Can JCPenney bounce back from its 'no sales' misfire?

JCPenney's 'no sales' gimmick didn't work out, to say the least. Now, JCPenney is looking for a fresh start with designer collaborations – and so far, things are looking up. 

David Pardo/Daily Press/AP/File
People pass in and out of the JCPenney department store in the Mall of Victor Valley in Victorville, Calif.Initial reviews are positive for the retailer's attempts at rebranding by forming partnerships with designer brands.

Given all the backlash JCPenney weathered over eliminating sales in favor of "everyday low prices" (a policy they've since rescinded), you could almost predict that the retail giant would have to do something risky and daring to win disgruntled shoppers back — something "fresh," if you will.

So here comes JCPenney looking for some retail love by way of collaboration with Canadian apparel brand Joe Fresh. The line officially hits stores Friday, but fashionistas are already taking notice — the tops and shorts include bold blasts of color and assertive patterns that walk the tightrope between preppy chic and hipster spark. And it's not the only collaboration JCPenney has planned for 2013 and beyond.

Yet if embattled JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson — who has seen share prices plunge 60% in the last year under his leadership — thinks collaborations can reinvigorate the chain, he might want to call his fellow suits over at Target. While the latest Prabal Gurung line has been wildly popular, such collaborations haven't always been slam dunks with consumers. Not even big names like Jason Wu, Marc Jacobs, and Oscar de la Renta could entice Target shoppers to buy during its Neiman March collection; they came, they saw, they ignored. Why?

Chicago-based fashion expert and author Amy Tara Koch thinks that JCPenney can succeed, so long as the company focuses on the quality-price tipping point, without, of course sacrificing the former. She shopped the pre-Prabal Gurung Target collaborations and recalls: "The fabric was bad; it was such a cheesy interpretation of runway, very lowbrow. It was poorly made and didn't strike the right fashion chord. It was just crap." But what she's seen of JCPenney's Joe Fresh line, she loves, and thinks it holds great promise: "The styling in these ads is amazing," she says.

In browsing the collection, we agree with Koch. For the particularly adventurous, there's the Joe Fresh Crochet Shorts for $39 and available in sizes 2-14. Made of 100% cotton with a hook-and-bar closure and scalloped hemline, the shorts walk a playful line between lacy and racy. As for cute tops, we like the Joe Fresh Boxy Shirt for $29 available in Navy or White and in sizes S to XL.

Koch also points to two other collaborations that have her intrigued: The Pearl line by Georgina Chapman of Marchesa and Duro Olowu's "riot of color" line. The latter, she adds, could well have "home run" written all over it.

"I'm most excited about Duro Olowu; it combines crazy prints and African vibrancy," Koch says, adding: "I have to get into JCPenney because I want to buy some of this stuff. This spring is all about color and this African artist has a cult-like following. He's known among the fashion posherati, and he's the top tier. He'll translate into the mass market really well."

Or so Johnson and the 1,100-store Penny chain would hope. Tuesday's Los Angeles Times story about the JCPenney collaborations paints a picture of a struggling company with a commander trying his best to keep calm in the face of dismal sales, legal woes with Macy's, and negative press.

Yet, it is springtime. And if there's ever a season for turning over a new leaf, this is it. Johnson calls it the "transformation" in the Times piece. But what do you think? Take a look at the collaborations highlighted in this piece and let us know if you think JCPenney may suffer a continued bad case of the retail blahs, or if JCP has the goods to rise above.

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