Sunday, October 16, 2011

American Apparel had their chance to be cool, and blew it

In August 2011, American Apparel (AA) launched a plus size model search called The Next BIG Thing. Women were asked to submit their photos and the public would vote for the new face of their plus size division.

It all sounded pretty cool to begin with. I was excited... AA is finally branching out to plus size women? Hooray! But then I read the call for models. As you might expect from AA, the call made use of predictable and somewhat demeaning language.
Calling curvy ladies everywhere! Our best-selling Disco Pant (and around 10 other sexy styles) are now available in size XL, for those of us who need a little extra wiggle room where it counts. We’re looking for fresh faces (and curvaceous bods) to fill these babies out. If you think you’ve got what it takes to be the next XLent model, send us photos of you and your junk to back it up.
A couple of problems with their call out:
  1. Wait - they’re only making 10 styles in size XL? That’s not very many. Also, what exactly is “XL”? According to the AA size chart, XL is a size 12/14, also known as the AVERAGE size of American women.
  2. Your language is ridiculous. Extra wiggle room? Curvaceous bods? Your junk? Why does everything related to plus size women need to come packaged in stupid language like “booty-licious”? 
Well, their call for models didn’t just seem awkward and offensive to me. It caught the attention of Nancy Upton, a size 12 gal from Dallas, Texas. She entered the contest as a protest, submitting pictures of herself in alluring poses while eating chicken, chocolate, pie and even bathing in a tub of ranch dressing. Her submission simply said, “I’m a size 12. I just can’t stop eating.”

The public loved Nancy. When the contest was over, she won the popular vote by far. But American Apparel didn’t like that the winner was mocking their contest. So AA’s Creative Director, Iris Alonzo, wrote a letter to Nancy which included the following ridiculous sentences:
It’s a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of light-hearted language, and that “bootylicous” was too much for you to handle.  
Oh — and regarding winning the contest, while you were clearly the popular choice, we have decided to award the prizes to other contestants that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company.
Hot damn! We love Nancy!
So Nancy was shot down by American Apparel. Big surprise. But then something interesting happened. Nancy posted the harsh letter from Iris onto her blog and it went viral. American Apparel was suddenly swimming in bad press and Iris had some serious back-pedaling to do to.

Iris apologized to Nancy and offered to fly her and a friend out to LA to tour the company headquarters and discuss how AA could better market to plus size women. Once again, I had a glimmer of hope that maybe AA could be kinda cool.

Nancy and her friend met with the creative team who organized The Next BIG Thing contest and had an interesting discussion about marketing to plus size women. American Apparel exec’s fed the girls cream puffs (the irony of which was not lost on Nancy), and Iris even took Nancy and her friend out drinking. Things were looking up. “I had a REALLY good feeling about where the company would go after my trip,” wrote Nancy on her blog.

Over the next few days, Nancy and Iris exchanged a few more emails, and then Iris fucked it all up again.

On October 4, Iris wrote:
Marsha and I were trying to remember what we even talked about, and amidst all of the late night fun and cream puffs (compounded by the fact that we couldn’t re-watch the video of the meeting), we can hardly remember what was said at all.
I think Nancy summarizes my feelings about that email pretty well. On her blog she wrote:
This company spent thousands of dollars flying Shannon and I to LA, to meet with their team and they can’t even remember what we discussed. Nor do they care to. They want me to write something happy go-lucky about how positive our meeting was for women everywhere, and then they want to sign off on it, you know, in case I forget anything.
As it stands today, this whole debacle is SO TOTALLY OVER to Nancy. She is done with AA, writing “[Those] three sentences of that email tell more truth about what went on in this bizarro adventure than anything I saw in that factory or those offices.”

So, American Apparel had numerous chances to do something cool here, and they blew it every time. They insulted plus size women in their call to models, they shunned the popular winner of their contest and then insulted her in an email, tried to make it up to her only to flub it all again.

American Apparel, you clearly need advice, so I’m going to offer you a suggestion: Don’t be afraid of change. Or fat girls.

AA: Don't fear fat girls with chicken!
Your stocks are in the crapper, your CEO is dealing with multiple sexual harassment lawsuits, nobody likes your ugly hipster clothes anymore, and everyone’s sick of your sexist advertisements. Clearly, your company is in need of a shake-up. SOMETHING needs to change and I’m not going to pretend I know what that is, but maybe this whole thing with Nancy could have been exactly the change you need.

When your company is already down pretty low, you have nothing to lose by trying something new. Who knows, maybe you could have captured the hearts of North American women sized 12 and up, opening your store to millions of new customers. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and other stores like Forever 21 and Target have already realized that the “fattening of America is a big business opportunity.”

In light of this whole debacle with Nancy, I fear that American Apparel’s destiny is to fade away as soon as hipster style falls out of fashion. But I’m OK with that, because time and time again AA has proved themselves to be a company that only cares about making clothing for slim, young, beautiful hipster women. Good luck making a profit each year with such a tiny demographic.

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