Jenna Lyons, the style maven who has served as J. Crew’s president and executive creative director since 2012, is leaving the struggling apparel retailer once her contract ends in December, according to a press release.
J. Crew will not replace Lyons, a 26-year company veteran widely considered the public face of its brand, and will instead transition her current responsibilities (including oversight of all product design, visual and brand presentation) to other members of its executive team.
Somsack Sikhounmuong, who now leads J. Crew's women’s design team, has been promoted to chief design officer, overseeing the women's, men's and crewcuts design teams, reporting directly to CEO Mickey Drexler. Sikhounmuong has held design roles in the company since 2001, and led the design team for J. Crew's lower-priced Madewell brand from 2013 until taking over for women’s design chief Tom Mora in 2015.
When Drexler arrived at J. Crew from Gap Inc. in 2002, Jenna Lyons was already at the company, but his efforts to promote and work closely with her are widely credited for building the brand's reputation for effortless style. Most notably, Lyons put daylight between J. Crew and its rivals: While Lands’ End and L.L. Bean for years stuck to traditional preppy styles, Lyons punched up those classics with color and embellishments that won the label fans the world over and helped make J. Crew synonymous with style in a way that enabled global expansion — growth that was mostly undeterred by the Great Recession.
"It has been an absolute pleasure to work with Jenna as my trusted partner for the past 14 years,” Drexler said in a statement Monday. “She has made many significant contributions to J.Crew and has built an incredibly talented team.”
Lyons herself is a confident fashionista, pairing khaki green or denim shirts with wide-legged satin capris or a metallic skirt and sparkly heels, her big statement glasses always perched on her nose. In 2011, Lyons sparked controversy when she included photos of herself painting her toddler son’s toenails with pink polish, complete with the takeout quote “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon” — a move that roiled conservatives but amused (and even pleased) her fans.
By 2014, though, as the brand’s fortunes faltered, some J. Crew loyalists criticized Lyons’ outré style as a bit much, especially when the price tags also seemed brazenly stratospheric. “It’s sad because it’s a brand I love,” one customer told The Wall Street Journal two years ago. “I feel a little bit lost as to where I would even shop now.”
That disconnect led Drexler to admit in mid-2015 that J. Crew was missing on “fundamentals,” and the company has failed to recapture the ardor — or dollars — of apparel shoppers in the months since. J. Crew eked out profits in the fourth quarter of 2016, but sales and revenue slid: Q4 total revenues (including the flagship, Madewell and Factory sales) fell 2% to $695 million. Same-store sales across the apparel retailer’s brands fell 5%, compared to a 4% decrease in the year-ago quarter.
Sikhounmuong, who has been garnering praise for his womenswear designs of late, will now spearhead the product line Lyons could not resuscitate. "It has been beyond my wildest dreams to work with such an amazing team of people at such an incredible brand and alongside Mickey — one of retail's most talented visionaries,” Lyons said in a statement Monday. “I am excited about the next chapter for J.Crew as well as the opportunity for other creative leaders within the organization to step up and take on new responsibilities. Having spent the better part of my life with J.Crew, I feel an immense pride and love for everyone at the company as well as for our loyal J.Crew customers. I look forward to supporting our team through this natural transition.”
The transfer of power from Lyons to Sikhounmuong should be a positive step, Jane Hali & Associates analysts said in an email to Retail Dive. Others seem likely to praise the move as well: “J. Crew needs to develop a much clearer brand handwriting and needs to infuse its assortments with pieces that have subtle embellishments,” GlobalData Retail managing director Neil Saunders told Retail Dive in an email last month. “This is the thinking that brands like Ted Baker use to stay relevant and to justify the premiums that they charge. At present we believe J. Crew is a very long way from this.”
Reviving J. Crew's consumer appeal is also a big ask because the company’s financial picture is so dire. J. Crew has tussled with lenders over its efforts to restructure its approximately $2 billion debt load. Six years after TPG Capital LP and Leonard Green & Partners L.P. acquired J. Crew for $2.8 billion and took it private, the retailer looks to be the latest in a string of retailers whose turnaround capital needs bump up against the profit-taking goals of private equity owners. Talk of going public have died down in recent months as J. Crew has continued to falter.
"J. Crew is focused on continuing the progress underway as we execute on our strategic initiatives and position the company for the long term," Drexler said Monday. "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."