The Story of a Camel Cape: J.C. Penney Aims for Fashion Leader Status

capeThe camel cape that will hit J.C. Penney's stores this month draws inspiration from a smattering of influences, among them, the Bianca Jagger look of the 1970s, London streetwear, and the runway shows from last winter's New York Fashion Week.

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.

J.C. Penney has been working to maintain its appeal to its core, older shoppers with recent deals such as the exclusive Liz Claiborne (LIZ) line, while simultaneously reaching out to younger consumers with brands such as MNG from Mango -- but that's a delicate dance.

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."

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September 13 2011 at 9:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't much care for JCP.

September 12 2011 at 9:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

$500 is not an expensive dress. It is a pricy dress. Several thousand is an expensive dress. JC Penny's should be focusing on working women's office wear and leave the party dressing to others. They could use some upgrading in their hair salons too.

September 12 2011 at 6:07 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I still think their Stafford Men's line is awesome from suits, dress shirts, ties and shoes, really great product.

September 12 2011 at 4:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Its amazing how people judge by the lines that jcp has but yet most stores have the same but jcp is considered old and out of date by some. People miss out because 25 years ago something happened. The guy is gone, have you been back. I don't work for jcp , but every time I go in the prices are the good, very friendly staff and the stores are updated, clean and a pleasure to shop there. Sounds like Bert is either a disgruntled employee or after all this time still mad because penneys moved from crowed NY and chose to do business in a business friendly state with lower taxes and a place with a better quality of life but if not theres something because there is not one thing about jcp you like. I do disagree with them on one item, I would hate to work for them since they get rid of alot of good people just because of age, and from what I hear the 20 something's replacements are inept and this will hurt them in the long run. Being considered old at 29, people at my age, its is already getting difficult to gain employment if you need work. Being 50 must be really scary. Dedication and loyalty is a thing of the past on both sides. But so is Getting a pension plan, don't even ask. Of course everyone has an event happen once in a while, but to stop doing business totally is of course your decision but only hurts you, they are still here after all this time. I'm done, going to store in my American living shirt and slacks. Thanks

September 12 2011 at 4:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to shawn's comment

I was in Penny a short time ago. They were very rude in the jewelry dept. the goods were a disgrace and mislabeled. I say that because what I bought was supposed to be 14 kt and was 10 kt and the jewels fell out the first wearing. They had offered to sell me a guarantee but I chose not to get it, the price they wanted to repair was more than the price I had paid and I didn't get the earrings on sale. The quilts I bought shrank ten inches. However the sales ladies in the quilt dept were very nice. The clothes were not anything special.

September 12 2011 at 6:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Love JC Penney. But...wish they could do something about shrinking clothes. Those which are suppose to be washable and dryable on low settings. Every top I have bought there have shrunk in length at least 2-3 inches. Making them too short to wear again. Love the bedding and whole linen dept. But have not had very good luck with clothing for women.

September 12 2011 at 3:19 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
stuart krisel

They lost me as a customer of over 20 years 5 years ago because of a lazy manager at their Southcenter mall store.

September 12 2011 at 2:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In the past year or so, I have purchased some really on-trend shoes at JCP. Quite a contrast from their dowdy, old lady styles from a few years ago. As a middle-aged woman I appreciate being able to afford stylish clothes and accessories that don't look they come from the juniors' department, and JCP provides me with those.

September 12 2011 at 2:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I cant understand who their customer base is, my only guess would be mexican Drag Queens.

September 12 2011 at 1:22 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I love Penneys, but I would like to to see their Liz Claiborne line reflect some of its earlier style -- conservative but wearable styles with nice fabrics.

September 12 2011 at 12:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply