JCPenney is going high fashion. .
On Thursday, the 120-year-old department store launched a women’s fashion collaboration with designer Prabal Gurung that it began teasing on February 15. Though the company owns more than 650 stores across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, it invested in expanding its physical retail presence for the line’s debut with a pop-up store in NYC’s trendy Meatpacking District.
For JCPenney, the collection marks a return to designer collaborations, driven by Michelle Wlazlo, who joined the company as chief merchandising officer in 2019. Wlazlo formerly led apparel and accessories merchandising at Target, a designer collaboration pioneer.
“I first wanted to clarify the positioning of all the great brands we own,” Wlazlo said, pointing to JCPenney private labels Worthington, Liz Claiborne and A.N.A.
The collab, dubbed Impower by Prabal Gurung, is also a play for fashion shoppers. “The hope is that people will buy this and see other things, and [realize] the quality, style and [affordability] we offer,” she said.
JCPenney has much experience with fashion collaborations. It famously teamed with Halston on a line in 1983. Since, its collaborators have included “Project Runway,” Duro Olowu and Tracee Ellis Ross. Meanwhile, Gurung collaborated with Target in 2013.
For Gurung, who was named vice chair of the CFDA in January, the collaboration marks a new focus on selling more accessible products. The U.S. is reportedly headed for a recession, and Gurung’s core line sells dresses for $800-$3,200.
“I’m in the process of building out the Prabal Gurung world,” he said during an interview in the pop-up space on Tuesday morning. “Whether we launch into beauty or perfumes or whatever it is, we want to show more people who we are.”
He added, “I constantly get comments like, “I love your collection, but it’s very expensive.’ Price is no longer an indicator of quality. The fashion world is a small percentage of America, and it often feels very elitist. … I want to make more people feel seen.”
Both Wlazlo and Gurung said their companies’ alignment of values, particularly inclusivity, clinched the deal.
All pieces in the 25-piece collection are under $100, and sizes range from XS-3X, or 2-24W. Except for two jumpsuit styles, the collection is entirely made up of dresses, and it’s heavy in spring colors and florals. It feels perfectly suited to Easter and Passover, which take place next month.
According to Wlazlo, “[JCPenney] is a dominant dress destination; people have known us for dresses for years.”
As a business, JCPenney has seen highs and lows in recent years, including filing for bankruptcy in May 2020 before being formally acquired by Simon Property Group and Brookfield Asset Management seven months later. JCPenney estimated its revenue for the 2022 fiscal year would total $9 billion, up 10% from 2021, according to the Wall Street Journal. However, it was hit by “inflationary pressures and consumers reducing their spend,” and fell short of 2021 numbers, said Simon Property Group CEO David Simon on the company’s February 6 earnings call.
He noted, “We’re reinvesting in [JCPenney]. … We’re extremely pleased with the management team and all they’re doing to reinvigorate the brand that means so much to that consumer in [its] communities. We’re taking a different tack than others that have managed that [retailer].”
Wlazlo said JCPenney will debut more collaborations by year’s end and already has collabs in the works for 2024. Some may be surprising, she said, but all are “purposeful and feel like a fit with JCPenney and our shopper.” She described JCPenney customers as “diverse working American families.”
In the two weeks from tease to launch, Impower by Prabal Gurung saw strong interest from shoppers, based on clicks from marketing channels and press mentions to jcpenney.com, Wlazlo said. Marketing for the collection centered on introducing Gurung to the JCPenney shopper and telling the stories of the diverse range of the inspiring women featured in the campaign imagery. Among them are Nyakio Grieco, co-founder of Thirteen Lune, which took Sephora’s place as the beauty shop-in-shop in JCPenney stores.
The pop-up, which is sandwiched between an All Saints store and a Soho House members club, is decked out with flowers, mirroring the collection’s prominent print. A florist is stationed at a counter making arrangements, a bike with a flower-filled basket decorates a bouquet-dotted Instagram wall, and buckets of roses, daisies and tulips flank the entrance and various displays. In addition, there’s floor-to-ceiling imagery of the campaign’s models, and selfie mirrors featuring positive quotes by the women line the right-hand wall. Model Natalia Bryant is credited with saying, “When you’re present, you realize the power of yourself.” A quote by beauty brand founder Sara Happ reads, “The more we bring each other up, the more we rise.”
“I just wanted to bring joy with this collection — and flowers bring joy, right?” Gurung said. “It’s dedicated to the things that inspire me: flowers and women.” He noted that his designer collection is known for flowers, as well as ruffles and sequins, which are also featured in the Impower line. He described his signature aesthetic as “pretty, with a graphic edge.”
On Thursday, along with the pop-up, the collection launched on JCPenney’s e-commerce site, at midnight Central time, and in its stores. Store entrances have been decorated much like the pop-up, but “on a smaller scale,” Wlazlo said. She called Impower a “limited collection,” in that it will only be available until it sells out.
“I want it to sell out,” Gurung said, listing one of his goals for the collaboration. As of 7 a.m. Central time on Thursday, all sizes in all styles remained available. Pop-up notifications on product pages stated that 30-50 had sold in the prior 24 hours.