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Fashion Week on Levo: Jenna Lyons’ Tough Childhood Made Her a Better Manager

Career Advice |

Jenna Lyons, President and Chief Creative Officer for J.Crew, recently graced the cover of Fast Company because she is a major force to be reckoned with in the fashion industry. After all, Lyons has doubled the sales of J.Crew in the last seven years, resulting in a company valuation of $1.7 billion and has been the visionary force behind what has become known as the “cult of J.Crew” (of which I have been a proud member since 1995). Anna Wintour said last spring, “J.Crew is a force to be reckoned with, and anyone who tells you otherwise is insane.” Those are some big words coming from arguably the most important woman in fashion.

In the interview, she talked about how she works with and manages so many creative people. And who better to manage a creative team then one of the most creative minds working today? From Fast Company:

“When something hasn’t been as beautiful as it can be, the reason is always bigger than the thing,” Lyons tells me afterward. Here, the reason was miscommunication between the stylists and the merchandisers. “At this stage, I’m like a glorified crossing guard,” says Lyons. “It’s like, try to keep people motivated, keep the traffic moving, keep people from getting stumped or stopped by a problem.”

“Managing creative people—not so easy,” she says. “A lot of emotion, a lot of stroking. Some people need tough love. Some people need a lot of love.” Above all is the challenge of managing in a subjective realm. “There’s no right or wrong answer,” says Lyons. “When someone creates something and puts it in front of you, that thing came from inside of them, and if you make them feel bad, it’s going to be hard to fix, because you’ve actually crushed them.”

Lyons says a large part of the reason she is a good manager of this type of person is because she had a rather rough childhood followed by an awkward adolecense. Lyons was born with incontinentia pigmenti, a genetic disorder that led to scarred skin, patchy hair, and lost teeth, requiring dentures as a kid. Plus, she has been about six feet tall since she was a kid. Not exactly easy stuff for a girl to go through. But it definitely helps you realize how to be more sensitive. Ashley Sargent Price, who does art direction for J.Crew’s catalogs and website, told Fast Company, “She knows how to make you feel appreciated, even if you need to be redirected.”

Her awkward youth also helped her be a better designer over all. “I felt a huge drive to make clothes that everybody could have because I felt ostracized by that world of beauty and fashion. I never thought I would have a part in it. Never in a million years,” she told FC.

Last year Lyons told Forbes:

“Having grown up not being so attractive and awkward, I know what that feels like. I know what it feels like to not be sure of yourself. I know that when you feel good, it helps your confidence and makes you feel better. To me the most rewarding part is when I meet someone who says “I got married in your dress and I felt beautiful” or “I got my first job in your pencil skirt and sweater” or seeing Michelle Obama wear the clothes—those kinds of things, when someone else feels beautiful about the clothes.”

Anthony Sperduti, a co-founder of the store-cum-advertising agency Partners & Spade, said about Lyons, “Look, it’s not a hard thing to be a tasteful designer and cater to a small community. That’s an easy thing. For someone to bring a level of taste—to introduce large portions of our country to newer things, interesting notions—that’s the challenge. And she’s done that impeccably well… I can’t tell you the amount of women for whom Jenna invariably comes up in conversation. I don’t know that many designers in her role that you could say the same thing about. Not from a company of that scale.” Mark Holgate, fashion news director at Vogue, told NYMag says Lyons has made J.Crew seem “tangible and touchable” for the average shopper.

“Amazing things happen when you’re having fun doing something you love,” she told Glamour. The magazine named her one of their Women of the Year in 2012 because of her career success and power as a leader.

She has made so many women feel special. As fellow Woman of the Year Lena Dunham said at the Awards show, “By the way, Jenna Lyons, you’re the reason I’m comfortable wearing shorts and it’s not going very well–so thanks a lot.”

Do you think tough past experiences can make you a better manager? Tell us in the comments!

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fashion female executives jenna lyons news2

6 Comments

Oh, I really loved this article, thank you! I totally believe you need fun and beauty, and I love these qualities emerging from rough, personal experience. I'd love to hang out with her, too :)

2y

She's a great role model. “Amazing things happen when you’re having fun doing something you love”. I hope that someday I will be able to experience that...

2y

I'd like to hang out with Jenna for extended periods of time. She's brilliant and a huge inspiration to me. Thanks to her, Leopard is a neutral in my wardrobe.

3y

She's an inspiration! I love it when she said: "Some people need tough love. Some people need a lot of love." Definitely something we all need to learn when managing teams.

3y

Jenna Lyons is one of my favourite fashion people because of her values, work ethic and killer style. I`m glad to see that her experience as a child grew into a deep sense of empathy than bitterness.

3y

"Amazing things happen when you're having fun doing something you love" - What a great quote! It's a basic concept, but one I feel is so often overlooked. Happy = productivity and success. Thanks for the reminder!

3y
Meredith Lepore

Meredith is the Editor at Large for Levo League. Before that she was the Editor in Chief of The Grindstone and was on staff at Business Insider. She has written for magazines including Marie Claire, SELF, Women's Health and Cosmopolitan. She earned her Masters in Magazine, Newspaper and Online journalism from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Meredith resides in New York full time and enjoys SoulCycle, jogging and playing with her Yorkshire Terrier Otis, who also loves SoulCycle.