Careers

Sometimes narcissism is good business

Designer Jenna Lyons attends 2016 Time 100 Gala.
Ben Gabbe | Getty Images
Designer Jenna Lyons attends 2016 Time 100 Gala.

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.

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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).

"She was overconfident, ignored the haters, and ultimately made it all about her — and it worked brilliantly for ten years."

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.

Jenna Lyons attends the Altuzarra Runway Show during New York Fashion Week at Spring Studios on February 12, 2017 in New York City.
Jared Siskin | Getty Images
Jenna Lyons attends the Altuzarra Runway Show during New York Fashion Week at Spring Studios on February 12, 2017 in New York City.

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.

If you believe narcissism is a bad thing or something to be glossed over because everything should be done "in the customer's best interest," think again, because savvy audiences won't buy it and you'll be exposed as insincere.

If, however, you can learn to be open about your narcissism, then your idea or organization will have the opportunity to create a genuine and honest connection with its audience. Millennials understand self-obsession better than anyone else, and they won't punish you for it — so stick to your guns and refuse to apologize for it. In the millennial economy brands need to be narcissistic enough to completely expose themselves to scrutiny. This allows audiences to make up their own minds about what they think of the brand. Being truly narcissistic is, ironically, a sign of being vulnerable — you're putting everything on the table for your audience to judge. A truly narcissistic brand understands that it can't define itself but needs to listen to how the audience defines it.

"Millennials understand self-obsession better than anyone else, and they won't punish you for it — so stick to your guns and refuse to apologize for it."

Multiple experiments prove that the characteristics that define narcissism — high self-esteem, focus, and drive — are powerful change agents. Most of the great business leaders, such as Virgin's Richard Branson and Google's Larry Page, and many of our pop culture icons — most famously Madonna and Kanye — easily fit into the definition of narcissistic. Even more interestingly, some research suggests that narcissism is a natural stage of human growth.

Psychologist David Elkind's adolescent egocentrism theory finds that nearly all teenagers believe they are the center of the universe and have an imaginary fan club, always watching and being impressed by their actions. I find this repeatedly in my own research, when I talk to teens who religiously post reviews, vlogs, and random thoughts on YouTube, even when their videos get only a handful of likes. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they still feel like stars. Most people grow out of this phase in their mid-twenties, once they begin to have families and other more important responsibilities of their own.

This suggests something interesting about narcissism: perhaps it is a survival mechanism — one that gives teens the strength to get through the challenges of youth but fades away with the confidence of becoming an adult.

In our current unsettled world of catastrophic market crashes, divided cultures, and zero employer loyalty, this survival mechanism is in fact required well into our adult lives. Narcissism gives us the confidence and self-esteem to survive and the necessary drive, resilience, and tenacity to succeed in a world full of uncertainty.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Jeetendr Sehdev is the world's leading celebrity expert. A trailblazer in pop culture insights, he has become one of the most prominent figures in celebrity news and a sought-after advisor to top international companies. Jeetendr's research on the power of YouTube stars continues to make global headlines and has gained him influencer status and over a million subscribers on social media. He is a familiar face on shows like Access Hollywood, The Insider and CNN Tonight and he regularly writes opinion pieces for publications like The Guardian and Forbes. A graduate of Oxford University and Harvard Business School, Jeetendr is a British national who now lives in sunny Los Angeles where he teaches at the University of Southern California.