You'd expect Jenna Lyons to always remain calm, cool and collected.
The New York Times once called her "the woman who dresses America" thanks to the indelible and preppy mark she left on the fashion industry as J.Crew's former president and creative director. But since leaving that post in 2017, Lyons has had to MacGyver her way onto that next big project—even if it's forced her to break from that perfectly-polished exterior.
Now, her professional (and personal) journey is at the center of HBO Max's Stylish With Jenna Lyons, a new reality show perfect for anyone who was obsessed with The Rachel Zoe Project or House of DVF. Across eight episodes, she and two trusty colleagues—Sarah Clary and Kyle DeFord—interview eager potential employees (she calls them "associates") as they take on challenges that showcase their skills in the fashion, beauty and home sectors. We learn not only about Lyons' many projects (all housed under her company Lyons L.A.D.), but also about life at home, about what makes her tick and ultimately puts a smile on her face.
"My first day of filming I had a total meltdown," Lyons tells E! News. "I was literally in the hallway like, ‘I don't know what I'm doing, how did this happen?" Of course, Lyons proves to know exactly what she was doing on the show, but that self-deprecating humor is what makes the new reality project so fun. While searching for the right associate, she has the tough job of letting a few of them go—a formula perfect for fast-bingeing and wanting to know who ultimately makes the cut. And throughout the deliciously entertaining series, it's impossible not to want to jot down some of the practical style and design advice Lyons dishes for free.
E! caught up with Lyons to talk about her new venture, whether she'd say yes to season two and whose style she's obsessed with in Hollywood.
E! News: The group of associates cast were so diverse in every way. This year, the fashion industry has had to reckon with its history of lack of inclusivity. Was that top of mind when this process began?
Jenna Lyons: It was top of mind and, interestingly enough, we cast the show almost two years ago. I feel really proud of the fact that we made a concerted effort to make sure that we were really trying to share an opportunity with an audience so that anyone, any young girl or boy, could see that they could get there and that you didn't have to look a certain way or be something special to be able to get access.
E!: What exact qualities did you want in the final associate selected?
JL: I was looking for someone who is really passionate because you can train somebody to do pretty much anything, but what you can't train and what you can't give is passion and curiosity. So we were really looking for people who are excited, wanted it, are passionate and really into it. When you're into something, you have a tendency to work hard and that's all I really care about.
E!: Tell us about day one of filming.
JL: We shot the pilot and then we came back and augmented the show. My first day of filming I had a total meltdown. The network was on site and I literally was in the hallway like, "I don't know what I'm doing, how did this happen?" What I didn't understand was we were trying to meld documentary and reality. There's no pathway to that. We had two teams, a doc team and a reality team. We were trying to get them to work well together and with all the best intentions it fell apart. We were struggling. We ended up with a more reality based team and that left it up to me to really maintain a sense of integrity and be like, "Oh, well, I would never do that." It was painstaking, however, I'm really proud and I feel like it does feel different than most reality shows out there.
E!: About halfway in we learn so much about your personal life. Were you expecting to share all that?
JL: God no and I think I remember really early on one of the network executives saying to me, "Are you ready for this?" You can't know until you're in it. It's a little bit like having a kid. You can't foresee what's coming down the pike, who they're going to be. I didn't know what I was getting myself into. There were some really, really hard moments. I mean, there were tears and I'm not one to cry in general. But at the same time I enjoy when people are giving and generous and share because I do think it helps people connect. I let go at one point and was like fine, whatever, I'll just let it happen.
E!: Which challenge would you have considered the hardest if you were an associate?
JL: I think shopping in the vintage store. Not having seen the space would have been the hardest. You don't have a sense of scale. You can see pictures of a room but you have no idea how big it is, where the light is oriented, what the other things are around it. That was by far the hardest and it was also the most telling.
E!: Were you nervous for what your fashion industry peers would say about the show?
JL: Yes, for sure. I really remember a distinct moment where one of the first people who called me after I decided to leave J. Crew was Anna Wintour and she said, "Come have lunch with me" and we sat across and I was like, "What am I going to do?" I was scared. I had made the decision and I felt it was the right decision but I also had no clue what was next. And she's like, "I think you should do TV" and I was like, "What!?" She obviously saw something in there. I feel less guarded now than I did before. I've seen a lot of people take risks and do things that maybe I would have been scared to do. I'm no longer connected to a big brand, it's just me, and I don't feel as guarded about making mistakes.
E!: Kyle and Sarah are so much fun to watch. Why did you choose them for your team?
JL: There are professional reasons and there are personal reasons. Sarah, when I was gone from J. Crew, she was one of the nicest, kindest, most gentle supporters. She reached out all the time. There's something about that connectivity, that tender heart that felt really important to me. And on top of that she's literally a wizard. I've never seen a woman shop like she can, especially in the pandemic. She'll go onto a website and she'll pull something off that I'm like, "That looks so ugly." And then it'll arrive and like, the girl is a magician. She puts the most bizarre combinations together that look brilliant that I wouldn't do.
And then Kyle, same thing. When I worked with him at J. Crew, he was one of the most bright, shining stars. I always remember those people who make you smile when you see them in the hallway, your heart gets bigger. He's that person and he was just so warm. I felt like if I was going to have someone be the nexus of all my different projects, I knew he would be such a good partner in that way. And on top of that he's whip smart and he's funny as s--t. He has really good instincts and he's warm.
E!: Let's talk about your wardrobe. How did you approach what to wear?
JL: I'm gonna just say it was a s--t show, literally. We've never made a TV show before and Sarah and I were like, "Oh, well, we know how to get dressed, we can do it!" But what we didn't really understand was there were some days we had four outfit changes. We had no one doing wardrobe so we were doing it all ourselves out of my apartment. Sarah was coming over with bags of clothes and then we had to change scenes so Kyle was going into my closet and Sarah's in my closet and I'm wearing Sarah's things. We didn't until the very end start to think about what we were going to do. It happened quickly, we just had no prep to really understand how we needed to manage it. If we get a season two, I will be more buttoned up—no pun intended.
E!: Who do you consider some of the best dressed celebrities?
JL: I'm deeply obsessed with Cate Blanchett. Lupita Nyong'o always does a beautiful job, I love how she wears color and drama. I've always loved Julianne Moore. She's always looks impeccable and that smile, that big beautiful smile I absolutely love. You know who's been looking really great, I saw him on the red carpet at the SAG Awards, is John Lithgow. And Brad Pitt is like, pulling it out, like, really looking great. Not that he wasn't before. I could go on and on.
E!: What advice do you have for anyone who's been wearing nothing but sweatpants for months?
JL: I think the single, easiest thing to do is a crisp open shirt. The moment you have tailoring on a crisp open shirt or a beautiful blazer it actually in two seconds can make you feel more polished. It doesn't take much and you can still go on zoom in your sweatpants. Of course, I am a girl so I like a little red lip. If a guy wants to have a red lip, have at it, I'm all for it, but anything that can make you feel a little lighter brighter and crisper is great.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity).
Stylish With Jenna Lyons is now streaming on HBO Max.