“What happens when you have beets?” It’s a sunny afternoon in Tribeca, and Olympia Gayot and I are in a curved booth at The Odeon. She’s just informed the server that she’s allergic to eggs, and I’ve confirmed that there are no beets in the steak salad I ordered. “I have a very strong aversion to them,” I explain. “An extreme dislike.”
“They totally could sneak into a salad,” Gayot says. She gets it.
Of course, we’re not meeting to discuss my root vegetable preferences, but it suffices as an icebreaker for two strangers meeting over lunch. Though, as a fashion writer, I’ve been aware of Gayot since she was named head of women’s and kids’ design at J.Crew in late 2020.
Having previously worked at the storied American label from 2010–2017, the 41-year-old Toronto native rejoined during a pivotal time for the brand, herself, and the world. “They approached me during the pandemic,” she tells me. “It was a conversation that happened over a few months, and I was pregnant by the end of it. I was like, This is going to be intense; I’m pregnant and it’s the middle of a pandemic.” Plus, J.Crew had just come out of bankruptcy. The sterling mid-aughts era marked by soaring profits, Michelle Obama–approved designs, and the Midas touch of former president and creative director Jenna Lyons was in fashion’s rearview mirror. “But I knew that I wanted it,” she says. “It was such an incredible opportunity. I was just really excited.”
That Gayot ended up in fashion wasn’t completely coincidental, but not 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 there from the very beginning.” For a young Gayot, this meant a wardrobe of striped T-shirts and navy blazers, and a glimpse into the “fun, bohemian” life her parents led. “They were always having parties, always going dancing, always having people over.” As Club Monaco grew, Gayot was increasingly exposed to an international group of designers who moved to Toronto to work for the brand, and spent a lot of time at her mother’s office assisting with various tasks. Her first love, however, was fine art—a pursuit her parents more than encouraged. “My mom was always saying, ‘Don’t go into fashion.’”
“Really?” I ask. “She discouraged it?”
“I think she just knew how fast-paced it is. And she just was like, ‘You’re a talented painter, and you can draw, so you should be doing 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 hopped on a bus to New York, applied to the School of Visual Arts, and promptly transferred. (She filled her parents in after the fact.) “I was always studying art and painting, and then doing fashion on the side—styling, assisting; I worked at DNA, the modeling agency, filing models’ portfolio pictures.” Living in Murray Hill with a friend she met bartending, it was not the college dorm experience you see in the movies. “I didn’t want that,” Gayot says between bites of salmon tartare. “I was ready to be an adult. I really wanted to start working and live my life.”
The drive followed her to Paris, where she moved after college with a former boyfriend. “It was always a dream of mine to live there,” she says. “I was doing portraits at the time, so I was surviving off a mix of random fashion jobs and selling paintings.”
Describing her time there as “amazing,” Gayot maintains she was “always really happy to just go wherever the wind took me. And in the beginning, honestly, I don’t think I had a plan. I just wanted to be busy. I loved art, I loved fashion, I loved getting dressed and going out at night. All that.”
Back in New York, the balance Gayot had struck between art and fashion began to tilt towards the latter. Painting, she says, “was very solitary,” and also “a boys’ club” that was often discouraging. She was finding more opportunities—and having more fun—doing freelance design projects, assisting on Vogue shoots, and styling retail displays. A friend she met while designing a private label for Urban Outfitters had landed at J.Crew, and encouraged Gayot to interview.
“I came in and met Jenna and I got hired.”
Save for a brief moment when I ask Gayot if the woman at the bar in a black crop top is Minka Kelly (I’m almost positive it is), we spend the next 20 minutes discussing what, at the time, was her first corporate job.
“I never thought I would end up at a big brand, but it was so amazing. Even though it is a big company, there’s a family style vibe to it, I think because it’s so creative. It was a really great place to be. I was there during the Jenna years. I stayed for seven years, worked my way up the ranks, and worked with her pretty closely; worked with [former CEO] Mickey Drexler closely. I did knits, I did swim, sweaters, collections—lots of different categories.”
Recalling J.Crew’s cropped kaleidoscopic pants, glitter pumps, and elevated takes on nautical- and military-inspired dressing at the time, I’m curious to know if she had a favorite.
“I love designing swim. Everybody’s the happiest when they’re on the beach, right? [It’s] just a joyful category.” The role also came with a welcome dose of nostalgia. “My parents had a place in Florida, so growing up we’d go there for Christmas and we’d always go to the J.Crew store in Miami, or we’d go [when we were] in New York. I loved it. It was so iconic.”
During Gayot’s initial tenure, J.Crew reached an unprecedented level of popularity. The brand’s collections were breathlessly covered by fashion media alongside luxury counterparts, and the pieces became a favorite among celebrities. Lyons became a star herself—her every outfit snapped by street style photographers and move 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 bump” to her 2016 City Hall wedding), Gayot was ready for a change. “Seven years was a long time for me to be at one place, and I feel like it’s really important to try multiple things to keep things fresh,” she says. “I got an opportunity to leave, and I just took it.”
That opportunity was at Victoria’s Secret, designing apparel, sleepwear, and lingerie. “Not bras and panties,” she clarifies, “but actual teddies.” It proved to be a tremendous learning experience. “Lingerie is a completely different world. It’s super technical, working with lace and constructing things that [fit close] to your body. It’s literally intimate.” Given the fabrics she was working with and the volume of product the brand was producing, there were also big financial implications tied to her work. “That gets you into business mode, which is important. You can’t just design in a bubble.”
Gayot’s decision to step away after almost three years was largely influenced by the amount of traveling she was doing. Financial meetings were held at the company’s headquarters in Ohio, and the design aspect of the job required frequent trips to Europe. Mounting public scrutiny of the brand, it seems, wasn’t a factor.