Struggling after financial and creative missteps, J. Crew parts ways with Jenna Lyons

The Jenna Lyons days are over at J. Crew Group Inc. Lyons, known for her quirky style, thick glasses and self promotion, is leaving the company as president and creative director.

The creative force behind the brand, she was criticized for taking on too high a profile as a tsunami of change has hit retail hard. J. Crew has been hit even harder, struggling through merchandise missteps as it manages a heavy debt load following 2011 deal to be taken private by TPG and Leonard Green for $3 billion.

Lyons, who is responsible for all product design, visual and brand presentation, will remain as a creative adviser at the company through this year as her contract runs out. She has worked at J. Crew for 26 years and has been president and creative director since 2012. The role will not be filled.

Now the future of the company’s design rests on Somsack Sikhounmuong, head of women’s design, who is being promoted to chief design officer, overseeing women’s, men’s and crewcuts design teams.

He will report to chairman and chief executive officer Millard “Mickey” Drexler.

The ceo said: “Somsack and our design teams have a deep understanding of the aesthetic and style our customers rely on J. Crew to deliver, with a proven track record of driving creative vision in-line with our brand DNA. We are excited to extend Somsack’s vision across all design categories and look forward to the team’s contributions. As always, delivering the very best product, value and brand experience across channels is our top priority. We look forward to this next chapter and thank Jenna for her continued dedication to our team and passion for our brand.”

Drexler also took a moment to look back and said: “It has been an absolute pleasure to work with Jenna as my trusted partner for the past 14 years. She has made many significant contributions to J. Crew and has built an incredibly talented team. J. Crew is focused on continuing the progress underway as we execute on our strategic initiatives and position the company for the long term. We have taken important steps to improve our performance and are confident that the team in place will continue these efforts.”

Celebrity branding expert Jeetendr Sehdev, in his recent book, “The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells (and How to Do It Right),” dissected Lyon’s experience at J. Crew. Sehdev, who sings the virtue of self-promotion, said Lyons hit it just right for a time.

“Lyons was narcissistic in exactly the right amount and in precisely the right way,” Sehdev wrote, noting her high profile and the way she styled models with thick black glasses and long, straight hair to look like her. “She designed clothes that she wanted to wear and did it with such courage, conviction and finesse that millions of women and men worldwide bought into her vision.”

But as the business faltered, Lyons’ persona receded from public view.

“Jenna Lyons took an unfair dive for J. Crew; her self-promoting, self-obsessed ways made her an easy target,” Sehdev said. “But it was also exactly those self-promoting, self-obsessed ways that took a forgettable brand and turned it into a global phenomenon.”

But times have changed, drastically, and the retailer is in the midst of some serious changes across its business as it adjusts.

J. Crew said it “has been strengthening its operations to be able to move more quickly to address today’s fast changing world, focusing on sales productivity with new merchandising and marketing initiatives, which are expected to enhance customer loyalty and extend brand reach.”

With Lyons transitioning out, Drexler, who is heralded for his work turning the Gap into a Nineties juggernaut, has both hands on the wheel at J. Crew.

However, it’s a tricky road ahead.

J. Crew has $1.5 billion in debt and is fighting with creditors, some of whom object to its move late last year that put nearly three-quarters of the J. Crew trademark in a separate subsidiary.

That battle is playing out in a New York state court, but is perhaps just a side show to the larger battle playing out in the mall.

J. Crew’s revenues slipped 3.2 percent to $2.4 billion last year with — with a 7 percent comparable-sales decline.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

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