Beauty Visionary: Meet the woman behind J.Crew’s bright lips and mussed hair

J.Crew fashion director Gayle Spannaus interview
J.Crew fashion director Gayle Spannaus interview

We love the bright lips and mussed hair on J.Crew models. Kari Molvar meets the woman driving the brand’s beauty direction.

See what has influenced J.Crew’s look »
See Gayle Spannaus’ favourite lipsticks used at J.Crew »

J.Crew has launched many obsessions over the years: cashmere V-necks, brightly coloured capris and novelty ballet flats. But the fashion retailer, which began as a catalogue-only business in the eighties, has also been not so quietly causing a beauty revolution. Flip open the catalogues, or “Style Guides” as they’re now known, and you’ll find models with electro-pop lips, windblown hair and brushed-up brows, a signature look that went over well when the brand officially presented at New York Fashion Week for the first time with its Spring 2012 collection. Collaborations with indie makeup brands Face Stockholm and Lipstick Queen have led to sold-out collections of lipstick and nail polish (not even eBay-able anymore!), and beauty boldfaces such as Linda Rodin (she of the cult face oil Rodin Olio Lusso) star in the company’s latest ad campaign. All of which is to say: J.Crew is on a big beauty roll.

So who is the mastermind behind this cosmetic zeitgeist? While quirky-cool chairman and CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler and famously fashionable creative director Jenna Lyons have been major forces fashion-wise, much of the beauty direction happens at the hands of Gayle Spannaus. J.Crew’s fashion director and head women’s stylist, she’s been with the brand for 17 years. While working at Glamour as an assistant stylist, she would fight to be first to get her hands on the J.Crew catalogues. “When I heard there was an opening for a casting director to be in charge of hiring all the models, photographers and hair and makeup artists, I took it,” she says.

Since her arrival in 1995, Spannaus has crusaded to modernize J.Crew’s bare-face beauty approach. “It was very ‘girl next door,’ no makeup,” she says. “Very natural and androgynous, but not in a Calvin Klein way.” Her first coup was shooting Amber Valletta with her husband and puppy on a beach in 1995. “Amber was the biggest deal and we got her. I proposed the idea and it was more money than we had ever spent on a model.” It was also the first step in moving the needle. “I had a very specific instinct for what the J.Crew girl should be,” Spannaus says. “She had to have an ease. That was very important. And there had to be eye contact, a confidence—because that’s the foundation—and friendliness. If you’re not nice, it’s a one-shot deal.” Under her direction, J.Crew’s cadre of models has grown to include such well-known faces as Arizona Muse, Liu Wen and Karmen Pedaru.

J.Crew fashion director Gayle Spannaus interview

After seeing Mona Lisa Smile, in 2004 Spannaus introduced bold lips, using red lipstick in the catalogues for the first time. Now, an outré lip colour is practically a given, along with a few other beauty J.Crew-isms. “There are certain steadfast rules with me: It’s either an eye or a lip. Never both. Ever,” says Spannaus. “Eyebrows are incredibly important, brushed up à la Brooke Shields back in the day. I will never work with a girl with plucked eyebrows. I can say that 100 per cent of the time, there won’t be mascara on the bottom lashes—it always feels like too much. It’s taking things one step too far, to where you know the model has a lot of makeup on. And when there isn’t a lip, there will be a nail.”

Working with up-and-coming makeup lines also lends a modern edge. Last summer, Australian-born, downtown New York–based makeup pro Poppy King, founder of Lipstick Queen, collaborated with the retailer to create a limited-edition coral red lipstick, which promptly sold out. In the fall of 2011, Swedish cosmetic import Face Stockholm teamed up with J.Crew to design a range of nail polishes, from pop-art red to pearly beige, followed by a set of two lipsticks in melon and fiery red (a hot pink shade of polish is set to debut this holiday season). Essie nail polish and Stila lip glosses have also appeared in the catalogues and in stores, selected by Lyons as her picks of the season.

As focused as Spannaus is on being current, she avoids the “T” word: trendy. “There was a moment when we did black and grey nails. We did it because it was trendy, but it didn’t feel right,” she says. “Customers didn’t respond well and I didn’t respond well. There’s a good chance that if Jenna and I aren’t intuitively wearing a product, it’s not right. I feel like we try to be consistent with who we are. We’ve become somewhat of an adjective, as in, ‘That’s so J.Crew,’ and that’s pretty wonderful.”

At the same time, Spannaus knows she can’t do bright lips and tousled hair forever. She says the trick to pushing the look forward is small shifts and subtle tweaks. “It’s about going from a ponytail to a slicked ponytail, or a hard centre part to pulling the hair over the ears. Or adding a crooked part or a far side part.” On the eyes, she’s thinking about trying out electric liner. “I have a collection shoot coming up and I’m going to try some colour on the eyes for the first time. On the lids, just a slight line.”

The changes are slight but just enough to keep J.Crew apace with what’s contemporary, cool and confidant. “I’m not looking to change what we do. When you try too hard to go too far, it’s not pretty anymore,” says Spannaus. “To me, beauty is always in simplicity.” 

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