Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Could James Dean save J. C. Penney?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
August 19, 2013 -- Updated 1051 GMT (1851 HKT)
Legend has it that James Dean's iconic T-shirt is from J. C. Penney. Penney's should use that association, says Bob Greene.
Legend has it that James Dean's iconic T-shirt is from J. C. Penney. Penney's should use that association, says Bob Greene.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: J. C. Penney is in trouble; could James Dean be the answer?
  • He says urban legend was that Dean wore Penney's plain, white Towncraft T-shirt
  • He says Penney should use that; adopt Dean as face of its brand, win back customers
  • Greene: Penney's, a stalwart of American retail, could break from pack with Dean's help

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- The answer to J. C. Penney's endless woes is right in front of its corporate eyes.

The answer is wearing a plain white T-shirt.

And the answer has a name:

James Dean.

Penney's -- the century-old chain of midmarket department stores that were once a solid downtown presence in big cities and small towns in every state -- is floundering.

It seems to be in utter turmoil, and has been for a while. Some members of its board of directors have been at each other's throats; one of those directors, William Ackman, resigned last week after publicly upbraiding the others. The CEO's office might as well have a revolving door. Last fiscal year, according to The Wall Street Journal, Penney's lost $1 billion as sales dropped 25%.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

After a previous CEO was fired, the company took out advertisements apologizing to its customers for what the shopping experience had become. The in-store staff was reported to be demoralized and confused as the once steadfast and prosperous chain struggled to figure out what it even is.

What Penney's needs right now, more than anything else, is some defining.

Enter James Dean.

He died in an automobile crash in 1955 at the age of 24. He had made just three movies: "Rebel Without a Cause," "East of Eden" and "Giant."

But his mystique and glamour have only become bigger over the decades. James Dean, now and forever, is the very picture of youthful cool. He never grew old -- so he never grows old.

What does this have to do with J. C. Penney?

For years after Dean's death, there were young men all over the United States who went to Penney's for one reason:

They believed -- the rumor was widespread -- that the T-shirt for which Dean was known was a Penney Towncraft T-shirt.

Plain. White. No logo. No words on it. No special tailoring.

It was what James Dean -- born in Marion, Indiana, smack dab in the middle of J. C. Penney country -- favored.

Or, at any rate, that was the legend -- what today might be called an urban legend. It was passed from one guy to another, without anyone being quite sure where he'd first heard it. Back then -- I can vouch for this -- young men fervently believed it, and it brought them to Penney's. Penney's, at least in their minds, was James Dean Land.

Zac Efron reminds co-star of James Dean
The downfall of JCPenney's CEO
The downfall of JCPenney's CEO
What went wrong at JCPenney

Their conviction about Dean and the Penney Towncraft T-shirt was like the unshakable conviction among young Americans in the early 1960s that the lyrics to "Louie Louie" were dirty. Because of the pervasiveness of the belief, it became accepted reality. To quote from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" -- which starred another beloved James, James Stewart -- "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Penney's should aggressively embrace this. It should print the legend. It should pay whatever it takes to the estate of James Dean to purchase the rights to an image of him in a classic white T-shirt.

And he should become the face of the chain.

What has it got to lose? Nothing else is working. It has struggled with various strategies to lure shoppers, especially young shoppers. It all has failed.

But James Dean is everlastingly young, perpetually rebellious. "Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse" is a phrase often associated with him, although he did not originate it. If Penney's were to make Dean the consistent image of the company, the stores themselves might find a fresh chance at life in the victory lane.

Let Walmart and Kmart and Target and Sears and Macy's and Sam's Club and all the faceless stores in all the faceless malls be just that: faceless. Penney's needs to separate itself from the pack.

James Dean, and that T-shirt, are the antithesis of, even the antidote to, so much of what ails contemporary culture. Frantic self-promotion and garish logos and slogans plastered on every surface and the "look-at-me" attitude of modern life -- what is a more stark rejection of that than a plain white T-shirt?

If you can get customers into your store to buy one thing, they just may stay to buy other things. The trick is getting those customers to come back through the front door. James Dean did it once for Penney's, without even trying. The chain ought to roll the dice and see if he can do it again.

As it is, the recent face of Penney's has been the face of its feuding board of directors, bickering with each other as if they are auditioning for a movie called "Rebels Without a Clue."

As James Dean once cried out from a movie screen: "You're tearing me apart!"

That has to come to an end. The stores deserve to survive and thrive, to be the reliable part of American life that they were when they were steady on their feet. Right now, J. C. Penney's problem is that no one really knows what it stands for.

Let it decide it wants to stand for that which is eternal and cool. And let it turn for help to He Who Is Eternally Cool.

Would it be a risk for Penney's? Would it be taking a big chance?

Sure.

But, as Dean himself once reportedly said: "Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today."

That goes for businesses, too.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT