

Season One was drastically different. Lyons told Mallis, “It was so f*cking hard. None of us knew each other really, how this worked or how we would be prepared. I was definitely guarded. I was surprised how hard it was. I thought I could handle it. I’ve been through so much with my previous job [at J. Crew.] I can’t describe how hard the work part of my job was with all the HR stuff that went on. It was just challenging.”

Mistaken that she could handle the Bravo show’s first season, Lyons said she cried on air and had found herself sharing things on-air that she had not intended to share. Her second season is “a totally different game,” with Lyons genuinely appreciating, caring and loving all of them. Asked about reports that designer Rebecca Minkoff is joining the cast, Lyons said, “I mean she’s cute. She has nice legs.”

When Mallis said that it would be interesting to have another designer, Lyons said, “It would.”

While millions recognize Lyons for her “RHONY” fame, millions of others consider Lyons’ name to be synonymous with J. Crew. So much so, that the fashion designer Todd Snyder once mused in the media that it should be renamed “Jenna Crew.” Her tenure culminated with being named president of the J. Crew Group in 2010, which included. J. Crew, Madewell and the J. Crew Factory (a larger entity than the J. Crew business at that time).

In 2017, when she reached the point where she didn’t feel that she was making a difference, the company was heading in another direction and many opinions surfaced about what needed to be done in that challenging business climate, Lyons reconsidered her role. (The business had suffered due to merchandising missteps and a heavy debt load, which stemmed from the company’s 2011 deal to be taken private by TPG and Leonard Green for $3 billion, WWD reported.) After overhearing her team making decisions based on what they anticipated she might not approve of, Lyons decided that type of dynamic might make her “a hindrance.” Tired and working a lot, she felt it was time to move on and was more saddened than surprised that the phone didn’t ring with opportunities. Recruiters later told her that one of the challenges was that she was so closely associated with J. Crew that a lot of American brands weren’t interested in working with her for that reason. “I’ve seen that play out with consulting work that I’ve done,” Lyons said. “I can do other things.”

That she can. Lyons started LoveSeen, cruelty-free, vegan eyelashes, with makeup artist Troi Ollivierre. In 2020, HBO debuted the reality show “Stylish with Jenna Lyons” and prior to that she appeared as a boss on Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” Lyons also advised Rockefeller Center as a creative consultant with its redesign in relation to new types of retail like one for Todd Snyder, such restaurants as Jupiter, the deck, fauna and other elements.  

She also spoke adoringly of her current partner, the photographer Cass Bird, whom she met 12 years ago through J. Crew, and became involved with about 17 months ago. Lyons was upfront about other aspects of her personal history. In 2011, after splitting up with her husband Vincent Mazeau and becoming involved with the jewelry designer Courtney Crangi, Lyons faced the unlikely scenario of being informed by J. Crew’s Millard “Mickey” Drexler and the head of PR and marketing that “we have the New York Post on the other line. They’re asking if you are dating a woman. Would you like to confirm or deny?”

“Very new” to dealing with the media at that time, and not knowing that not saying anything was an option, Lyons recalled telling them, “For some reason, I just said, ‘Confirm.’”

“It just kind of hit. I had to tell my entire team, my mother, my brother, my father — no one in my life knew. I didn’t really know what was going on,” she said. “In some ways, it was probably better because it ripped the Band-Aid off. People didn’t have to whisper.”

Lyons does not know who provided that scoop, but said, “If you’re out there…” She doubted how she would have been able to get through that time without Drexler “and every single person” that she worked with, who were “beyond supportive,” Lyons said. “I was scared about how I would be perceived, treated at work and capable of, not because I was gay, but maybe because of my perspective of how I viewed women or clothing. That happened a little bit, but 99.9 percent were amazing.”

Having Michelle Obama wear J. Crew head-to-toe on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” ahead of the 2008 presidential election was pretty amazing too. “We didn’t initiate it. We were all just super excited,” Lyons said. “At the time [former Republican vice presidential candidate] Sarah Palin had taken it on the chin for having a $150,000 clothing allowance. And Michelle Obama comes out saying, ‘Oh, I’m wearing J. Crew,’ something that you could wear. It was really an incredible and smart thing on her behalf.”

After Obama’s two daughters Malia and Sasha wore J. Crew for the 2009 inauguration, three weeks of TV interviews ensued for Lyons even though a laser treatment had left her face looking like “a rotting tomato.” The Obama connection led to several White House invitations, “I know that sounds insane,” Lyons said. “They would take your phone, I have no proof. But I swear I was there.”

