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JC Penney Pegs Hopes on ’80s Shoe Designer

The struggling department store is searching for its Goop.

The Libby Edelman collection.
Photo: JC Penney

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Nothing but bad news comes out of department stores these days. Among them, of course, is JC Penney, which confirmed earlier this year it would close some 140 stores — 14 percent of its total brick-and-mortar locations — and two distribution centers, as well as lay off almost 6,000 employees.

The brand has been trying to rejuvenate itself for several years now: adding Sephora boutiques in more of its stores, expanding into the lucrative dorm-shopping category, and doubling down on its appliance offering while competitor Sears bleeds a slow death. In its most recent efforts, JC Penney is rolling out its first women’s collection to feature of-the-moment trends from an in-house designer: Libby Edelman.

If she sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Edelman, along with her husband and business partner, Sam, was a co-creator of Sam & Libby, the shoe brand that had a cult-like following in the ’80s because of its bowed ballet flats (the duo took the company public in 1991, and sold it five years later at a loss). These days, she’s the senior vice president at Sam Edelman, the shoe company named after her husband that’s owned by Caleres. Her JC Penney collection, which debuts July 14th, will be a mix of trendy dresses, jewelry, bags — and, of course, shoes.

“We’re trying to make fashion approachable to the JC Penney customer,” says Edelman. “I think all women love fashion, but sometimes it’s scary. I want it to be easy and accessible. A lot of women go through JC Penney’s doors and are looking for fashion advice.”

The Sam Edelman brand might be a household name that’s known for its trendy styles, but this partnership with Edelman is baffling — and not just because she has never designed clothes before. This is a time for department stores to grab onto something, anything, that will actually keep them afloat. See: Nordstrom’s new relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James, and Kohl’s celebrity cachet via exclusive collections with Vera Wang and Lauren Conrad. Edelman’s name recognition, or lack thereof, is not enough to get customers in stores.

Photo: JC Penney

It’s also unclear if Edelman can attract young shoppers, the demographic JC Penney needs the most. She might have been considered a footwear queen because of Sam & Libby — but that was 25 years ago. According to a Kantar Retail survey, the average age of a JC Penney shopper is 51. As Forbes wrote back in December, “JC Penney is showing no signs that it understands what the millennials really want. They want be shown what is hot and what is not through excellent fashion displays, and it's just not happening.”

To Jodi Johnson, JC Penney’s senior vice president and head of women’s apparel, bringing on Edelman isn’t so much about celebrity or prestige as it is about product. Johnson admits that when it comes to women’s clothes, JC Penney is in dire need of a makeover. She says the company believes Edelman, who is beloved in some fashion circles and has amassed a reputation for her eclectic bohemian vibe, will help revitalize the category.

“We haven’t had the contemporary edge or top-of-the-period fashion in a way that links up with what’s relevant today,” says Johnson. “We’ve had it historically, and this is our first chance to get back into that. Retail overall has challenges, and when we were looking at our portfolio, what was missing was the need to have a great contemporary fashion zone for someone who wants that elevated fashion. This part of how we will improve and become compelling in bringing her things of things of the moment.”

Johnson adds that the Edelman line fits into JC Penney’s desire to “cover fashion faster, and bring ideas to the floor quicker,” with new items from Edelman rolling out every two to three months, no doubt a page out of fast fashion’s book in order to compete in the space. But while classic fast fashion retailers are fully dedicated to trends, Johnson says the Edelman collab won’t be too trendy: “It has to be adding to fashion with a quicker value, but it still has to be appealing to middle America.”

“Libby’s eclectic style is not quite like what you’d see at other fast fashion stores,” Johnson adds. “She’s been designing an incredibly long time and she is a fashion authority. She understands trends.”

The Sephora halo effect might be the brand’s best hope: Edelman’s new collection will be strategically placed right outside the store’s Sephoras, which have performed so well inside JC Penney locations that CEO Marvin Ellison has bragged to investors that customers are lining up around the block. Edelman says that if all goes well, “we’ll be grabbing that contemporary shopping customer who walks right outside from Sephora.”

Correction: June 13th, 2017

A previous version of this story stated that shoe company Sam Edelman is owned by Browns Shoes. It’s owned by Caleres, formerly known as Brown Shoe.