We should all be braver, Lands’ End’s new CEO, Federica Marchionni, recently told Glamour magazine.
The Italian fashionista expressed that opinion before she learned how swiftly America’s culture war over abortion could scare a company pitching comfortable khakis and swimsuits that cover your bottom.
Marchionni interviewed feminist Gloria Steinem for a new feature called “Legends” that was published in the latest Lands’ End catalogue. Some customers, however, didn’t see a legend. They saw an abortion rights activist — even though the topic did not come up in the interview. No matter. Complaints from outraged antiabortion folk led Lands’ End to issue an apology and remove the feature from its website.
That, in turn, spurred a backlash from women who were angered by the company’s decision to pull the interview and rescind a commitment to donate to the Fund for Women’s Equality, which is backing a campaign dedicated to passing an Equal Rights Amendment.
Marchionni, who used to work for sexy Dolce & Gabbana, was hired to give Lands’ End a younger, edgier vibe. According to an interview she gave to Bloomberg.com, she works out of New York, not Dodgeville, Wis., where the company is headquartered. She might not know the extent of controversy behind reproductive rights in America — or know how quickly the goal of attracting new customers would be sacrificed to a customer base that includes Christian schools so offended by the Steinem interview that they threatened to stop buying uniforms from Lands’ End.
If a business decision like the Steinem interview doesn’t work out, then clearly it’s a bad business decision. But Lands’ End didn’t wait very long to find that out. It caved quickly, and now it’s caught between both sides of the abortion controversy.
Yet what if the company had chosen to highlight someone like Tim Tebow in its catalogue? He would certainly do justice to a Lands’ End no-iron shirt. And, for the sake of argument, let’s also call him a legend. As a football star, he was known for his Christian beliefs, proudly exhibited with on-the-field prayer. During the 2010 Super Bowl, Tebow and his mother were also featured in an antiabortion commercial that stirred plenty of controversy for CBS.
A Tebow fashion spread might certainly stir a similar controversy for Lands’ End. But the company should no more fold to pressure from people offended by his beliefs than they should fold to those offended by Steinem’s. That is, they shouldn’t fold if they are really honoring legends.
The notion of using celebrity to sell clothes is, of course, not new. “What becomes a legend most?” was a famous ad campaign for Blackglama furs that began in 1968. Over the years, it featured many famous women and a few famous men. Today, of course, fur is controversial. And so, too, might be someone like Barbra Streisand, who was one of the first celebrities featured. Today she is known for liberal politics as much as for her famous voice.
By definition, that distinction of being a legend applies to a person whose deeds and exploits have made a mark during their lifetime. Legends stand for something. And frankly, it is hard to do that without offending someone along the way. Think of celebrities, from Hollywood to Washington, from the world of sports to the world of religion. Who comes without some ideological baggage? Imagine a photo shoot of the pope modeling a Lands’ End polo shirt. That would have its own howling critics, on taste and political grounds.
It takes spine to stand up to the mob, no matter what their point of view. And there’s little bravery when profit is on the line.