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Sometimes narcissism is good business

Source |  |  BY:Jeetendr Sehdev, NYT bestselling author, Celebrity Branding Authority

J.Crew enjoyed ten phenomenal years under quirky creative director Jenna Lyons, who remade the brand in her own distinctive image. The company, when she joined as a knitwear designer in 1990, was a small brand known for its predictably preppy style and popular catalogue. By 2003 the company was successful but had stagnated, so they brought in Mickey Drexler, the man behind the meteoric success of the Gap in the 1990s, to reshape the brand.

Lyons and Drexler instantly clicked, and the new J.Crew was their love child.

For the next ten years, Lyons did the unimaginable: she transformed generic all-American tastes to reflect her love of pattern, texture, and color, all with her quirky, sensual style—but most importantly mixed with much love…for herself. At the brand’s peak of hipness she presented collections full of her cool-girl aesthetic, styling the models in thick black glasses and long, straight hair to look exactly like her (or, as she described it, “Little Edie goes to girl scout camp”). Jenna Lyons was dope and she knew it. She was a cover star and an Instagram-friendly executive-cum-style icon in her own right. Besides, you know you’ve made it into the twenty-first-century old boys’ club when flocks of women dress up as you for Halloween.

Lyons was narcissistic in exactly the right amount and in precisely the right way. She designed clothes that she wanted to wear and did it with such courage, conviction, and finesse that millions of women and men worldwide bought into her vision. The formula worked like magic for years. But in 2014 sales started slipping, and in December the brand tanked, going from a net income of $35.4 million to a reported loss of $607.8 million. An ever-competitive retail environment and a mistimed brand expansion into Japan and China were partly to blame.

J.Crew also made a bad bet with its sweater order— buying too many shrunken cardigans that didn’t sell and too few standard-size cardigans that became wildly popular but were impossible to find in the stores. However, the dishonesty J.Crew displayed on the shop floor with its customers was the major culprit.

In 2014 sleuthing bloggers realized that J.Crew’s hugely popular Cece ballet flat—relaunched after being discontinued a year earlier—was being sold at the original price but was now being manufactured to lower standards in Brazil instead of Italy. Around the same time the brand was hit by another setback when it debuted “extreme vanity” sizing—000 (designed to appeal to its new customers in Asia but in conflict with American shoppers’ evolving desire for body-positive messages). Shoppers complained that the whimsical clothes were too expensive and too impractical for school runs and company dinners. The brand made several tactical moves in the wake of these losses, and Jenna Lyons was allegedly told to stop self-promoting and to tone things down. Drexler openly acknowledged that J.Crew needed to own its mistakes and learn from them. The company brought in the women’s-wear designer from its booming sister company, Madewell, and axed numerous jobs.

Lyons drastically cut back her personal appearances. You could argue that she caved into a more conventional, less narcissistic role within J.Crew. However, I believe Jenna Lyons took an unfair dive for J.Crew; her self-promoting, self-obsessed ways made her an easy target. But it was also exactly those self-promoting, self-obsessed ways that took a forgettable brand and turned it into a global phenomenon. J.Crew was a dinosaur before Lyons came along; it was polite, genteel, eager to please, and utterly inoffensive. Lyons did exactly what Kim Kardashian would have done: remade it in her own image. She was overconfident, ignored the haters, and ultimately made it all about her—and it worked brilliantly for ten years.

There’s no denying that, by 2014, Jenna Lyons was a bigger star than her brand (J.Crew and Mickey Drexler didn’t get name-checked in Girls when Lyons played a cameo role as a magazine editor). Her honest narcissism would have reached even greater heights had the brand backed it up with consistent, reliable quality. And here’s a big truth about narcissism: it has to extend into every facet of your business—and your life. I doubt Jenna Lyons was stocking up on the subpar Cece ballet flats, and if she wasn’t interested in wearing them, then she and Mickey should have realized their audience wouldn’t be interested in wearing them either. Narcissism is a giving impulse; it stems from a passionate conviction about your ideas and your work. If your standards are slipping and you don’t notice or, even worse, don’t care, then that narcissism has crossed over into full-on Dov Charney/American Apparel territory. Which means that you’re calling your lawyers.


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