In the early 1980s, fashion credibility remained an issue. Seeking an answer, management came up with a marketing ploy disguised as "sourcing." If most name American designers remained hesitant to hostile , Penney would recruit foreign designers eager to expand into the giant U.S. market. Thus, in 1984, the company launched its first major international promotion, "A Salute to Italy." For a limited period, Penney stores would feature second- tier Italian designer clothes while celebrating the Italian culture. Any strongselling labels could then continue as part of the regular JCPenney assortment. Results were mixed. None of the Italian labels fared particularly well. Research could not pinpoint the culprit. Was it unsophisticated Penney shoppers or designer/manufacturers who were unsophisticated in selling to Penney shoppers?
Still, changes in the market were going Howell's wayand were an affirmation of Seibert and Neppl's original wisdom (moving from the "all-everything" store to more Penney-traditional assortments). The trend signaled in the 1970s had become the wave of the future in the early 1980s. Customers were in fact showing increased preference for more specialized stores with deep assortments.
(Also during this time, as Seibert monitored Howell from the retirement sideline and saw him at board meetings, he realized that the Seibert/Neppl concept for recapturing individualism had been set aside with disinterest by the new CEO.)
The international salute for 1985 featured designs from Great Britain. In a publicity coup, arrangements were made through the British consulate to have Princess Diana visit a JCPenney store near Washington, D.C. Since she was a world-class fashion icon, the press gave the story wide coverage. The night of the visit, Johnny Carson mentioned it in his monologue, adding that "Nancy Reagan was supposed to accompany Princess Di to JCPenney, but nobody could find a team of wild horses."
And fashion credibility remained an issue. In a short two years , however, the biggest company event since 1914 would have a far greater effect on merchandising than any sort of fashion twist.