Gayle Spannaus is the influential but quiet Women’s Head Stylist behind J.Crew’s massive success. Spannaus started her career as a freelance fashion stylist and was hired by Glamour, but when she saw a job advertised at J.Crew she jumped at the chance to get a foot in their door. She has spent 20 years at the company, first casting models for catalogues and eventually becoming the brand’s stylist. “When I was younger and was asked, ‘What do you want to do when you get older?’, I said I wanted to work at J.Crew,” she explains. “So it has always been close to my heart, literally. There’s nowhere else I would rather be!”
It is Spannaus who is responsible for styling the catalogues, who rolls the sleeves just so at the New York fashion-week presentations and who pulls the pattern, print and quirk together. It is Spannaus who has refined the high-low mix that has made J.Crew so popular in malls around America, to women of any age. Reports of a slump in performance in 2014 and a $562 million write-down in 2015 haven’t worried the ever-chipper stylist, who is as focused as ever. “Fashion always has its ebbs and flows, but I think we are all very clear on what J.Crew is and needs to be,” she says. “I’m just excited to continue growing with the company, wherever that might lead.” Tank found a rare moment to talk to the elusive stylist.
Tank Tell us about your background. Where were you raised and how did you find yourself drawn to fashion?Gayle Spannaus I was raised in Chappaqua, right outside the city. My father worked in Manhattan and every time I came into the city to see him, I used to say, “I’m going to live here, let me out of the car, let me out of the car!” I was always obsessed with New York. Because I’m so petite, I had to be incredibly creative with making clothes fit me. I would take something oversized and reposition buttons, fold and turn things inside out or tie things in different ways. I started to get a lot of compliments on my style at a very young age so I realised there was something innate in it.
I was raised with three older brothers, which is where I get my love of borrowing from the boys, literally. I always wanted to be wearing their old clothes and was probably the only kid who actually loved a worn out, faded hand-me-down from the boys.
Tank You began your career at Glamour before seeing a job advertised for J.Crew. What was your relationship with J.Crew like then? How did you feel when you first started?
GS When I was in high school I remember someone asking me what I wanted to do in the future. I said that I wanted to live in Greenwich Village and work at J.Crew. I knew what I wanted to do from the onset. When I heard of a position opening at J.Crew, I called immediately. I was willing to take any job that was available! Fortunately the position was for a casting director. From the moment I arrived, it felt like family. Today that original cast of characters that was there when it was still such a small company are still my best friends.
Tank You began by casting the models for the catalogue and managed to book Amber Valletta, shooting her on a beach in 1995. Tell us about that moment.
GS J.Crew had never had a casting director before. I remember having a long conversation with Emily Woods, who was the founder, and saying, “I think there’s something incredible about the Amber Vallettas and the Christy Turlingtons and the Linda Evangelistas of the world, but why don’t we strip them of their make-up and let people really see them, make them more approachable.” She took a chance on this idea with Amber Valletta and some of the various models that followed in her footsteps.
Tank Did you arrive at the company with a very clear vision of what J.Crew was and what you wanted it to be?
GS I have always had a clear vision of what J.Crew was and is. I think part of that is because the brand is so close to my heart and epitomises my own personal style. It’s that undone/done, feminine tomboy quality. There’s always that juxtaposition of something sparkly with something faded. It’s a heel with a torn-up pair of jeans.
Tank J.Crew styling has been so influential in terms of the way looks are put together, the unexpected items that are mixed – it’s loved for its quirky American-ness. How did you develop the J.Crew look? Can you pinpoint what it is that you do to achieve it?
GS Don’t overthink it – there’s an intuitive quality to it. I would say that comfort is first and foremost in my mind. It’s about putting unexpected pieces together, unexpected colour combinations. I’m always looking for things I haven’t done before that feel fresh yet familiar. Sometimes you just need some perspective to draw from, something other than what is out there in fashion. I get a lot of inspiration from art. For example, I can look at the colour palette on a Matisse and use that as a starting point.
Tank How have you been influenced by American fashion?
GS I often look to utilitarian uniforms, like military or sports, for inspiration – for example, a police blue or the olive green in a pair of old fatigues. I also reference old movies and photographs, like of Katharine Hepburn, but it’s always grounded in the classics.
Tank Menswear at the moment is performing well. Why is that?
GS Menswear is classic. Men, once they find a brand that they like and that fits them, are loyal customers. There are a lot more changes in women’s fashion and you have to work to win over that customer each season.
Tank How do you see the rise of ath-leisure? Is it a passing fad or should J.Crew be responding to it?
GS It’s all about how you choose to put things together to achieve that comfortable, casual look. I think people should always look put together. There’s something about a casual elegance that I will always embrace and prefer.
Tank How has your personal style played into the look of J.Crew?
GS It’s hard to differentiate between the two. I always mix my prints and play with colour, and then some days I just love wearing a totally tonal head-to-toe look. All of those elements are what make up J.Crew, but they also make up my own closet.
Tank You are based in Greenwich Village now. Has New York fashion influenced your work and how you dress personally?
GS In New York you have access to everything. Everything around me is eye candy, so that’s really been the greatest influence. It has also made my closet huge! I like to wear Dries Van Noten, Marni and Comme des Garçons.
Tank How did the J.Crew family develop its sense of style?
GS Our style has always been grounded in the classics, but we continue to evolve over time. I think it’s a combination of us all having a similar aesthetic and sense of style. There are days when, by coincidence, we are all in stripes, then the next day we’re all in denim. Yesterday four of us in the department were all in khaki and grey. It’s hilarious. §
All clothes by J. Crew / Photography: Bruno Werzinski / Styling: Nobuko Tannawa / Hair: Maki Tanaka using Bumble and bumble / Make-up: Natsumi Narita using M.A.C Cosmetics / Videography: Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie / Styling assistant: Hakan Demiray / Model: Martina Lew at Next Management London