J.C. Penney Ups Fashion Quotient With New Ryegrass Brand


Retailers that cater to budget-minded consumers have been elevating their apparel offerings with better design and higher-quality materials. Walmart recently hired as creative director Brandon Maxwell, who designs an eponymous collection that’s a favorite of New York Fashion Week, to breathe style into several of its house brands.

Of course, Target Corp.

has been advocating for style for the masses since it sold is first iconic tea kettle by architect Michael Graves in 1999. The retailer has launched more than 10 apparel brands that each do $1 billion in sales or more. Cat & Jack, a children’s brand, did more than $2 billion in volume in 2020.

Penney’s in-house design team has been working overtime to update its existing brands and reimagine its fashion business as a somewhat elevated version of its former self.

Simon Property Group

and Brookfield Property Partners bought J.C. Penney out of bankruptcy last year, giving the troubled department store got a reprieve. Whether the retailer survives will depend on how much capital Penney’s co-owners pump into the company to repair its dated stores and inefficient supply chain.

While Kohl’s chases consumers with active wear, Penney’s is launching Ryegrass, an apparel collection that flirts with the feminine aesthetics of designers such as Jason Wu and luxury brands such as Chloe.

“We knew we could do more fashion brands, but didn’t have the right to do that yet,” said J.C. Penney executive vice president and chief merchandising officer Michelle Wlazlo in an exclusive interview. “We had to fix the foundation first. Ryegrass is coming about because of all the work we’ve done. We got our brands, such as Worthington, to a place that’s very solid and with strong positioning and strong sales. That’s earned us the right to launch a brand that’s more elevated. You can’t do that unless you’ve shown the other brands are in order.

“We love our customer so much at Penny’s,” said Wlazlo, who was previously an executive at Target. “Customers told us as we’ve put more fashion into our brands, that she likes that. At the same time, if we pick up a more style-conscious customer that hasn’t thought about J.C. Penney for fashion, that would be great, but it’s really for our customer.”

Ryegrass launches today in 400 of J.C. Penney’s 672 stores.

Wlazlo said J.C. Penney’s customers like overtly feminine styles. “She wants to have that prettiness,” she added. “She’s style-conscious and wants to be fashion-forward. She shouldn’t have to invest [a large] amount of money. I’d be happy if she bought Ryegrass head-to-toe, but she may want to mix and match with our other brands.”

Penney’s is giving all of its private label brands the once over, and has launched several new brands in addition to Ryegrass. Stylist, a leisure brand, and three swimwear labels are new to the portfolio. Penney’s has refined the giant Arizona brand for juniors and men.

“We have work in men’s and kids coming up, but we focused on women’s first,” Wlazlo said. “We also launched several brands in the home area. We have 10-plus brands that do significant volume, which are all designed by our in-house design team.We launched some brands already and have quite a few still coming We’re solidifying the brands we have to offer more choice throughout portfolio.”

Wlazlo said she wanted Ryegrass to be designed in house so that Penney’s could have control over every element of the brand. “We wanted it to feel very special,” she added. “The fabrics we’re using, the picot edging and French seaming are things we don’t generally do in our own brands. We’re using dressmaker craftsmanship.”

In addition, Ryegrass items feature satin, crepe satin, metallic jacquards and lace. “There’s genuine leather, and it’s like butter,” Wlazlo said. “We needed to use fabrics that define romantic luxury.”

Details are also really important, hence the covered buttons, micro-pleating, and ruching. “The complex details go back to dressmaker craftsmanship,” Wlazlo said. “It’s more elevated, but still approachable with the right value proposition. It’s more expensive, but still a great value. These brands are working because of our strong partnerships with out national brands. In most physical stores, we’re positioning Ryegrass next to ANA and Levi’s.” 

Ryegrass will be launched through J.C. Penney’s social media channels, online channels and in-store elements. The latter have been enhanced with the use of tables and more mannequins. “Showcasing and storytelling has improved at J.C. Penney,” Wlazlo said.

J.C. Penney will strategically utilize a fully digital marketing approach for the launch of Ryegrass. “This brand isn’t something you would typically think would come from JCPenney and we felt it was important for the brand to show up authentically,” Wlazlo said.

The retailer engaged a group of influencers whose “beautiful and feminine style matched the woman who would be interested in wearing Ryegrass,” she said. “We allowed them to select their favorite pieces so that they could touch, feel, and experience the quality and details firsthand, letting them tell the brand story for us on their social platforms.”

Ryegrass will be also be featured on JCPLive, the retailer’s livestream shopping experience that takes place every Friday. The segment will be hosted by influencers, Carol, @caroldemauro, and Sabine, @thebstinger on Friday May, 28, at 11 a.m. CT. JCPLive is simul-streamed on the J.C. Penney Facebook and YouTube channels as well on JCPenney.com/Live. Ryegrass is also being introduced on TikTok with editorial style photos and video that will stand out from the rest of J.C. Penney’s assortment, Wlazlo said.


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