The J.C. Penney comeback continues.
Photograph by LM Otero — AP
By Phil Wahba
September 9, 2015

J.C. Penney (JCP) finally has a horse in the fast fashion races.

The department store earlier this month started piloting its own private label brand, “Belle + Sky,” a line of trendy women’s wear it can produce and turn over more quickly, with a view to better competing with the H&Ms, Zaras and Forever 21s of the world — retailers that have stolen away customers from department stores and other clothing chains.

Penney is currently testing the line, which ranges from dresses to skinny jeans to faux fur vests, online and at 50 of its 1,000 or so stores, the company told Fortune. Prices (after the inevitable markdowns) range from $14.99 to $59.99.

The collection will be a big test for Penney, which like department store rivals Macy’s (M) and Kohl’s (KSS), and specialty clothing stores like Gap (GPS) are under pressure from international rivals that are able to more quickly adapt their apparel offerings.

Companies have been striving to shorten the time it takes to go from concept to product on store shelves down from a typical nine months for U.S. retailers, to four for the fast fashion company. Gap, American Eagle Outfitters (AEO) and J.Crew are among those that have succeeded in beginning to shorten the production cycle at least a bit.

 

For Penney, which gets 56% of revenue from apparel, it is essential to be able to more quickly react to new fashions, and drop lines that are flopping. But new CEO Marvin Ellison, who took the reins last month, said at an investor conference on Wednesday that Penney gets in its own way with too many processes, and one of his top priorities is to make the department store more nimble.

Penney is “way too bureaucratic” and needs to streamline its supply chain, Ellison said.

The retailer is on the comeback trail after its disastrous 2012-2013 attempt to go upscale, outperforming Macy’s and Kohl’s last quarter.

But as Ellison pointed out, Penney can scarcely afford to revert to the 2011 version of the retailer if it wants to thrive again. And in 2011, fast fashion was already starting to devastate department stores.

 

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