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Pinpointing Trends at Penney’s

For J.C. Penney, delivering fashion trends in its private label merchandise is a balancing act between edgy and safe.

PLANO, Tex. — For J.C. Penney, delivering fashion trends in its private label merchandise is a balancing act between edgy and safe.

“The key is you want to have your own personality as a department store, but you don”t want to be off in left field,” said David Hacker, Penney”s trend director for women”s apparel and accessories. “Interpretation is a key thing here.”

Penney”s analyzes runway shows, magazines, celebrities, TV, the Internet, trend services and global street fashions to pinpoint key styles, he said. The retail chain then interprets them for its customers in 19 private brands sold in 1,017 stores in the U.S. as well as in its catalogue and on its Web site.

Hacker spoke at a seminar on color and trends on May 3 at Penney”s headquarters here to members of the Dallas Fashion Incubator and the Dallas chapter of Fashion Group International. The talk was one of a series the retailer is sponsoring to educate aspiring local designers.

“We know our customer doesn”t want to buy something she”s never seen before,” Hacker said. “We don”t always want to be first to have something … .You have to be a media hog and see what”s going on out there.””

To illustrate, he showed runway images of fall 2004 fashions and discussed trends that would carry through to this fall, such as circle, pleated and full skirts; multicolor tweed short jackets; plaid, cropped pants; fur stoles and trims; coats; prints; feminine dresses, and textured knits.

“So much of what we see is ethereal,” he noted, referring to runway fashions. “Color is one of the easiest elements we can do that affects fashion.”

Hacker and Penney”s designers examine palettes from Color Services, Percler, Doneger Group and Color Box to help select palettes for each private brand.

The retailer”s women”s apparel labels go from contemporary, such as MixIt and W, to conservative, such as Worthington and St. John”s Bay.

“We focus on trends our customer will accept and that she is geared toward,” said Geoffrey Henning, Penney”s design director for MixIt, Worthington and W.

Henning and Hacker said they admired the ability of Zara and H&M to produce merchandise in about 90 days and sometimes in as few as 30. They noted these European-based retailers have the advantage of owning fabric mills.

“Zara and H&M translate trends three months after it happens, and basically that”s everybody”s goal now,” Henning said. “Everything is getting faster and faster all the time. The time line is getting shorter and shorter, and we need to work closer to cut dates and ship dates.”

He said Zara uses many of the same fabrics from year to year, which speeds dyeing and production.

Armed with trend research, Hacker and Henning give guidance to Penney”s buyers about what to purchase from private labels and national brands.

“Part of our job is convincing people that what we are telling them is correct,” Hacker said.

“That”s the hardest part of our job,” Henning added.

Penney”s designers are midway through creating private label lines for next spring. Hacker declined to discuss plans, but he said fashion is “on the brink of something new” after years of retrospective influence.

“We”re starting to see a departure,” he said, citing the volume in Marc Jacobs” and other fall “05 collections.

The seminar also featured a look at how Penney”s conveys 500 to 600 color choices each season to its manufacturers by using digital communication and a staff of color analysts here and in Asia.

“My job is to make sure we get product to the floor quickly and make sure they make the colors the way we want them,” said Susan Fox-Forrester, Penney”s color specialist director. “My job didn”t exist seven or eight years ago … and in seven or eight years, it won”t exist. They”ll take my job and make it seamless so the designers can communicate directly with the mills using computer-aided design systems.”