Byline: David Moin

NEW YORK — Ralph Lauren for the masses?
In probably its most ambitious fashion play since the Arizona house brand bowed 10 years ago, J.C. Penney will relaunch Hunt Club private label beginning with men’s wear in February and women’s in the fall.
The first Hunt Club home collection could follow and Hunt Club kids will probably be revamped, too, as the $32 billion corporation — which includes the Eckerd drugstore chain — attempts to transform the moribund label into a lifestyle brand.
With its clean, classic polo shirts, blazers, button-downs, cable-knits and khakis — displaying more color and quality cotton and weaves than past Hunt Club offerings — there’s an apparent effort to emulate higher-priced designer looks, while maintaining the moderate Penney price points.
Overall, Penney’s strategy is to rework and resuscitate private labels, which include Stafford, which is traditional and casual business apparel for men, and St. John’s Bay for on-trend, item-driven casual wear, to rise above the mediocrity long associated with the assortments.
Even with Arizona, the chain’s biggest and best known label, posting $1 billion in annual sales and cutting across several categories, Penney’s executives acknowledge there’s room for energizing.
Private labels account for 40 percent of all of Penney’s stores’ volume.
Hunt Club virtually disappeared from Penney’s stores a year ago, as the company went through wrenching organizational and structural changes, centralized its merchandising and began to bring in talent from outside its ranks after decades of only growing talent from within. The label, reported by WWD at just $35 million in sales in 1998, would have probably lost steam anyway. “We really didn’t go on a branding quest,” explained William Cappiello, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for men’s wear and boys. “Hunt Club became a label — not really a brand.” But as a label, he said, “There is nothing wrong” with the name.
With Arizona, he acknowledged, “We probably haven’t evolved that brand to the degree it should have been.”
Among the talent brought in to revive Hunt Club is Alan Tucker, who was president and chief executive of Calvin Klein men’s wear from 1974 to 1986, and president and ceo of Izod from 1993 to last spring. He also launched A-line Anne Klein in 1987 where he served as president, and in 1989 started Company Ellen Tracy, where he was also president. He’s known Penney’s chairman and ceo Allen Questrom for 25 years, and has been working on developing Hunt Club since last May. He’s considered the brand manager.
With the look for Hunt Club men’s set, “we are coming up with product for women,” said Tucker.
What Penney’s hasn’t come up with so far is a knockout celebrity tie-in, a la Kmart with Martha Stewart. In the early Eighties, Penney’s launched an exclusive Halston collection, which after a few years was discontinued, and dabbled with Diahann Carroll and Delta Burke lines, both discontinued at Penney’s. It continues to sell Iman cosmetics.
Penney’s could use an injection of national brands, too, though it does sell Sag Harbor, Dunner, Dockers and Jones Wear, and recently there have been some key merchandise additions including Avon’s Becoming cosmetics and Disney merchandise. Both are exclusives. For the past few seasons, efforts seemed focused more on hiring new buyers, reorganizing the stores and clearing the clutter. Now Penney’s is challenged to accelerate merchandise upgrades and find fashion to increase revenues. Asked if the company will land some top brands, Cappiello said, “There are myriad opportunities, in national and private brands.” Penney’s will “absolutely” bring some on board, he said.
According to Tucker, Penney’s is developing Hunt Club into a lifestyle brand, that could extend into home and kids. Other private brands could also broaden their assortments, and probably should have already. However, the company, owing to its troubles in recent years, “lost focus in private brands.”
“There is a customer that aspires for better product at Penney prices,” he said. He described the new Hunt Club as offering “simple elegance, not overwhelming fashion, driven by color and fabrications and classic styling,” including Egyptian cotton yarns in 82-ply weaves. “Most brands really don’t use that high quality yarn,” Tucker said.
Dress shirts will retail for $24.99 though they could be promoted at $19.99. He said the shirt compares in look and quality to designer brands priced at $48 to $50.
“Frankly, this bears little resemblance to what [Penney’s] had out there,” Tucker said. The old Hunt Club, he said was more sportswear driven, while the new Hunt Club is “a little dressier” and instilled with more vivid and fashionable colors and detailing. The line includes knits, sweaters, outerwear, ties, suits, sportcoats and top coats.
Women’s for fall will also feature “great color, simple, elegant classic styling, nothing outrageous,” Tucker said, including skirts, pants, sweaters, knits, blazers, some related separates,such as blazers and skirts that go together. In women’s too, the prices will be at the $24.99 to $19.99 range for woven blouses in 82-ply Egyptian cotton yarn. Blazers will probably sell from $99 to $124.
Cappiello characterized Penney’s private label program as revolving around merchandise tiers at “good, better, best,” price points, with Hunt Club falling into the best level. That’s an expression that Questrom, the former chairman and ceo of Federated Department Stores, once used to describe the Federated strategy for Stern’s [now defunct], Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s.
He also said that initially, 20 of Penney’s top stores will create Hunt Club men’s shops, as a test. They will encompass all the merchandise, while 600 Penney’s stores will sell Hunt Club in classification departments.

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