Jenna Lyons has 8,000 Instagram followers, which isn’t that surprising. After all, she was president and executive creative director of J. Crew Group Inc. and the public face of the company. What’s remarkable is that there’s not a single photo posted to the account.
“I can see what’s going on in the world, but I don’t want to know how many likes I have,” said Lyons, who in April left J. Crew and is in the process of shedding the vestiges of her former career. “Ironically, I have an Instagram account with no pictures and 8,000 followers. There’s something really nice about that, but it’s confusing to a lot of people.”
Lyon’s Instagram says a lot about her ability to disengage from an industry that consumed her for more than two decades. Not that it’s been easy. “I put down my phone and my emotional connections. J. Crew is going to move on and carry on without me. When I turned off the e-mail, the only people who contacted me were people who had my number and sent me texts.”
Rather than obsessing over the ply of cashmere or whether to use 8 mm or 10 mm sequins, Lyons is exploring the meaning of happiness and other philosophical questions through discussions she has with herself.
“I had really an eye-opening nine months,” Lyons said. “You think your life is going to be a certain way, and nothing you thought would happen ends up happening. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be designing clothes and working with Mickey Drexler [former ceo, who left J. Crew in June, but retains the title of chairman], and building something I’m deeply proud of.
“I also didn’t expect leaving my marriage and ending up with a woman to happen,” said Lyons, who met her girlfriend, Courtney Crangi, after divorcing her husband in 2011. She and Crangi split in December. “I’m not in a relationship now and don’t have a job. I feel like I’m in a weird place in my life, but it’s also a good place.
“I was reveling in the pain and joy I got from not being afraid to say I was scared,” said Lyons. “It’s scary not having answers. I was forced to answer questions for so many years — weighty questions that were sometimes attached to millions of dollars.”
Lyons on Thursday will be in conversation at Chandelier Creative’s Truth Tellers + Troublemakers series to discuss reinvention, a subject she knows well. “This is a woman who’s living 100 percent in her own skin,” said Chandelier’s founder, Richard Christensen. “I love that we’re talking about reinvention. It’s a universal human truth and something we all long for.”
Lyons left J. Crew with $1 million and has the luxury of not rushing into another role. “In the beginning, I was taking lunches,” she said. “I realized I didn’t have anything to say and found myself making something up. I’m getting to the point where I’m more ready to think about [a job].”
But she bristled when asked what her next move might be. “At first, people would say, ‘Are you going to take pottery classes or cooking classes?’ I had to decompress and come to terms with everything I experienced.”
Fashion doesn’t hold as much allure. For one thing, J. Crew’s performance had been declining. Revenues for the first nine months of fiscal 2017 fell 4 percent to $1.66 billion. Comp-store sales dropped 8 percent, after a 7 percent decline in the 2016 period.
“It’s a different time in the industry,” Lyons said, adding that the aesthetic bar for fashion, which was always set by fashion magazines, is now influenced by social media.
Every sartorial style can find a home in some corner of the Internet, said Lyons, who infused the preppy J. Crew with her own quirky style — to both plaudits and criticism. “The danger is that people segment themselves and [turn off to] other ideas,” she said. “At the same time, you can be anything you want to be. I didn’t have access to people who looked like me and felt the way I did. I was six feet tall in seventh grade. I spent a lot of time trying to fit in. It’s easier to fit in now thanks to social media, but it’s created an exclusionary culture. That always existed, but now it’s more galvanized.”
Social media also accelerated the pace of fashion cycles. “I don’t know if I want the intensity of fashion’s speed now,” Lyons said, adding, “I don’t think my own brand is in the cards. If I were going to get back into fashion, I’d do it in a different way.”
Nor does she see acting in her future despite garnering praise for her clipped performance in a recurring role in HBO’s “Girls” as a no-nonsense GQ editor. “I love acting,” Lyons said. “[‘Girls’ creator] Lena [Dunham] is one of the most inspiring and unusual unicorn characters I’ve met.”
“Michelle Obama is the only First Lady known to wear J. Crew with such conviction,” Lyons said. “I was able to meet them. It’s hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia.”