10.29.11

The Jenna Divorce Obsession

J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons has reportedly divorced her husband and taken up with another woman. Robin Givhan on why we obsess over such revelations.

Sadly, there’s always something compelling about a celebrity divorce. Perhaps it’s because people can’t quite shake the misconception that with fame and fortune, ever-lasting happiness is assured. Or maybe it’s because a divorce is a flaw writ large: a failed love story humanizes even the loftiest characters.

So it’s not terribly surprising that people who follow fashion and popular culture would be fascinated by the revelation in the New York Post that J.Crew president and creative director Jenna Lyons and her husband, Vincent Mazeau, an artist, are reportedly splitting up.

Even though Lyons’s name has never been on the label she helms, she nonetheless rose to fame thanks to appearances in the brand’s catalog, stories about her eclectic Brooklyn brownstone, and the rise of J.Crew from uninteresting retailer of crewnecks and corduroys to an affordable-fashion behemoth favored by everyone from the Seventh Avenue cognoscenti to first lady Michelle Obama. Indeed, the children’s Crewcuts collection is now almost as famous as the main line, thanks to the patronage of Sasha and Malia.

But the interest in this particular divorce has been ratcheted up by the buzz, from unnamed sources, that Lyons not only is divorcing her husband but has also reportedly taken up with another woman. It’s not the breakup of a marriage that has people fatootsed, it’s the notion that Lyon's reported post-breakup relationship happens to be of the same-sex variety.

People seem stuck on this lesbian motif in a way that is especially jarring, since the whole tale is grounded in the fashion industry, where being gay is about as startling, interesting, or newsworthy as being thin. The top of the fashion food chain is dominated by gay male designers, and the stories of their breakups, engagements, and marriages hardly cause anyone to bat an eye—either inside or, more important, outside the industry. If this were the story of a male designer who was splitting from his wife and taking up with another man, it would not have taken over the Internet the way this did.

Indeed, at this point, no matter the industry, we are all accustomed to hearing stories of married men leaving their wives and revealing that they are gay. These failed relationships—whether attempted through ignorance, malice, cowardice, or social pressure—no longer seem particularly intriguing. And when they do catch our attention, as in the case of Terry McMillan and her ex-husband, Jonathan Plummer, it’s because the relationship itself has been aggressively thrust into the spotlight.

Lyons has helped countless women and men define themselves. And that’s a relationship far more intimate than one involving any television character.

The notice paid to the stories about Lyons may be because few famous women have made late-life revelations about their sexuality. Notably, in 2009 actress Meredith Baxter announced she was gay. She caught the public off guard and captured people’s attention. It seemed that folks were trying to reconcile their vision of her as the wife and mother from Family Ties with this new public identity. That’s to be understood. TV characters become part of our village. We think we know them. Elyse Keaton is a lesbian? How will Alex react?

But the public doesn’t have that kind of neighborly relationship with Lyons, the images of her in the company’s mailers notwithstanding. She didn’t come waltzing into our homes to make us laugh. And while some folks got riled up by a marketing image of her and her son—whose toenails were painted pink—the kerfuffle rang of the absurd. Why? We knew next to nothing about her family, and besides, no one looks dignified fretting over the color of a little boy’s toenails.

Instead, consumers know Lyons as a fashion powerhouse—an influential woman in a male-dominated realm. In that context, there’s always been an assumption that the fashion industry’s myriad gay male designers have a special affinity for dressing women. With all the pleasures—but without the pressures—of sexual frisson, they can offer a male perspective on what is attractive and desirable. That duality is represented by Tom Ford more than any other designer.

A straight male designer’s perspective is valued as well, as he can say with conviction: this is what attracts me and, by inference, men in general. And that, of course, remains the cultural assumption. Women want to attract men.

Female designers are generally celebrated for their ability to provide their customers with empathy, along with comfortable clothes, practical clothes, perhaps even empowering ones. Donna Karan most famously has done this. So has Stella McCartney.

But what does a lesbian designer, who perhaps has sorted through a host of social prejudices and assumptions, offer in terms of perspective? What sort of eye does she bring? What is her perspective on attraction? Is it in some ways richer and more thoughtful? Perhaps this is one reason, beyond the prurient, that people are fascinated. It may also be because, as an influential designer, Lyons has helped countless women and men define themselves. And that’s a relationship far more intimate than one involving any television character.

She has wooed shoppers and reassured them, whispered style affirmations in their ears, cajoled them toward confidence. It may be that the rumors are enticing because they suggest that a woman who helped consumers wrestle with the emotionally fraught, deeply personal task of readying themselves for the public stage—a woman who seemed to understand them so well—might be someone they didn’t know at all.