By  on April 6, 2005

NEW YORK — J. Crew’s current bestseller is a pair of jeweled sandals for $190.

“One-hundred and ninety dollars,” gushed Jenna Lyons, the retailer’s senior vice president of women’s design, throwing her hands in the air for emphasis. “We never would have given the real estate to a $200 sandal before. The customer has been ready for it, but J. Crew just hasn’t been there for her. We didn’t know if we could sell it. And that is what’s been great about Mickey [Drexler, J. Crew’s chairman and chief executive officer]. He’s been pushing us to push the envelope.”

After Drexler joined the company from Gap Inc. in 2003, he and president Jeff Pfeifle, whom he brought along, wasted no time in injecting the brand with a new sense of luxury and cool. For the last three seasons, J. Crew noticeably has been updating its collections and improving its colors, the quality of its fabrics, the design and overall fit. While the company isn’t walking away from American classics such as chinos, button-down shirts and ribbon belts, it has started to pepper select boutiques with luxurious items. These days, a customer passing J. Crew’s thresholds is as likely to find tailored cashmere coats and suits, intricately embroidered pants and heavily beaded tops as the classics.

“The product definitely needed to be fixed,” Pfeifle said. “There were inconsistencies in color and in direction. The brand has been in a lot of different places.”

Where some incoming executives would have come in with an ax and cleared out the existing design team, Drexler relied on Lyons, a J. Crew veteran who has been with the brand for 15 years, to oversee the design makeover.

Lyons is a downtown type who appears a little disheveled, but in a studied way. She mixes and matches new pieces with vintage ones that are a little frayed around the edges. On this day, for instance, she wears torn faded jeans adorned with pins she must have used while tweaking a sample. In many ways, she is the perfect incarnation of the J. Crew woman for whom she designs.

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