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Kohl’s looks to beef up style cred with first ever Fashion Week show

September 10, 2015

After 53 years in business, Kohl’s (KSS) has finally made it to New York Fashion Week.

The department store, known for its sensible, affordable clothing more than for sartorial edginess, held its first ever runway show at Fashion Week on Wednesday, showcasing its LC Lauren Conrad women’s wear line in a move aimed at much more than just bolstering one of its top brands. Indeed, Kohl’s wants to show customers that its fashions can be exciting.

“It’s important for us to signal that we’re a place where our consumers can find great fashion,” Arthur Lewis, the executive vice president who heads Kohl’s New York design office told Fortune at the show. “This is a powerful statement that we’ve got a great house of brands that we’re very proud of.”

In another first for Kohl’s, all 113 pieces (from 37 looks) in the LC Lauren Conrad show were made available for purchase simultaneously with the live streaming of the show, which took place in a trendy space near Manhattan’s High Line. (Michelle Gass, Kohl’s chief merchandising and chief customer officer, and second-in-command, sat next to this reporter while purchasing items she liked on her phone as models walked by.)


The show featured items like high-waisted trousers, faux fur vests, and cocktail dresses. The runway collection includes apparel, shoes, jewelry, and sunglasses from $12 to $200, and handbags priced from $120 to $300, with all items available for a limited time only. Conrad’s collaboration with Kohl’s began in 2009, and it’s a top performer among the private brands that generate about half of Kohl’s sales, which totaled $19 billion last year.

The effort to inject excitement into how Kohl’s markets its merchandise comes at a time of intense competition in women’s wear, and frankly, amid concerns that Kohl’s turnaround has already stalled. In its second fiscal quarter of 2015, Kohl’s reported a rise in comparable sales of 0.1%, which was better than Macy’s dismal numbers (M) but weaker than those of more direct rival J.C. Penney (JCP). Luckily for Kohl’s, women’s clothes, which account for 30% of its sales, were a bright spot, CEO Kevin Mansell told investors last month.

Lewis, who is a veteran of companies like HSN and Gap (GPS), was hired two years by Kohl’s to oversee its fashion operations in New York and re-energize brands that the company admits grew a bit dusty. Kohls’ other private clothing brands include the billion-dollar Sonoma line, Croft & Borrow, and Apt. 9. The company is betting that the buzz generated by Conrad’s presentation will benefit all of its labels.


The show, six months in the making, is a way for Kohl’s to reach a younger audience beyond its core suburban mom customer base, in addition to the tastemakers and media in New York, and Wall Street. One of Lewis’ mandates has been to raise Kohls’ profile within the fashion world, something a show at the industry’s biggest gathering of the year helps achieve. (Coach, (COH) which now offers much more apparel than before, is also presenting at Fashion Week in a runway show for the first time.)

These efforts come as Penney’s own house brands, St. John’s Bay in particular, are enjoying a resurgence and fast fashion retailers like H&M and Zara are attracting hordes of shoppers with their ability to quickly jump on trends. Gass and Mansell, who was also present, have each made it clear that Kohl’s needs to be more fun and dynamic to entice new shoppers.

While buzz, visibility, and the fun of runway shows, are all fine and good, Lewis said there is only one measure by which he’ll evaluate the event’s success: “Sales—always sales.”