By  on July 28, 2008

In time for the Olympics, J.C. Penney is pumping up its activewear department by launching Xersion on Aug. 8 at 600 of its 1,074 stores.

The collection is Penney’s first attempt at designing and developing its own performance brand with a modern take. Penney’s already sells SJB Active in women’s and Simply for Sports for men, but the look of those private labels is traditional. Penney’s also carries Adidas and Nike merchandise as well as Champion sports bras.

“The activewear industry is growing in double digits and we are growing in the mid-teens, whereas women’s is growing at a low-single-digit pace,” said Liz Sweney, J.C. Penney Co. Inc.’s executive vice president of women’s apparel.

Merchants are searching for growth in the active arena, with yogawear particularly promising, in an otherwise dismal year for fashion retailers. They’ve been inspired by Lululemon, the fast-growing chain that originated in Vancouver 10 years ago. Victoria’s Secret is testing an active collection called VSX.

Other fashion retailers that have stretched into the active-yoga category include Bebe Sport; Abercrombie & Fitch, through its Gilly Hicks division that launched last fall, and, more recently, J. Crew, which about three months ago starting selling a yoga collection online and at its store in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. Even Walgreens is in on the act with its new Casual Apparel line that includes yoga pants, T-shirts, hoodies, quilted vests and socks.

What’s particularly appealing about sport- and yoga-related merchandise is its multipurpose character. Women wear the clothes as casualwear and loungewear as well as for exercise. Penney’s had yoga in mind when developing Xersion — specifically with bottoms, where there are three fits: a running tight, a fitted pant and a semifitted pant. The semifitted pant has a relaxed hip and thigh, and a slight flare at the leg opening.

While the merchandise is geared for performance and working out, Penney’s executives say they expect to see women wearing Xersion on other occasions, such as picking up the kids from school or for a manicure. “Essentially, it can serve many different needs for our customer,” said Jan Hodges, Penney’s vice president of women’s apparel.

She said Xersion will be “front and forward within the active department, presented almost like a shop within a shop,”and not so subtly invoke an Olympics moment. Xersion mannequins will be posed on three platforms of different heights, suggesting the Olympic ceremony at the conclusion of each event where athletes step up on pedestals to accept their gold, silver and bronze medals and sing their national anthems. Penney’s will be waving the Xersion banner, with big graphics, in the back of the shops.

“The customer is going to know that there is something new and different on the floor,” Sweney said with an air of certainty.

Typically,Xersion will occupy 600 to 700 square feet of the women’s active departments, which average 1,800 square feet. The company said no nearby merchandise needed to be dropped to accommodate Xersion, only displayed on higher capacity fixtures. The brand will be sold in Penney stores, on and in the company’s specialty catalogues. There will also be direct mail and preprints.

Asked if Xersion could upstage other active labels in the store, given all the marketing and merchandising efforts, Sweney replied: “I think our national brand partners actually think Xersion is a positive, since it will bring more excitement and customers to the area. This will make the [active] area more important to the store.”

The women’s assortment includes tops, priced $24 to $28; bottoms, $34 to $36; sports bras, $26; bra tanks, $28; jackets, $40; shorts, $22 to $26, and shoes and socks. Products will be available in regular, large and petite sizes.

Within Penney’s three-tiered pricing structure, the Xersion line falls into the “better” price bucket, whereas the higher-priced Adidas and Nike brands fall into Penney’s “best” bucket. The lower-priced SJB Active line falls into the “good”and “better” buckets. SJB refers to the St. John’s Bay private label.

Penney’s acknowledges it still has voids in its activewear assortment, considering the range of prices, styles and demographics the chain caters to.

The look of Xersion is essentially clean, though there is no shortage of details and technical characteristics. The products are designed with moisture wicking and with seams that shouldn’t chafe the skin. In addition, the line features antimicrobial fabrics, reflective tape on many items, and concealed pockets for credit cards, keys and iPods. For women, Xersion also offers built-in support tops as well as shorts with built-in shapewear.

Penney’s, Hodges added, had to go outside its normal supplier base to develop the line: “We had to find new mills and sourcing, but we have a wonderfully talented sourcing team.”

Men’s products, which launch Oct. 15 in men’s active areas and Aug. 15 online, will include tops, bottoms, jackets, shoes and socks. Gym bags debut in December.

It’s also hoped that Xersion gives Penney’s a younger spin. The label targets a 30-something customer and could appeal to someone as young as 25 or a Baby Boomer, according to the executives.

“We think it will have a halo effect casting us as modern, relevant and knowing what’s going on out there,” Sweney said.

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