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JCPenney’s the Latest Retailer to Hang its Hat on Activewear

In the wake of CEO Jill Soltau’s exit, JCPenney is scrambling for answers under its new ownership on how to revive the century-old department store. Like other department store and apparel contemporaries, the retailer is now hoping that it can capitalize on the activewear craze with the redesign of its own brands.

On Thursday, JCPenney relaunched its Xersion activewear assortment with the combination of a newly designed breathable fabric and moisture-wicking technology, marking the first time the mass merchant has revamped the line since its introduction in 2008.

Designed by JCPenney’s in-house product development and design team, Xersion activewear is built for performance and designed to give customers the “motivation to move,” regardless of size or fitness level, it said.

“We are kicking off 2021 in the best way possible—offering new and improved merchandise to our customers,” Michelle Wlazlo, JCPenney executive vice president and chief merchant, said in a statement. “We know it can be challenging for customers to find activewear that delivers on performance, technology, design, comfort, and style, and the new Xersion product is sure to impress with updated details to help our customers meet their wellness goals.”

Within the Xersion launch, JCPenney is introducing its Everair fabrication, which combines breathable technology and Quick-Dri wicking designed for optimal air flow to help the wearer remain cool and dry. The newly redesigned Xersion products are aimed at allowing customers to fully focus on their activity with a distraction-free workout, with the help of benefits such as sweat-proof pockets, reflective and anti-odor elements, venting, thumbholes, compression, built-in mesh and chafe-free seams.

The line’s women’s sports bras and high-waist leggings stay in place with three compression levels—studio, move and train—to match the consumer’s workout intensity, and are offered in matching monochromatic or color-blocking styles.

Available in all stores and on jcp.com, the size-inclusive line is designed to be worn by the whole family, and is available in boys, boys husky, girls, girls plus, women’s sizes XS-3X and men’s sizes S-XXL, priced between $12-$70.

During Soltau’s tenure, JCPenney has already begun to shift its focus to softlines categories such as apparel and soft textiles for home, in lieu of the hardlines categories that the company pivoted toward throughout the 2010s.

In November, the department store debuted its own version of an athleisure-leaning brand called Stylus, which offers a variety of garments such as cardigans, easy pants, jumpsuits and T-shirts that can be mixed and matched. The Stylus brand size assortment ranges from XS to 3X, with pricing from $26 to $89 across all sizes. JCPenney said the line uses ultra-soft fabrics that offer unrestricted movement and a relaxed fit, with modern color palettes based on designed details including tapered legs, curved hems, and twist-front tops.

JCPenney says the Xersion relaunch is the first of several planned new installments in 2021.

The activewear and athleisure categories, which gained significant traction in recent years, only grew in popularity as more consumers shopped for comfort during the Covid-19 pandemic. Retail market intelligence platform Edited reported in December that sweatpants sellouts leapt 81 percent year-over-year.

Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry advisor, sports at NPD Group, wrote in a blog post last month, “comfort footwear brands and products will remain strong” and highlighted that “sports bras, fleece and sweatpants rule the day,” further signaling that 2021 will be good to the athleisure and activewear category.

Retailers have been following suit as the category has gained steam. In the fall, Kohl’s announced a new private-label activewear line, FLX, set to debut in March amid a goal to increase athleisure and activewear to 30 percent of total company sales. As part of the push, the department store also collaborated with Adidas and Zoe Saldana to launch a collection of active apparel, footwear and accessories for women on Kohls.com and in nearly 500 Kohl’s stores.

That same month, PacSun, which has traditionally been a lifestyle chain, announced it is expanding into the area as well with the launch of PacSun Active, a new category “inspired by the importance of wellness and inclusivity.” And Madewell introduced its first-ever athleisure collection called Make Weekends Longer (MWL), a 25-piece collection of sweatpants and sweatshirts for sizes XXS-XXL that can be worn as matching sets or be paired with the brand’s denim.

Although JCPenney, whose retail and operational components were acquired by its top landlords, Simon Property Group and Brookfield Asset Management, no longer has to operate under bankruptcy constraints, the department store still has a long road ahead. With the search for a new permanent CEO serving as the company’s top priority, a successful turnaround is likely to need much more than reinventing an individual category.

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