By  on September 11, 2009

J.C. Penney is working hard to cultivate a cooler side.

This week, the middle market chain rolls out its first contemporary label created by its own design team. The line is called she said and will be in 600 stores and have a significant presence on jcp.com.

“It’s really a younger customer under 35 that we are going after here. It just so happens that we are resonating with those under 35,” said Liz Sweney, J.C. Penney Co. Inc.’s executive vice president of women’s.

Most big box and department stores fail to project a sharp fashion image, given their wide range of merchandise, prices, customers and propensity to promote markdowns to the extent of overshadowing the actual styles. But Penney’s has been ramping up its contemporary offerings for the past 18 months and says that, despite generally depressed sales, the strategy is resonating with customers and that younger, trendier styles are outselling basics and conservative looks geared to older customers. With the recent additions of contemporary lines done in collaboration with designers and brands like Bisou Bisou, I [Heart] Ronson, Allen B., Oxford & Regent and Twelfth of Eleven, the percentage of younger women shopping the store is growing, executives said. About 45 percent of women’s apparel sold at Penney’s is to women under 35; four or five years ago it was 40 percent.

Other key labels at the store addressing younger audiences include a.n.a, Xersion, Decree, Arizona and City Streets. Penney’s Sephora shops are also drawing younger customers, and the chain’s sponsorship of the Academy Awards has helped. “All this effort has made us more relevant from a fashion perspective,” Sweney said.

With contemporary specifically, this season Penney pulls all of its contemporary labels together in one area. Floor layouts and visual elements have been updated with a signature purple color theme and design. Online, the brands have been brought together under a new contemporary lifestyle tab under women’s. The tab will be enhanced in October to allow customers to mix and match pieces, search for pieces by designer or category, and share looks with friends via Facebook. A 44-page “Little Red Book” will be mailed to customers on Sept. 16 spotlighting the contemporary assortment.

According to Sweney, the she said collection “rounds out some of the other brands, with a lot of pieces that this customer can wear to work. It’s a fashion forward career brand but you can really use the pieces in different settings. Shoppers are pinching pennies but still looking for product that stands out....We are actually selling our fashion better than anything, though it has to be great value, not at cheap prices, at great moderate price points. Contemporary keeps growing.”

Penney’s will be introducing additional contemporary labels soon, Sweney said, though she declined to give details.

The executive said the decision to develop she said in-house reflects growing confidence in the design team and reductions in the cycle time, from the initial design to production to delivery, to as little as 10 weeks. It’s enabling the company to display trends faster than in the past. She said is being launched with 30 pieces, and six to eight new items will be shipped monthly.

Asked why Penney’s didn’t partner with another designer for she said, Sweney replied, “We could do it ourselves just as well in this case. This underscores the strength of our own design team. However, we continue to look and talk to designers. We are very happy with the designers we have.” The expense of partnering with a designer had nothing to do with the decision. Designer partnerships remain “very affordable,” Sweney said, adding, “We believe in designer fashion.”

She said features a body-conscious fit, pieces designed to mix and match and to be worn from work to going out. Prices fall into Penney’s “better” and “best” zones including $26 to $44 for tops, $44 to $50 for pants, $44 to $58 for dresses, $44 for skirts and $68 to $85 for jackets.

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