My goal is not to be a tastemaker. It has never been that. I don’t consider myself that at all. The idea that you can make taste or influence someone’s taste is a very precarious and overly presumptuous concept. Hubris is not so cute. – Jenna Lyons

This past fall, J.Crew opened in London, so it is only appropriate that we celebrate the company’s Chief Creative Officer Jenna Lyons. She has been a large part of the company’s success over the years and is definitely someone to be reckoned with in the retail industry. This woman has played a big role in increasing the sales of what was once only known as a catalog company from $690 million to around $2.2 billion. She is responsible for the J.Crew “cult,” which I have been part of since 1995. Style-savvy celebrities like Michelle Obama, Solange Knowles, and Katherine Heigl are all fans of J.Crew designer Jenna Lyons. “Jenna was a great designer, she looked like a model, and then she talks like the best salesperson you ever met,” says J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler.

Anthony Sperduti, a co-founder of the store-cum-advertising agency Partners & Spade, had this to say about Jenna: “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 number 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.” 

Here are some tips from Lyons that will help you with your career:

1. Start From the Bottom and Work Your Way to the Top

Lyons began her journey with J.Crew in 1993, starting from the bottom sitting in the hallway without even a desk. Despite this humble beginning, she is actually very happy about her career path. “I was an assistant to someone’s assistant. I sat out in the hallway and I barely had a desk. My first day was hilarious. But one of the benefits of having started at the bottom is that I’m not afraid to push the brand. I’ve seen so much change, and I feel like I truly know where the brand came from. To me, it’s about evolving slowly.”

2. Follow Your Intuition

When it comes to making business decisions, Lyons says she just relies on her gut instinct– something that has clearly paid off in the last decade, during which she turned J.Crew into a fashion powerhouse. “Honestly, it’s the thing that keeps me awake at night,” she told The Business of Fashion. “I swear if I had a formula for that, I would sell it,” she continued. “It’s just sort of looking at something and being like, ‘God, that looks too commercial,’ or ‘Wow, when you put all of those things together, it looks kind of boring.’”

3. Everyone Makes Mistakes

If you’re ever afraid of making a mistake, remember that the worst thing you could do is not learn from your past failures.“In the end, it goes back to just wanting to change things and do a little better. It’s a constant process of always asking, ‘How can we be better? How can we be better? How can we be better?’”

4. Great Success Often Comes When Things Feel Out of Control

Lyons states that some of the most pivotal moments in her career happened during times of change. “Things were swelling up underneath me, and I was always sitting on the raft. I ended up having insane opportunities.”

5. Take Care When Working With Creatives

“Managing creative people—not so easy,” says Lyons. “A lot of emotion, a lot of stroking. Some people need tough love. Some people need a lot of love. 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.”

6. Take Things One Step at a Time, and Don’t Try To Do Too Much All at Once

Recently, in an interview, Lyons recounted a situation where she turned down designing an Oscar dress. She said: “We just got asked to do something for somebody for the Oscars, literally this morning. I said, ‘When are the Oscars? Two weeks? No way.’ We can’t turn samples and make really good-quality clothes on such a tight timeline.” Sometimes even though an opportunity sounds amazing, you have to realize that if you rush and don’t put in the time and effort it requires it could damage your career. As Liz Doupnik of StyleCaster wrote, “We love the fact that someone is standing up to the ridiculous timelines designers are expected to adhere to and adamantly refusing to sacrifice the quality of their work. Plus, what’s worse than having a dress show up on a Worst Dressed List? We think next to nothing.”

7. You Have To Work Extremely Hard for Everything

Most people equate overnight success with fame and fortune, but that’s not always the case. Great things very seldom happen overnight—it usually takes time, dedication, and a lot of hard work. Brandi Lyons knows this better than anyone. In an interview with Marie Claire UK, she stated: “There’s this idea that everybody has to have everything right away. But you have to let the slow burn happen. I wasn’t the superstar. I had to work for it. Really long hours.”

While we’re on the topic of fashion, let’s not forget a few of Lyons’ trade secrets. After all, she is the trendsetter for pairing unlikely patterns like plaid with polka dots and accessorizing with big heavy glasses.

  1. You don’t have to sort your wardrobe into two separate sections.

“For example, if you have one of our flip-hem wool skirts, you can wear it smart and flirty with a blazer and shirt and jewels and a heel. But you can also wear it dressed down, with an oversized sweatshirt and New Balance trainers,” says Lyons.

  1. Avoid being too matchy-matchy

“If you’re wearing a jewelled top, then maybe wear it with a menswear trouser and a loafer. Things that play off each other, instead of matching up, create a fun mood,” she says.

  1. A pop of color can brighten any outfit.

Lyons pretty much invented this one. Even if you are a little afraid, go for it. “Color isn’t easy for anyone. It’s not easy for me! It’s a challenge. It feels good to embrace a challenge.”

  1. Be sure to add a touch of masculinity

“Menswear is at the heart of everything we do at J Crew. Even if it’s a very fancy, feminine piece, like a jewelled T-shirt, if you drill down you’ll find a tailored shape at its root.”

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a fashion designer? Ask Carly Heitlinger!

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