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J Crew’s Jenna Lyons: ‘Sequins are the new black’

Backstage at the Lincoln Center, moments before the J Crew show at New York fashion week, the models asked Jenna Lyons, the label’s creative director: “Are we allowed to smile?”

Lyons – dressed for the occasion in floor-length black culottes with a simple striped cotton shirt, signature black-rimmed spectacles and slicked back hair – burst out laughing. “Oh my god, yes! Please smile.”

The models’ question was not stupid. Smiling is a rare occurrence on the catwalk, where aloof unobtainability is still considered the ideal. But J Crew is different from most names on the New York fashion week schedule, being an upscale mainstream store whose price tags, while not cheap, are closer to affordable than astronomical. What’s more, the tone of approachability saturates everything about J Crew. The store models often wear glasses, and unlikely colours and fabrics are mixed with a screwball comedy wit.

Under the stewardship of Lyons and the chief executive, Mickey Drexler, J Crew has become a major player in global fashion. Michelle Obama is a fan, and her dressing the first daughters in brightly coloured coats, gloves and scarves for her husband’s inaugurations has enabled J Crew to lay claim, in the American imagination, to the notion of dressing with a pop of colour. When the Duchess of Cambridge attended a basketball game in New York, she wore a pair of black skinny J Crew jeans.

But recently J Crew has run into trouble. A loss of $607m in 2014 led to reports that Lyons was in trouble with Drexler for the unlikely fashion crime of being too fabulous. Lyons’ personal fame – guest appearances in Girls and a turn at Solange Knowles’s wedding – was said to be shading her J Crew role. Drexler dismissed the reports as silly, publicly backing Lyons as being “as good as it gets at being a voice for J Crew”. But the recent departure of both the chief operating officer and chief financial officer have fuelled rumours that all is not well at J Crew.

The New York fashion week presentation, therefore, comes at a crunch moment for the label.

Lyons came out, all guns blazing – or, given the J Crew obsession with sequins, sparkling. “I think we were missing the sparkle a little,” said Lyons, pointing out a multicoloured sequin minidress, worn over a button down skirt and under a double-breasted tweed coat. “We’d gotten a little bit quiet. It’s not just us – fashion generally has gone a bit quiet, I think. So this season I was like: ‘Damn, give me sequins!’”

As Lyons posed for photos with starstruck fashion groupies, the head of women’s design, Tom Mora, expanded on how the team found inspiration in Peter Schlesinger’s photographic portraits of a flamboyant 1970s London set which included David Hockney, Tina Chow, Paloma Picasso and Cecil Beaton. “What I loved was how much elegance and energy and freedom there was in the way they dressed, not just for evening but day-to-day.” The 70s silhouettes – which are already making a strong showing among New York fashion week goers wearing flared trousers, long A-line skirts and polo necks – were abundant in the new collection.

J Crew has recently opened stores in London, and the British influence was evident in the menswear, where designer Frank Muytjens had hit upon his colours of the season at a specialist fair selling vintage army and navy clothing in Folkestone, Kent. While the womenswear was a magpie’s feast of sunshine yellow, rose pink and rich purple, menswear blended in muted tones of olive, grey, camel and tobacco.

Muytjens, wearing a tobacco silk scarf with ivory polka dots tucked neatly beneath the lapel of his knitted navy blazer, shrugged. “That’s the difference between a guy and a girl. Our man doesn’t want to be visible from 10 blocks away because of the colour of his shirt.”

The J Crew woman, by contrast, is a peacock, albeit a practically dressed one. Editors and stylists arrived, shivering and shaking snow from their hair, to stand sighing in front of a tan parka fully lined with yolk-yellow fake fur, and sumptuous roll-neck sweaters layered under gold-buttoned blazers. Sequins sparkled under parkas, and sprouted in tufts from cosy sweaters. “Sequins are the new black,” proclaimed Lyons. She was smiling.

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