Michelle Obama in J. Crew.

Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

At Michelle Obama’s East Room 50th birthday party in 2014, Prince and Stevie Wonder played and the crowd danced until 3:30 in the morning, according to Lyons. When Wonder performed, it made Lyons cry. Obama, who was standing beside her, said, “‘I see that,’” Lyons said, imitating how that made her cry even more. “The energy, love and diversity in that room was incredible.”

Beyoncé and her sister Solange Knowles attending a J. Crew New York Fashion Week show and requesting clothes was another high point. Lyons also repeatedly praised Drexler, who joined J. Crew as chief executive officer and chairman in 2003 after an abrupt exit from Gap. (They remain in touch.)

Jenna Lyons

Gareth Jones

Upon arrival at J. Crew, he held a 7 a.m. Monday meeting to tell the 17-person executive team that they would all be interviewing for their jobs. ”’Again?’” Lyons recalled thinking at that time, having already spent the previous 10 months trying to redirect the line with an interim CEO. “Within six weeks, there were only two people left in that room. It was intense. He was laser-like. He wanted to focus on design, quality, storytelling and making beautiful clothes,” Lyons said. “That was exciting after a couple of years of focusing on the bottom line, is-it-salable and making sure the line was not too fashion and not too scary.”

By Day Two, Drexler had installed an intercom system throughout the corporate offices so that everyone from design to accounts payable was in the loop. “You have to understand that Arthur Cinader, who had owned the company [and founded it], wouldn’t let us chew gum or eat popcorn. I wasn’t allowed to have a jangly bracelet [shaking the ones on her wrists for effect]. He liked the office to be quiet like a library.”

Drexler, meanwhile, would air everything on the intercom for all to hear, posing such questions as, “’Did anyone grow up in Wisconsin? I want to open a store there.’ Then every single person from Wisconsin would go to his office and he would ask, ‘Do you know this street? Do you know this neighborhood and who shops there?’ He really connected with people. It was pretty exciting to watch.”

If Drexler was jazzed about beanies, for example, he would ask employees with their favorite beanies to call him. “And everybody would be calling his office. But it wasn’t just design. Now accounts payable knew that beanies were important. Everyone felt included. While it was strange, it was amazing,” said Lyons.

Above all, Lyons learned from him how much he valued creativity, and how the product and the customer came first. “I’ve heard so many CEOs and very important people start talking about the numbers, the marketing and the ad campaigns. But they don’t talk about the product. If that skirt or sweater isn’t amazing, it doesn’t matter if the picture was great, or if it cost $28 or $48, if they never wear it again. Who cares?” Lyons said. “Mickey was about making money through quality and integrity.”

Lyons recalled a 2011 photo shoot when “athleisure was starting to become a thing, which is so funny to think of now,” that was shot by her ex-husband at their Brooklyn townhouse and featured an image of her painting her young son’s toenails pink with Essie nail polish, a J. Crew collaborator at that time. The image with the caption read, “Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink.”

That made Fox News go “bananas that I was trying to make him gay,” Lyons said. “Honestly, there are other ways to do that.”

After the story “caught fire, it was insane,” said Lyons, who added that others like “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart did a “Toe-mageddon” segment.

Now 17, the high school senior is set on being an aeronautical engineer. As for what’s on her bucket list, Lyons said she is interested in slowing down more. “When I was working so hard, I didn’t realize how much I was missing. Having had that moment to pull away and have time has made me understand that creativity comes from boredom and being able to think. So I really try to give myself more time with my schedule. Some days that’s easier to do than others,” Lyons said.

Any regrets? “So many. I mean that guy I slept with in Cancun…” Lyons said. “I do. The thing that I wish I had learned earlier on is that I spent so much time trying to fit in. I didn’t understand that that’s actually not a superpower. It’s much more powerful to stand out and just be yourself.”

Before stepping off the stage at 92NY, Lyons, who suffers from incontinentia pigmenti, said, “I can’t see all of you, which is really weird. But I am really grateful that you guys came. I wanted to say a really genuine thank you. I’ve been in a world where I left and felt on the outs. It was really hard feeling like nobody cared what you did or you said. You guys are very meaningful.”

Mallis added, “Jenna, apparently, they care.”

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