"I didn't want to create a show that was like all the others," the former president and executive creative director of J.Crew tells PEOPLE exclusively

By Colleen Kratofil
December 03, 2020 08:30 AM
Credit: HBO MAX

The "woman who dressed America" by reinventing J.Crew classics with her stylish twist is now rethinking what reality TV looks like with a new part-documentary, part-competition show on HBO Max.

Stylish with Jenna Lyons, which premieres Dec. 3, documents Jenna Lyons' return to the spotlight since leaving J.Crew in 2017 where she completely overhauled how one styles basics with her affinity for high-low dressing (remember when she wore a sweater with a shimmery skirt to the 2013 Met Gala?).

Credit: Rabbani and Solimene Photography/WireImage

After 26 years with the company, Lyons left her role as president and executive creative director of J.Crew and spent the interim largely out of the public eye.

"I don't know if I can explain to you how different my life felt, but right when I left J.Crew, I was sort of trying to figure out what I was going to do," Lyons tells PEOPLE. "It was a whole year and a half when I finally started to have a conversation about [the TV show]. During that year and a half, I really felt this disconnection from the fashion industry."

And the person who gave Lyons the idea to enter the TV arena was none other than Vogue's Anna Wintour.

"She told me I should do TV and I was like, 'No way!' Then when someone called me and said, 'Do you want to do TV?,' I was like, 'You know what? Anna Wintour told me I should do TV. Maybe I should take this call.' I decided to at least entertain the idea and so I did, but it was a complete fluke."

Just like her head-turning fashion choices (sequins with denim - groundbreaking!), Lyons is starting her new on-screen career with a splash.

Credit: HBO MAX

The new HBO Max show follows Lyons and her trusty sidekicks, chief of staff Kyle DeFord (formerly chief of staff to J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler) and creative director Sarah Clary (a New York-based stylist) as they kick-start Lyons' new venture — a creative agency called Lyons L.A.D., which stands for "life after death."

The agency takes on projects that go beyond the fashion sphere and into home decor and beauty (Lyons started her own false lash line, LoveSeen) and viewers get to see Lyons' perfectionism and unparalleled attention to detail range from styling outfits to decorating a home.

The competition aspect comes in as Lyons tries to pick a new addition to the team. We see her interviewing candidates, assigning out styling challenges and testing the crew of hopefuls on all-things design through different projects the agency is taking on (like decorating an N.Y.C. brownstone and curating a pop-up shop).

While the show sounds like a hybrid of The Rachel Zoe Project-meets-Project Runway, what viewers won't see is the typical sort of elimination format.

"Somehow along the way [of filming], they were like, 'Well, what if there were real stakes involved and real people are actually going to vie for a job?' I was like, 'Okay, but I don't want to do a reality contest show. So, how do we make it different? How do we make it ours?'" explains Lyons.

Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty

What occurred was a process of adapting as they go. "We had two teams, originally, as part of the [TV creation] process and we were bringing in people who had reality background and some people who had documentary background," she explains. "We tried to blend them and it didn't really work. So, we had to really focus our energies on creating something that was just our own. It was interesting. It was an incredible experience."

Aside from a few minor meltdowns from the contestants, what sets this series apart from other reality shows is the intentional lack of snarky judges and cut throat critiques.

"What was important to me was to actually be as real as possible without embarrassing people or shaming them or making them feel bad. That wasn't my goal," says Lyons about her reviewing style. "It was a little bit tricky in the beginning. I think everyone particularly was always saying to me, 'Well, tell them what you really think.' I'm like, 'Listen, there is no benefit from me saying to somebody, 'Hey, I think you really missed the mark.' That actually, on national television, isn't going to make somebody work harder."

Instead, she says she wanted to help motivate. "I think that world of reality television where people give ridiculous feedback or more so snarky feedback, it's not where I live. It's not a place I feel super comfortable. It was important to me not to do that. I also feel like I didn't want to create a show that was like all the others. I think in the world we're living in today, can we please just be nice?"

Just as the coronavirus pandemic upended life for everyone, it changed the course of the show as well, including cutting down the 10-episode series, to eight.

Once quarantine lifted, the crew got tested and a "very small pod" of people resumed shooting. "We had to rethink and re-architect that final episode to include who was going to win, how the projects were going to come together, and tying up any loose ends," Lyons explains. "It was a lot to tell in one episode. It was also kind of intimate and scrappy, as well. It was less formal because we were all just kind of making it work and that was also kind of fun."

When asked if the Lyons that started at J.Crew over 20 years ago would ever see herself starring in an HBO Max show, her response was quick: "No, never in a million years, never."

"I don't think I ever thought that I would leave [J.Crew.] I didn't think I would ever be more than a designer. I had such humble aspirations. So, I feel really incredibly lucky."

Now that she has a taste for life on-screen, she's not ruling out giving it another go. "When we first started the process and when we were in the middle of it, I was like, 'Oh, my God, I could never do this again.' It was so hard. It was really intense. But now that I know what I'm doing, I do want a chance to do it again. Obviously, it all depends on if people like it and people watch it, but yeah, I would do it again. I'm surprised to hear myself say that."

Stylish with Jenna Lyons premieres Dec. 3 on HBO Max.