J. Crew womenswear designer Tom Mora chats about the J. Crew woman and the iconic American retailer's cult appeal

J. Crew has landed in Vancouver occupying 5,953 square feet of swanky Robson Street real estate. And when J. Crew opens, it opens in style. The darling of preppy luxe sent its womenswear and menswear designers to the launch party to talk to Vancouverites about spring trends at J. Crew.

I sat down for a 30-minute catch-up with affable and oh-so-handsome womenswear designer Tom Mora. Imagine Jeff Goldblum in his prime only with better footwear.

Mora took over as head of womenswear at the iconic American retailer in 2009. Prior to that, the designer ran the Wedding and Special Occasion Design section as well as Women’s Wovens and Accessories. Mora continues to oversee J. Crew’s bridal design, which has single-handedly upgraded the middle class wedding from pseudo-gauche to accessibly elegant since its launch in 2005.

Below, the designer opens up about Vancouver fashion, the spring/summer J. Crew woman and his two dogs, Jackson and Ash.

Spring/summer picks by J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons (Image: J. Crew)

One-on-one with J. Crew Womenswear Designer Tom Mora

Citizen Style: Welcome to Vancouver. Have you had a chance to get an impression of Vancouver style? Why do you think J. Crew is a good fit for our city?

Mora: Vancouver style is a really nice match with J. Crew. There’s a casualness to the people here, which I really enjoy. I think we, as a brand, do this combination of casual and dressy that corresponds to that. If you’re wearing a really beautiful blouse, you’d wear it with a jean, for example. There’s a great field parka in the women’s section downstairs. I like the idea of putting that over a dress. We never try to do all dressy-dressy.

CS: Describe the J. Crew woman in three words:

Mora: Confident. Chic. And smart.

CS: Tell me more about the J. Crew woman’s aesthetic. What is she going for?

Mora: It’s not about the clothes, it’s about her. That’s what J. Crew’s clothes allow. Even though the clothes can be bright colours and bright patterning, the clothes complement the woman.

It’s not about, 'That’s a great top.’ It’s about, 'Oh, you look beautiful in that.'

CS: What are three key pieces you'd recommend for spring and summer style?

Mora: Our skinny matchstick jeans in one of the great colours. A cashmere sweater. We have beautiful cashmere neutrals, but this season it’s really all about colour. Then one of our schoolboy blazers. It’s an 'always' piece for me.

Those are three of my favourites. What I love about J. Crew is that if you invest in those pieces, it’s really something that will be part of your wardrobe. It won’t be out of fashion next season. It’s about quality materials and craftsmanship; it’s not disposable.

J. Crew's Fall 2012 presentation at New York Fashion Week

CS: What was your inspiration for the J. Crew fall runway collection that showed at New York Fashion Week?

Mora: It started with Irving Penn. I really respond to the J. Crew woman because she’s incredibly chic. Jenna is the J. Crew woman and I look to her for inspiration daily. I also collect books on photography and fashion and I kept looking at Irving Penn. I thought there was a connection between Irving Penn and J. Crew. What is the connection? Well Irving Penn was a really classic photographer and his photographs were always timeless and chic. And there it was. That’s what we strive to do with at J. Crew: timeless and chic. The fall runway presentation really embodied that. It was very exciting.

CS: Will pieces from the Autumn/Winter runway collection be available in this location?

Mora: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

CS: Will you highlight some fall trends we can look forward to?

Mora: Print on print. Chunky ski sweaters in luxurious yarns like cashmeres and cashmere blends. Head-to-toe colour. The schoolboy blazer comes in pink tweed for fall and we matched it with a pink tweed capri pant, which has become an icon for us. It looks completely different in these fabrics and I love the idea of a suit in this beautiful pink colour.

CS: You keep a lot of plates spinning. How long is your workday and what do you do to unwind? What’s your vice of choice?

Mora: (He laughs.) I start my day working out in the morning. It’s a really good way to start the day because I work through my day while I’m doing it, so when I get to work I’m already feeling calm about the whole day.

I work through a lot of meetings with clients all day long. It could be 8-10 hours. Then I relax having dinner with friends, usually. That’s my way to reconnect with people and I really don’t talk about work. It’s nice to talk about other things, especially in New York where you get so caught up with your career and your work that you kinda miss out on things. I want to make sure my personal life is still there.

And I have a country house. (He perks up). On Fridays we drive up there and spend the weekend there. That’s how I unwind: working on the house, decorating it, gardening. It will be two years in June that I’ve had it. It’s a never-ending project. My puppies help me. I have two dogs.

CS: I only heard about one named Jackson.

Mora: Jackson yes. And I have another one named Ash. They’re adorable. Jackson’s a mutt. He’s a Maltese/Chinese Crested and Ash is an Afton Pincher, which is the funniest little dog ever. He’s a monster. You say 'come,' and he runs in the opposite direction.

CS: What’s ahead for you? What’s next? What’s exciting?

Mora: It’s really exciting that J. Crew has a growing international reach. It will be interesting to see how we expand on that. I'm also just excited about continually evolving us and who we are – keeping the customer engaged. That’s always the challenge.

Halston once said: ‘You’re only as good as your last collection.’ It becomes more challenging for us because it changes monthly. We want customers to walk in and go, God, that looks amazing' every month. We’re always trying for a product that’s dynamic, that can sell but also expresses emotion. That’s important to us. We’re a very emotional brand. That’s the challenge. That's what I'm excited about. How do I get excitement out of the client?