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J.C. Penney is banking on Charlotte Ronson to infuse a bit of contemporary flair onto the selling floor.

This story first appeared in the October 8, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Plano, Tex.-based retailer has signed a long-term deal with the New York-based Ronson to design a full contemporary sportswear collection called I [Heart] Ronson, hitting 600 of Penney’s 1,093 stores for spring selling. The line will also be available on and in Penney’s catalogues.

The collection is the latest in a series of exclusives launched by Penney’s this year as it seeks both to add buzz to its fashion offerings, especially in the contemporary and juniors areas, and lure the cautious consumer in the difficult economy.

“Charlotte Ronson is one of today’s most innovative and adored new designers,” said Ken Hicks, president and chief merchandising officer of J.C. Penney Co. Inc. “She has an exceptional vision of what our trendy customer wants.”

Liz Sweney, executive vice president, women’s apparel, at Penney’s, continued: “We approached Charlotte to do this because she has this very authentic aesthetic which we believe will resonate with our customer.”

The deal will mark the first time the retailer is creating an in-store shop concept for an exclusive brand, sitting on the floor close to the trend lifestyle area of the store, near the exclusive Nicole by Nicole Miller and Bisou Bisou labels.

“We have created a unique environment for this brand,” Sweney said. “It embodies the feminine and vintage feeling of the clothes. As Charlotte said in our meetings, she wanted the area to be a look into her own closet. She designed the whole area — the wallpaper, the fixtures – shoppers will literally be getting a look into Charlotte’s closet.”

The collection will be placed near the front of the store, so customers can glimpse the line right away, Sweney said. On the floors in February, the first delivery offers a range of casual and dressy styles from cotton T-shirts and tanks, cotton sweaters and cardigans, a cotton canvas army jacket, leggings, denim jeans and printed polyester and cotton voile dresses. Ronson created a color palette inspired by her higher-end line, including gray, navy, olive green and pink.

Targeted towards the 21 to 35-year-old woman, I [Heart] Ronson will be priced at the store’s better tier, ranging from $15 for layering T-shirts and tanks to $26 to $44 for blouses, sweaters and jeans to $40 to $65 for dresses and jackets. In contrast, Ronson’s contemporary line for department stores wholesales from $70 to $130.

Penney’s executives declined to give first-year sales expectations for the new brand.

While the details are still being worked out, Sweney said Penney’s is planning to “heavily market” the new line through national magazine advertising, but also through some nontraditional types of marketing.

“We are going to make a lot of noise with this brand,” she said. “We are not testing this, we are fully invested in this partnership.”

Ronson, 31 — a daughter of British socialite Ann Dexter Jones, twin sister of Los Angeles-based musician and DJ Samantha and sister of New York DJ Mark — has become a fixture in New York City life. She’s best friends with designer Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss, designing a handbag line with her friend Nicole Richie and recently collaborated on the design of a handbag with Samantha’s girlfriend, Lindsay Lohan, to be sold within Ronson’s Japanese collection.

In addition, Ronson’s signature higher-end contemporary line is sold in 150 better department and specialty stores worldwide, in her freestanding boutique in downtown Manhattan, her store in Tokyo and in 14 shop-in-shops throughout Japan. Her Charlotte Ronson brand does $22 million in annual wholesale volume.

“Growing up in Manhattan, I really never went to a J.C. Penney before I started meetings with them,” Ronson said. “But I was pretty impressed when I did a store visit. I even bought a really cute striped American Living T-shirt,” she said, referring to the exclusive Penney’s line from Polo Ralph Lauren Corp.’s Global Brand Concepts.

For Ronson, the deal with Penney’s opens up the opportunity to immediately reach a mass market.

“I really don’t see this customer as a different girl than the one who already wears my line, but for me to be able to offer great quality clothes at these amazing prices — what could be better in a poor economy?” Ronson said.

Penney’s will handle all sourcing and production of the product, which Ronson said will free her up to handle design. She is also hoping to eventually introduce an I [Heart] Ronson line of shoes and other accessories, something Sweney said the retailer would be open to. “We identify this deal as a great vehicle for our brand,” said Aaron Nir, president of Charlotte Ronson. “We are a small company, but in this contemporary market, we understand the importance of having to respond to the trends in a fast, serious manner, which J.C. Penney understands well.”

While Penney’s is hoping the I [Heart] Ronson launch will give it a boost, the company has experienced weak sales of late. The store reported a 35.7 percent slide in second-quarter profits for the period ended Aug. 2 to $117 million, or 52 cents a diluted share, from $182 million, or 81 cents a share in the same period a year ago. Sales in the quarter dipped 2.5 percent to $4.3 billion from $4.4 billion last year. For the first half, the firm reported a 43.6 percent decline in profits to $237 million, or $1.06 a share, from $420 million, or $1.85 a share, a year ago. Sales in the same six months fell 3.8 percent to $8.4 billion from $8.7 billion last year.

The deal with Ronson follows Penney’s launch this year of four new lines in juniors: Fabulosity, Decree and White Tag were introduced this fall, while Le Tigre was added in April.

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