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March 5, 2012 11:31 AM

Business

Where Jil Sander and Ron Johnson Meet, Simply

Jil Sander and Ron Johnson might be on opposite ends of the fashion spectrum, but they're still on the same wavelength. Just listen to what they're saying....

Jil Sander and Ron Johnson might be on opposite ends of the fashion spectrum, but they're still on the same wavelength. Just listen to what they're saying.

"There seems to be a craving for authenticity and clear visions," said Sander, who has long championed the minimalist aesthetic and who is returning again to the fashion house that bears her name. "Fashion is experimentation.... You have to break rules, if there is a good reason. And now is the right time to be daring; there are few new ideas."

And from his perch atop J.C. Penney, Johnson said last week: "Our success is tied to simplicity. Our new corporate strategy requires that we dramatically simplify our operations and realign our organization so that associates are in the right position to do their best work and deliver on our vision."

That vision involves cutting the massive chain's brands to 100 from 400 and setting up Johnson's Fair and Square program, which changes the Penney's pricing positioning just 12 times a year.

The challenges of Sander's new/old design gig and Johnson's adventure in high-stakes corporate turnaround and rebranding are, for sure, very different. Certainly neither is afraid to break some of the china as they go about their business.

I won't guess how Sander will fare third time around or if Johnson will successfully make Penney's "America's favorite store," but I do know both are playing with the powerful forces of clarity and that's a good starting point.

By emphasizing simplicity both are raging against a world that has become cluttered -- with everything from stores and digital stores to fashion shows and television shows about fashion shows.

A concise point of view will help Sander and Johnson be heard.

Whether or not these storied brands are successful going forward will depend on what they're saying when people actually tune in and how that message is received.

The trick seems to be consistency. The megabrands that have proven they have staying power are, if nothing else, on message all the time. Steve Jobs built Apple into a powerhouse constantly focusing on design, from the products to the ads and packaging. Ralph Lauren has built an empire on American romance, Calvin Klein on sex appeal, Hermÿs on craftsmanship.

Lululemon and Under Amour have stuck to their athletic lifestyle knitting, like Nike and Adidas before them, and succeeded.

Simplicity is a good way to cut through and get people's attention. With a million e-mails, Facebook posts and tweets coming in, it might be the only way.
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