It also reflects J.C. Penney's (JCP) big push to generate greater style credibility for a chain better known for dressing Middle America than for being on the cutting edge of fashion.
At the center of that mission is the jcp design groupe, a team of in-house designers now soaking up the runway looks at New York Fashion Week, which kicked off Thursday, and runs through Sept. 15. They're working behind the scenes to send a clear message to shoppers: This is not your mother's J.C. Penney.
It might surprise consumers that the Plano, Texas-based department store chain boasts an in-house design team with talent from Calvin Klein (PVH), J. Crew and Kenneth Cole (KCP), as well as schools like the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Rhode Island School of Design.
The design group is on a quest to churn out on-trend looks that rival higher-end -- and higher-priced -- fashion chains, Ken Mangone, executive vice president of product development, design and sourcing for J.C. Penney, told DailyFinance in an exclusive interview.
"I don't think the message is out that J.C. Penney has this design talent in house, and there are great designers working on delivering that product for you at the same time as much higher-priced competitors," he said of the team, which expanded from 80 to over 220 associates over the last decade.
Spicing up store brands like Worthington and Arizona, which account for a hefty 50% of the retailer's annual revenue, "has a big capacity to change the style perception for J.C. Penney," Mangone says. "We want to be the style leader for Middle America, and our private brands are going to get us there."
While J.C. Penney has made big strides toward shedding its dowdy image in recent years by forging exclusive designer partnerships for clothing lines from Nicole Miller and the fast-fashion chain Mango, and operating in-store Sephora beauty shops, among others, there's still work to be done on recasting the brand, analysts say.
"Ultimately, if you want to make a turnaround, you have to act boldly and be willing to give up usual practices to move forward with new target customers and strategies," Paul Swinand, a stock analyst with Morningstar, said.
While shoppers appear to be responding well to both -- the retailer has cited the women's business, including the Liz and Mango lines, as sales drivers this year -- mixed marketing messages can ultimately yield mixed results, Swinand says.
The investment community is watching to see if Ron Johnson, the head of Apple's (AAPL) retail business, who takes the reins as CEO in November, can bring some of that Apple cool to the J.C. Penney brand.
Johnson, the man behind the success of Apple's stores, will succeed Myron "Mike" Ullman.
Ullman himself expects Johnson take J.C. Penney "to the next level of attraction and excitement," he said during a Goldman Sach's conference on Wednesday. "He created the best retail concept in the world at Apple."
Giving Glam to Budget Shoppers
J.C. Penney wants its moderate-income shoppers to look just as sharp as women who can drop $500 on a dress.
The retailer doesn't have the extravagant marketing budgets of the tony designers, but neither is it working with their lavish, expensive fabrics, "Our process is just like a designer's process -- there's no difference," Geoffrey Henning, divisional vice president of design for jcp design groupe, tells DailyFinance.
Indeed, the design group combs the world for trends, hitting cites like Paris, Milan, Barcelona and Seoul, and mines a range of cultural influences, including the worlds of art, film and music as it works with trend-forecasting firms like The Doneger Group and Trend Union.
"I really want to inspire that shopper who can't walk into Bergdorf's and spend a lot of money on her clothes," Henning says.
"Our passion is that we can give her the same stuff. And now she can walk out [of the store] with a swagger like someone on Fifth Avenue. She doesn't have to settle for anything.
"We are going to make Middle America look unbelievable," he says.
The Journey of a Camel Cape
Inspiration for the $74.99 wool-blend Worthington cape started to bubble up a year ago. That's when the design team "started seeing people in London really hitting the flare pant," Henning says.
Vintage clothing stores in London were beginning to feature 1970s pieces.
At the same time, looks from the decade started to surface in fashion and culture in the U.S.
Los Angeles stylists were scouting stores for classic 1970s pieces from designers like Pucci for movies and TV shows.
"What we saw last year and the year before was a '40s and '50s demure and feminine sensibility happening [in fashion]," Henning says.
And because fashion is cyclical, it looked as if a natural swing to the 1970s would likely unfold.
Sure it was on to something, the team then mined the retro archives to soak up photos of the iconic, stylish women of the period, such as celebrity Bianca Jagger, actresses Angie Dickinson and Ali MacGraw, and models Lauren Hutton and Veruschka, Yves Saint Laurent's muse.
"It was a very empowering time for women," Henning says. And fashion followed suit. "The pantsuit came back, the blazer ... and two things became very important: the peasant top and the cape," Henning says.
What's more, "the most important color of the '70s was camel."
So that was that: The camel cape would be included in J.C. Penney's fall Worthington collection.
The cape also seemed likely to strike a resonant chord with J.C. Penney's core shoppers, many of whom are not necessarily size twos.
"The cape is something that is truly timeless, effortless and very wearable for many body shapes," he says. "Our customers have multiple body shapes."
In addition, "Our customer needs to know she can wear [an item] multiple ways. And the great thing about the cape is that it's not just an outerwear piece ... it can be worn inside the office, in the evening. And in the South, it will be your winter jacket," Henning says.
The design group got further confirmation that it was "on trend" when it later saw capes -- including one in camel -- play a starring role on the runway during Fashion Week last February, which helped the retailer tweak how it would showcase the item.
"Our biggest takeaway from Fashion Week was that color is really important as well. Camel can be a very masculine color that's not flattering for most women," Henning says. So it was decided that the cape would be paired with a colorful top.
A year later, the Worthington cape that just debuted in J.C. Penney's New York store in time for Fashion Week is paired with a pink plaid top from the retailer's exclusive I Heart Ronson line. The editors of PeopleStyleWatch, People's spin-off fashion magazine, have flagged it as a "must-have" item.
And as planned, the launch is timed as a 1970s moment is in full bloom, with the remake of TV show Charlie's Angels, a touchstone of that decade, airing this fall, Henning says.
Making Its Store Brands Hip
Beyond the camel cape, J.C. Penney's design team has been ratcheting up the style quotient and design integrity of its private brands.
The Worthington brand, for example, which targets working women from 25 to 54 years old, used to be made up of a few items -- including elastic waisted pants -- in multiple colors with little design intention, Mangone says.
Today, the brand, which has been fleshed out to outfit an entire wardrobe, imparts a higher level of "elegance and sophistication." Its style is reminiscent of "the great American sportswear look from the '70s," he says.
And gone from the mix are those elastic waisted pants.
J.C. Penney's Arizona juniors, young men's and kid's brand has evolved as well to compete with pricier, preppy teen retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) and Aeropostale (ARO).
Giving Arizona fashion cred meant "elevating" denim treatments and washes, as well as graphic designs, Mangone says.
In turn, baggy stonewashed jeans, for one, have been pruned from clothing racks to make way for "looks that are cool and are right for today."
J.C. Penney designers now work to produce "that vintage feel to the denim, which is an art in itself," Magone says.
"When you don't have designers, the nuances of the details are very difficult to execute."
Arizona marks the touch of a staff of graphic designers who keep abreast of emerging trends, "so young customers always have what's hot and what's new," he says.
That means special attention is paid to details. Letters are sewed on to graphic t-shirts, for example, adding texture and character to the traditional screen-printed t-shirts "which gives you that authentic, varsity look."
When your business generates over 50% of its business from private brands, it's critical to get the formula right, he says.
"We want every brand to be on trend."