“I can get lost in making clothes,” Jenna Lyons says from her office, a stone’s throw from the design floor where a J.Crew seasonal line is being completed. As the company’s president and creative director, Lyons is one of the most influential people in fashion, dubbed the “woman who dresses America” by the New York Times. She recently was included on Time magazine’s World’s 100 Most Influential People list.
Once upon a time she was just another suburban kid searching for her tribe. After winning praise for a floor-length skirt she made in a seventh grade home economics class, Lyons set her sights on a career in design. She assembled a portfolio and enrolled in Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, near her hometown. Meeting other aspiring fashion designers gave her a sense of belonging. “It was the first time I ever felt there were people like me out there,” she says.
When she got serious about becoming a designer, Lyons knew she had to move to New York. “If I was going to make fashion a career, I needed to be damn sure that I could really do it,” she says. She transferred to Parsons’ BFA Fashion Design program soon after, beginning her journey through the wilds of the New York fashion scene.
Lyons fondly describes life at Parsons as “nonstop work.” The creative camaraderie among the students engendered lasting friendships: J.Crew designers Tom Mora (menswear) and Jenny Cooper (childrenswear) were classmates, as was designer Derek Lam.
After graduation, Lyons searched for another place to call home. “I was a poor 20-something-year-old kid who couldn’t afford to buy a single piece from most of the places I wanted to work,” she said. “When my J.Crew interviewer showed up in jeans, I knew I could be myself at the company.” Today Lyons is responsible for creating a unified brand from the work of dozens of talented designers.
Although two decades have passed since Lyons graduated, her ties to Parsons are still strong. She relishes opportunities to return to campus for public events and gives generously to Parsons. When students ask for her secret to success, Lyons has a simple answer: “Do the thing you would do in your spare time. There’s nothing better than passion.”