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Macy's, J.C. Penney Vie for Hip, as in Youth Fashion, Not Replacement

Macy's has embraced more mainstream and celebrity brands of late from established â€" in some cases fairly described as aging â€" fashion plates as diverse as Tommy Hilfiger and Donald Trump, but now it's rolling out a new, urban-oriented fashion line from designer Rachel Roy.

However, the Roy move to grab a younger, hipper shopper is being contested, by J.C. Penney, itself a retailer trying to shake skepticism that it can run nearer the front of the fashion pack.

The Rachel Rachel Roy collection has been placed at about 80 select Macy's stores â€" and preparing to launch on the retailer's website -- in time for the fall fashion season in what the company characterizes as a "fresh and edgy take" on the designer's contemporary aesthetic. The line up includes sportswear, footwear and accessories that, more Macy's description: "embody an uptown meets downtown point of view."

Nicole Fischelis, Macy's fashion director for ready to wear, described the collection as feminine, individualistic and versatile, adding: "This is exactly the type of newness that gets the customer excited about fashion again."

In an interesting turn, Macy's positions the Roy line as something styled for the designer's younger sister emphasizing glamour and youthfulness apparently lost to a barely 30-something soon-to-be-ex-wife of a hip-hop businessman. And while little sister might not need to be rich to afford the collection, she'll have to lay down a couple of bucks as prices range from $59 to $299 for sportswear, $79 to $199 for footwear, $40 to $195 for jewelry and $69 to $109 for handbags.

Macy's and J.C. Penney are increasingly coming into competition and not just because they're now operating across the street from each other in New York's Herald Square, but also because they are the last representatives, in many communities, of the department store as it has been known.

Sure, J.C. Penney has been officially characterized as a mid-tier retailer, more akin to Sears than Macy's. However, it has been moving in the department store direction, particularly focusing on younger consumers as it tries to present itself less as it has been reputed -- as a haven for conservative, older, more suburban style sensibilities -- and more as an emporium emerging as a more fashion forward purveyor. The company doesn't hide its fondness for the classics, hence American Living, the Ralph Lauren-designed own-brand line it has lately featured, but it also is showcasing a new brand from Charlotte Ronson, not shying away from the fact that the designer's sister is Lindsey Lohan's sometime girlfriend. In fact, it embraced the link in a way, as sib Samantha deejayed a well-publicized party celebrating the Ronson brand in New York recently.

Commonly presented with a symbol not available on a typical computer keyboard as its middle term, what can be spelled out as I Heart Ronson was at the thumping core of the party held at the Chelsea Piers sports and entertainment complex on the Hudson River.

While the Ronson brand isn't new, the New York party provides an indication of how J.C. Penney wants to be viewed. It has paid attention to young people over the past decade, developing store-distributed magazines and, lately, web microsites to make itself more attractive to youth and its fashion preferences. When it opened its doors on Herald Square a few weeks ago, J.C. Penney upped the ante and showed it wants to stand up to New York's furious fashion scrutiny. Reviews have been mixed. For its part, Macy's needs to fight a sense that it is homogenizing department store fashion by homogenizing the department store experience across the country after changing the various chains it has acquired over to its own nameplate.

Thus, the appeal to youth isn't just about winning new customers, it's also about freshening fashion credentials.