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Mary-Kate and Ashley Have a New Collection -- and It Could Push J.C. Penney into the Black

Love 'em or love to hate 'em, you have to admire Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and their uncanny business sense. The young ladies leveraged their early fame as cast members of the 80s sitcom Full House from straight-to-DVD feature films for teenyboppers into an Olsen fashion empire estimated to be worth $1 billion. Their latest foray into an exclusive collaboration with J.C. Penney (JCP), dubbed Olsenboye, is certain to keep the cash rolling into their Alexander Wang handbags.

And the clothing (which hits the racks today) may also be just the shot Penney's fashion arm needs.

J.C. Penney has every reason to be optimistic. The Olsen's Mary-Kate and Ashley signature line for girls aged 4-14 lifted Walmart's profile with young fashionistas, providing them with trendy threads that were a far cry from the chain's bland (but cheap) basics. Their cosmetics and jewelry at similar, low price points, prompted such fanatic loyalty, one starlet was even caught shoplifting it from her local Walmart (WMT). And when the Olsens found out Walmart was using sweatshops to produce the apparel, the resulting petition brought positive change for both the girls and the store.

Taking a lesson from Hollywood's chameleon actors, the twins escaped being stereotyped as designers for tweens by creating an upscale collection for young women with The Row and a mid-priced line for men and women with Elizabeth & James. The latter was deemed "recession proof" by retail analysts despite pushing the limits of the median price points, and it succeeded where other celebrity brands, such as Mandy Moore's Mblem, tanked. These contributions added enough to their designer cred to land M-K and A a coveted spot in the hallowed Council of Fashion Designers of America, a prize served up by the venerable Diane von Furstenberg.

This collection for Penney's smartly riffs off the Olsen's high-end styles with softly gathered skirts, skinny pants, and flirty floral tops priced between $12.99 and $50. Peace signs, graffiti graphics, and loads of plaid up the appeal quotient for the younger buyer and dovetails nicely with the retailer's recent effort to market to teens. But perhaps the savviest addition to the Olsenboye is the shoes -- colorful "skips" sneakers tap the nautical craze, while laser cut ballet flats can be worn with everything (and command higher prices).

Taken together the pieces should build on the company's recent success. Total J.C. Penney sales in December fell 2.4 percent, but women's and men's apparel, accessories and shoes were the store's top performing merchandise divisions.

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