The Lyn St. James promotion would seem to indicate that, for such a big, traditional company, JCPenney really had its progressive act together. But retailing is a yin-yang business if there ever was one. Just to survive, things naturally in tension must work in practical harmony. If events at a retail chain are not both earthbound and heaven-sent and if men are not in touch with their feminine sides (and vice versa), the business is in trouble. And in 1992, things were falling further out of balance at Penneyalthough almost nobody understood this at the time.
After all, the Penney Company now resided in a glorious and vast new headquarters and in two years they would set sales and profit records. But there is no better example of the real condition of the company than the roller -coaster ride of a young genius named Anthony Mark Hankins. Altogether, it seemed to at first confirm and then strongly refute the company's new marketing theme:
"JCPenney, We Love Your Style!"
First of all, Hankins's rsum was controversial . He claimed five impressive stops in just a couple of years after high school, including Yves St. Laurent. While he probably did most of what he listedhe could accomplish a lot very quicklyhe also probably pushed it a bit. He was only a kid, after allan exuberant 23-year-old African-American at the time he gave his introductory fashion show for Penney brass.
One thing no one could fault, however, was the cleverness of his career plan. In the couture world, designers are often criticized for being impractical . But Hankins wished to embrace the whole business. So after his design training he wangled a job with JCPenney in the field, spending two years working as a factory inspector for the quality assurance department. He added a workmanlike knowledge of apparel manufacturing and quality control to his dream of designing for working women, women of modest means, the "urban contemporary woman " (but not just women of color ).
Hankins worked in greater Los Angeles, where he was well received and well treated by utterly decent, hardworking Penney associates . He also got along quite well with the factory personnel and managers with whom he dealt every week (people problems would not appear until he got to the Plano headquarters). At night and on weekends when he wasn't in the factories, he developed a stunning portfolio. And he was learning how to deliver fashion and quality at a price, knowing that the customer he envisioned defined the majority of Penney shoppers.
Advised by his Penney field colleagues, he finally arranged to meet with Penney's vice president of product development, Don Scaccia, who was scheduled to be in L.A. on business. But Scaccia stood him up without a word, and Hankins also drew polite indifference from Jim Hailey, the head of Penney's women's division whom he managed to get on the phone. Were the Scaccia and Hailey responses connected? Hankins had no idea, but when other approaches fizzled as well, the designer's heart sunk. Then a quality assurance manager suggested one more phone call. Bruce Ackerman was now Penney's manager of minority supplier development in Dallas. He might be interested.
Hankins fired himself up and, on the phone and through the mail, gave the pitch of his young life. The manager bit. Ackerman was also part of a task force formed to explore ways of attracting urban, African-American women customersan effort that higherranking Penney merchandising executives such as Hailey and Scaccia seemed unaware of. Hankins, although he wasn't technically a supplier, seemed a good fit. Ackerman set up meetings.
Tony Haake, vice president of QA, gave Hankins a paid leave and covered his travel expenses. Anthony was on. And he was a refreshing hit from the first meeting with ground-level buyers and staff. They lapped up his designs, ideas, personality, and energy. Yes, he was arrogant , but personably so. Everybody at that level also thought the overall conceptthe marriage of Anthony's designs, specs , and know-howwas sound.
As the meetings moved up the merchandising organizational chart, however, problems developed. A merchandise manager seemed sincerely perplexed when she remarked, "Omigosh, what can I say? You've really got exciting work here, Anthony. But here you are, and way over there is JCPenney. And what I wonder is, how do we get from way over there to here?" Then a fashion coordinator drew Ackerman aside at the end of another meeting and in a low voice said, "No question, Anthony is a talent. But he isn't doing himself any good coming across like some freak show. Start teaching him the JCPenney way, Bruce."
Still, an Anthony groundswell was building, and Ackerman artfully banked it toward the one person who could make something happen for Hankins. He was able to arrange a meeting with the highest-ranking woman in the company, merchandising senior vice president Gale Duff-Bloom.
Hankins had been wearing a chartreuse jacket and an ascot to meetings, and one day Ackerman's boss crossly pulled Bruce aside to complain. "Why can't you tell Anthony to wear a suit to these meetings?" he wondered.
"He's a designer," Ackerman replied. "Why would I tell him what to wear?"
Another word about corporate attire at JCPenney (at that time). The suits wore suits. The mail droids wore suits. Among the parked sample cases in the reps' lounges, always suits. From research to human resources, from marketing to merchandising, from communications to information services: suits. From Armani to Brooks Brothers, everybody wore suits . It was a Penney tradition, a Penney law. Again and again it was heard that wearing a sports coat would corrupt one's thinking.
Despite Ackerman's protection, this suit prejudice eventually communicated itself to Hankins, and he was careful to wear a suit for the Duff-Bloom meetinga brightly accessorized circa 1932 suit he had picked up at an L.A. retro fashion store.
"Nice suit!" beamed Duff-Bloom as they shook hands. Respecting the value of the executive's time, Anthony had streamlined his pitch, and in 15 minutes he made his sale. "Okay, make the arrangements. Do it all through this office, and try to keep the cost down. And good luck, Anthony," she finished, adding a warm handshake, a smile, and a sigh. "They won't be the easiest audience."
To present himself and his designs to the merchandising brass, Hankins needed to produce a fashion show with virtually no budget. The solution was found in equal parts of chutzpah, earnestness, and scintillating designs. Tony Haake provided some walking-around money, and Hankins and Ackerman put together a team of Penney volunteers. In Los Angeles, manufacturers familiar with Hankins were easily sold on providing 50 samples at no cost.