Interview With The Lyoness: Jenna Lyons Talks J. Crew and Williamsburg

Photograph by Peter Hapak/Trunk Archive

This September marks the opening of J. Crew’s Williamsburg location, signifying the arrival of yet another chain store in the once resolutely mom-and-pop, now big brand welcoming neighborhood. But in contrast to fellow retail behemoth Urban Outfitters’ appearance on the north side, J. Crew has long had a more staid reputation, with an appeal seemingly more aligned with Cobble Hill residents (where another J. Crew is slated to open) than those in Williamsburg. But similarly to Urban Outfitters, J. Crew has worked to blend in as much as possible with its new neighborhood by collaborating with local artisans and community members, in the hopes that the new store will be embraced by its neighbors, rather than shunned. We spoke with J. Crew’s executive creative director (and erstwhile Girls guest star) Jenna Lyons about why J. Crew is going to Williamsburg, the sensitivities of Brooklyn residents, and what it takes to make a chain store feel local, even when it isn’t.

What was attractive to you about Williamsburg?
So much is going on there. Every time I read about something new these days, it’s happening in Williamsburg. Half the office lives in Williamsburg, and it felt like an easy, natural place for
us to be.

How did you go about finding the local designers to work with?
It was really just through research. We felt like, particularly in Williamsburg, it was important to the community itself because there’s obviously some sensitivity to bigger brands coming in, and it was important to us to reach out to the local community, to support and highlight people who actually live and work there and are doing interesting things, as opposed to just coming in and bringing things from the outside. I had asked the team to pull local artisans from the neighborhood, and we started there and then developed a theme and a look and a feel based on some of their work. So the whole store has a little bit of a—I’m going to use “botanical” for lack of a better word—theme, but there were quite a few things that we compiled together from some of the artists’ work that we felt lent itself to an overarching vibe in the store that felt really different from what we’ve done, but it felt special and still in keeping with our aesthetic.

Is this kind of collaboration something you’d consider for other stores?
It’s something we have done quite a bit. It’s not something new for us. When we opened our store at 1040 Madison, our men’s store, we worked with Jake Chessum, a local photographer in Manhattan. We had him do a ton of images of the local style and the local people in and around that neighborhood, and that was what we used for art for the interior of the store. And when we opened in Hong Kong, we had local artists do neon signs, and when we opened in London, we worked with Shona Heath, who’s a quite well known set designer who did a lot of our barricades. It’s not something that’s unusual, we do it quite a bit. It’s important.

What’s your response to people who have been critical of your arrival in the neighborhood?
We understand, and we’re sensitive to it. It was one of the reasons I felt it was incredibly important to reach out to the local community. We’re also doing events that actually highlight the other businesses in the area as opposed to just having a big party at our store. We understand; people are sensitive. I’ve lived in Brooklyn, I know people want it to feel local, they want it to feel intimate. I think we’ve made a concerted effort to try and be respectful and thoughtful of the community and, you know, try to come in gently.

When you lived in Brooklyn, where did you live?
I lived in Park Slope. It was beautiful. I lived right near the park. And I get it: I knew the woman who had the deli on the corner, and I knew the flower person, and I knew the wine store guys and the cheese shop people. I understand that it’s a local community and I get that, and as I said, we appreciate and understand, and believe that it’s important to do everything we can to fit in well with the neighborhood.

Do you think you could picture another J. Crew popping up in Brooklyn?
It’s funny, I don’t think it’s on our immediate horizon, but everyone I talk to is from Bed-Stuy and Bushwick, so who knows? It’s one of those things where I don’t have an answer for you. All I can say is I’m excited to see the sprawl and to see what’s happening here. When I first moved to New York, which was — oh God, you know, a long long time ago—my roommate was dating this guy who lived in Brooklyn, and twenty years ago going to Brooklyn was like going to the Wild, Wild West! It’s so nice to see so many of these neighborhoods being revived and all the beautiful renovated homes in Fort Greene and people doing great things with the waterfront and all that. It’s so exciting; I’m so thrilled to see all of that happening. And I mean, I don’t have a crystal ball for where other stores will be, but I hope that there will be more. •

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