How Fashion Makes Its Way From the Runway to the Rack J.C. Penney's 'Trend Director' Interprets Style for the Masses; 'It Is All About the Turtleneck' By VANESSA O'CONNELL In a quiet, windowless conference room in Plano, Texas, Cyndie Washburn-Nester huddles over a computer screen, scrutinizing designer clothing on the New York runways more than 1,500 miles away. Focusing on trends for fall 2007, she zeroes in on women's turtlenecks. "When you look at the fall runway, there are a few cardigans," she says, scrolling through style Web sites showing images of runway models at New York fashion week. After looking through collections by designers such as Nanette Lepore, Oscar de la Renta, Abaete and Alice Roi, Ms. Nester sees a definite trend: "Certainly, it is all about the turtleneck." Ms. Nester is trend director for women's apparel at J.C. Penney Co., the country's third-largest department store with $17 billion in revenue last year. Her observations of trends from New York's eight-day Fashion Week are an important link in the fashion food chain. It's Ms. Nester's job to filter out all the high-fashion noise, and figure out which styles will play to the mainstream, middle-income shoppers at Penney's 1,037 stores. "These cute jumper dresses we're seeing on the runway, with so many pinafores -- the turtleneck really looks cute under all of those styles," she says. Trend spotters at Penney rivals such as Dillard's Inc., Kohl's Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. are also monitoring New York's runway shows this week to see where styles are heading. Because they don't buy designer collections, these mass-market apparel stores generally aren't invited to see the designer runway collections live in New York. Instead, they comb through style Web sites, from Style.com to New York Magazine's nymag.com, to see the trends in real time. Next week, Penney's trend forecasters will more-closely review the runway looks, using two online sites, WGSN and Style Sight. The sites allow them to screen all clothing of a particular type that was shown on the runways, and lets them zero in on, say, every jumpsuit, jean and jacket that appeared on the runway. Monitoring runway trends has become increasingly important for mass retailers as consumers have become more fashion savvy and demanding and retailers compete to grab a bigger slice of the upper-middle fashion market with "cheap chic" looks. As recently as 10 years ago, Penney and other mass retailers waited as long as two years after runway fashions arrived in department stores before their customers would expect to see similar looks. But the Internet and the arrival of fast fashion retailers such as Swedish clothier Hennes & Mauritz AB, known as H&M, and Zara in the U.S. has forced American retailers to speed up the entire fashion cycle. Penney's goal now is to have its own stylish goods in stores at the same time as corresponding runway looks are sold in exclusive boutiques. Under CEO Mike Ullman, Penney has made shortening its turnaround time from sketch to store delivery a priority. If it pushes hard, it can get new fashion-inspired merchandise into its stores in as little as 60 days. More typically, its turnaround time is 40 weeks. Penney's goal is to get the average cycle down to 17 weeks, the average for fast-fashion retailers such as H&M. Last year, Penney doubled the number of its in-house designers to 100. It also created a trend team: In June it recruited Ms. Nester, former fashion director at Retail Brand Alliance, the parent company of Brooks Brothers and Adrienne Vittadini. And a year ago it hired Karolyn Wangstad, a 30-year fashion veteran who pioneered the trend effort at Target and spent the last five years at Saks Inc. The chain now creates roughly 35,000 items of clothing a year -- roughly half for women. The stakes are high. Penney says 45% of its revenue now is from sales of apparel and other goods it creates in house. The consequences of misreading a trend mean bigger markdowns on clothing and lower margins. Some large retailers are putting 5% to 10% of their clothing on a fast fashion cycle, hoping it will move quickly. But "it is more expensive to deliver, and you can run into a problem bringing in the wrong trend," says Erika Serow, partner at Bain & Co. consultancy in New York. This week, Penney was putting finishing touches on its early fall 2007 clothing, which will ship to stores in August. The company had already made the risky bet that turtlenecks would reign over crewnecks and other shirt styles as the quintessential layering piece for fall. It is planning to present the style in a multitude of colors, with prominent floor space and plenty of plugs online. But Monday, a top Penney executive asked Ms. Nester for confirmation that turtlenecks would appeal to shoppers, even in a warm month like August. "We do a very limited number of styles and buy them in a big way. It really needs to be right," Ms. Nester says. She and Ms. Wangstad stayed glued to the Internet to get clues from the shows. If they were wrong about turtlenecks, there was still time to make adjustments for the second round of fall clothing that will hit stores in October. "We really have to pick our shots," Ms. Nester says. "What are the most important things? What can we capitalize on?" On Monday, browsing through a Donegar trend book, Ms. Wangstad pointed to high-waisted pants. Ms. Fields, the consultant, had told her "those pants were all over Tokyo." Putting two and two together, Ms. Nester said she had also seen high-waisted skirts on the runways this week. "No more muffin tops," she said, referring to the belly rolls that low-cut pants tend to display. Penney plans to have at least one new high-waist pant look for the fall, and is moving some of the waists up in skirts, to go with shorter jackets. In addition to the turtlenecks, Ms. Nester was also looking for other fall trends from New York's Fashion Week. She closely monitored skirt and shorts hemlines, noticing a lot of very short lengths, often worn with tights. "We're seeing lengths really rise," she said. While not for the older Penney customer, the trend might translate for its Mixit brand aimed at young women "with a nightlife." While looking at jackets from Carolina Herrera, Diane von Furstenberg and others, Ms. Nester notices many are cut above the hip. "Sure, there are some boyfriend jackets -- and we'll keep an eye on that -- but they are few and far between," she notes, confirming her notions about where styles are heading. In most cases, "it's short." By Wednesday, Ms. Nester said she felt somewhat reassured by the turtlenecks on the runway. The clincher: when trend setter Marc Jacobs sent turtlenecks down the runway to accompany his tailored coat jackets Monday night. "His collection looks different. It is classically derived," Ms. Nester said yesterday. "It really makes me feel great. The message is: You are right on target. We're on the same page."