Olympia Gayot’s vision for J.Crew is inspired by getting-ready rituals

“What happens when you have turnips?” It’s a sunny afternoon in Tribeca, and Olympia Gayot and I’m in a curved booth at The Odeon. She has just informed the waiter that she is allergic to eggs and I have confirmed that the steak salad I ordered does not contain beets. “I have a very strong dislike for her,” I explain. “A extreme dislike.”

“They could totally sneak into a salad,” says Gayot. she gets it

Of course, we don’t meet to discuss my root vegetable preferences, but it’s enough as an icebreaker for two strangers meeting over lunch. However, I’ve known Gayot as a fashion writer since she was appointed head of women’s and children’s design at J.Crew in late 2020.

The 41-year-old Toronto native, who previously worked for the storied American label from 2010 to 2017, returned at a pivotal time for the brand, herself and the world. “They approached me during the pandemic,” she tells me. “It was a conversation that took place over a couple of months and I ended up pregnant. I thought: this is going to be intense; I’m pregnant and it’s in the middle of a pandemic.” Also, J.Crew had just come out of bankruptcy. The Sterling Mid-aughts Era of Rising Profits, MichelleObama-approved designs and the Midas touch of the former president and creative director JennaLyon was in the rearview mirror of fashion. “But I knew I wanted it,” she says. “It was such an incredible opportunity. I was just really excited.”

The fact that Gayot ended up in fashion was no coincidence, but it wasn’t inevitable either. “[My mother] was one of the founders of Club Monaco,” she says. “She wasn’t an owner, but she was a designer and she’s been there from the start.” For a young gayot, that meant a wardrobe of striped T-shirts and navy blazers, and a glimpse into her parents’ “fun, bohemian” lives. “They were always partying, always dancing, always had people over.” As Club Monaco grew, Gayot was increasingly exposed to an international group of designers who relocated to Toronto to work for the brand and spent a lot of time in their office Mom spent to help with various tasks. Her first love, however, was the fine arts – an pursuit her parents more than encouraged. “My mother always said, ‘Don’t go into fashion.'”

“For real?” I ask. “She advised against it?”

“I think she just knew how fast it goes. And she just said, ‘You’re a talented painter and you can draw, so you should do that.’ And I loved it, probably more than anything.”

After a stint at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts in Boston, Gayot boarded a bus to New York, applied to the School of Visual Arts, and was promptly transferred. (She told her parents about it afterwards.) “I always studied art and painting and then did fashion on the side – styling, assisting; I worked at DNA, the modeling agency, and I submitted the models’ portfolio pictures.” Living in Murray Hill with a friend she met as a bartender wasn’t the dorm experience seen in the movies. “I didn’t want that,” says Gayot between the salmon tartare. “I was ready to grow up. I really wanted to start working and living my life.”

The drive followed her to Paris, where she moved with a former boyfriend after college. “It’s always been a dream of mine to live there,” she says. “I was doing portraits back then, so I survived on a mix of random fashion jobs and selling paintings.”

Describing her time there as “amazing,” Gayot claims she was “always really happy to just go where the wind took me. And in the beginning, to be honest, I didn’t think I had a plan. I just wanted to be busy. I loved art, I loved fashion, I loved dressing and going out at night. All that.”

Back in New York, the balance Gayot had struck between art and fashion began to tilt toward the latter. Malen, she says, “was very lonely,” and also “a boys’ club,” which was often discouraging. She found more opportunities – and had more fun – to work and assist on freelance design projects Fashion Shooting and styling of retail displays. A friend she met while designing a private label for Urban Outfitters had ended up at J.Crew and encouraged Gayot to do an interview.

“I walked in and met Jenna and got hired.”

Except for a brief moment when I ask Gayot if the woman at the bar is in a black crop top Minka Kelly (I’m almost positive) we spend the next 20 minutes discussing what was her first job at the company at the time.

“I never thought I would end up with a big brand but it was so amazing. Even though it’s a big company, it has a family atmosphere, I think because it’s so creative. It was a really great place. I was there during the Jenna years. I stayed seven years, worked my way up and worked quite closely with her; worked with [former CEO] Mickey Drexler closely. I’ve knitted, I’ve swum, sweaters, collections — lots of different categories.”

I remember J.Crew’s cropped kaleidoscopic pants, glittery heels, and elevated take on nautical and military-inspired clothing at the time, and I’m curious if she had a favorite.

“I love designing swims. Everyone’s happiest when they’re at the beach, right? [It’s] just a happy category.” The role also came with a welcome dose of nostalgia. “My parents had an apartment in Florida, growing up we would go there for Christmas and we would always go to the J.Crew store in Miami, or we would go [when we were] in NYC. I loved it. It was so iconic.”

During Gayot’s initial tenure, J.Crew achieved unprecedented popularity. The brand’s collections have been breathlessly covered by fashion media alongside luxury counterparts, and the pieces have become a favorite among celebrities. Lyons became a star herself – each of her outfits was photographed by street style photographers and her movements were documented by Page Six. After getting married and having her first child (she says she wore “a tight black crochet dress with a six-month belly” to her 2016 town hall wedding), Gayot was ready for a change. “Seven years in one place has been a long time for me, and I think it’s really important to try multiple things to keep things fresh,” she says. “I had the opportunity to leave and I just took it.”

This opportunity arose at Victoria’s Secret, where she designed clothing, nightwear and lingerie. “No bras and panties,” she clarifies, “but real teddies.” It proved to be a tremendous learning experience. “Lingerie is a completely different world. It’s super technical to work with lace and construct things that are [fit close] to your body. It’s literally intimate.” Given the fabrics she worked with and the volume of product the brand produced, there was also a huge financial impact to her work. “That puts you in business mode, which is important. You can’t just design in a bubble.”

Gayot’s decision to retire after nearly three years was largely influenced by the amount of travel she undertook. Financial meetings were held at company headquarters in Ohio, and the design aspect of the job required frequent trips to Europe. The increasing public scrutiny of the brand was apparently not a factor.

https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2022/11/olympia-gayots-vision-for-jcrew-is-inspired-by-getting-ready-rituals Olympia Gayot’s vision for J.Crew is inspired by getting-ready rituals

Charles Jones

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