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Booty-ful or beautiful?

Breaking: American Apparel officially responds to plus-sized model search winner Nancy Upton (and it ain't booty-ful)

Austin Photo Set: News_dan solomon_nancy upton_September 2011_pool
Photo by Shannon Skloss

Nancy Upton made international news when she took photos of herself gorging on ice cream and bathing in ranch dressing in response to American Apparel’s call for “booty-ful” plus-sized models to be their “next BIG thing.”

When we spoke to her last week, she told us that she didn’t expect to hear from the company, but if she did, “It’ll be one of two things: Either ‘I think we’re in agreement that this isn’t a good match,’ or really polite and super-enthusiastic – ‘we love what you did with your pictures, you made such a social statement!’ and not mean any of it, but feel like they had to do it.”

As it happens, there was a third option: sending out a press release promising that they’d rather offer the modeling opportunity to someone who they “feel truly exemplif[ies] the idea of beauty inside and out,” which we can infer excludes Nancy Upton. Oh, snap!

The letter, signed by AA creative director Iris Alonzo, goes on to insist that the “that’s not our demographic” quote reported by April Flores (and that had originally galled Upton) was totally said by some rando whose name they can’t remember and whom they’re completely disavowing now, which some (i.e., us) might say is a tad convenient given the recent bad press.

Alonzo also dismisses much of Upton’s anger at the company by pointing out the number of people that American Apparel employs, and the number of jobs that the expansion into plus-sized clothing will create. Which, you know, fair point – except that no part of Upton’s critique touched on their employment stats, and we’re hoping that Alonzo’s point isn’t that a company that provides a lot of jobs is immune from criticism of their other roles in the culture. Otherwise, yikes, stop griping about Wal-Mart and Starbucks, kids.

Alonzo’s letter – reprinted in full below – is surprising, mostly because it’s not the usual corporate double-speak. And that, itself, is telling. When we talked to Upton, a point that came up was that people observing her campaign tended to treat the company and the model as though they had an equal amount of power in the discussion. Clearly Alonzo didn’t feel the need to hold back in her response, which is interesting. After talking to Upton, who was bleary-eyed from school, rehearsal and an unanticipated amount of media attention when we spoke, it’s hard for us not to view her as the underdog here – which makes Alonzo, American Apparel, and the angry response they offered seem kind of like a bully.

Ultimately, of course, Upton is an adult who has proven herself more than capable of speaking on her own behalf – as she most likely will whenever she reads the letter (which was CC’d to members of the media who’d previously covered the story). At the very least, though, she can rest assured that she got under at least one person’s skin at the company – even if, in the wake of the letter, they seem a lot more likely to double-down on the things that offended her than they are to incorporate her position, and that of her fans and supporters, into this new push.

The full text of American Apparel’s response:

Dear Nancy Upton,

My name is Iris Alonzo and I am a Creative Director at American Apparel. Along with four other women, I conceived of the Next BIG Thing campaign for American Apparel. Firstly, we are very sorry that we offended you. Our only motive was to discover and celebrate the many beautiful XL women around the globe who enjoy our brand, and to promote the recent size additions to our collection. Nothing more, nothing less. We would also like to assure you that no one is getting fired over your stunt, as you expressed concern about in a recent interview. We are fortunate to have a great boss who trusts and believes in our instincts and ideas, and we are still very excited about all of our Next BIG Things and looking forward to meeting our new XL brand ambassadors.

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. While we may be a bit TOO inspired by Beyoncé, and do have a tendency to occasionally go pun-crazy, we try not to take ourselves too seriously around here. I wonder if you had taken just a moment to imagine that this campaign could actually be well intentioned, and that my team and I are not out to offend and insult women, would you have still behaved in the same way, mocking the confident and excited participants who put themselves out there? Maybe you'll find it interesting that in addition to simply responding to customer demand and feedback, when you're a vertically-integrated company, actual jobs are created from new size additions. In this case, for the XL women who will model them, industrial workers that make them, retail employees that sell them and beyond. That's the amazing reality of American Apparel's business.

Though I could spend hours responding to your accusations and assumptions, this isn't the appropriate forum for that, so I will only briefly address a few issues here. In regards to April Flores' "that's not our demographic" experience, I don't recall the name of the confused employee credited with saying that, but he or she was sadly uninformed, and our company certainly does not endorse their statement. For as long as I can remember, we have offered sizes up to 3XL in our basic styles, and as far as adding larger sizes to the rest of our line is concerned, if there is the demand and manufacturing power to support it, we're always game. There are thousands of brands in the market who have no intention of supporting natural - and completely normal - full-figured women, and American Apparel is making a conscious effort to change that, both with our models and our line. If every brand that tried to do this was met with such negative press, we may have to wait another decade for the mainstream to embrace something so simple.

In the past, American Apparel has been targeted for various reasons, many times by journalists who weren't willing to go the extra mile to even visit the factory or meet the people in charge. Dov is a great executive director and American Industrialist, but there are hundreds of other decision-makers in our company, over half of whom are women. I suppose you have read a few too many negative pieces about us that have helped to form your opinion of who we are and what we stand for, and perhaps this has clouded your ability to give us a chance. I get it. I read some of it too. As a creative who isn't always the most tactful and tends to stay away from the limelight, maybe I haven't spoken up as much as I should have over the past 8 years that I've worked at American Apparel. Perhaps I could have shed some light on some issues that have been left cloudy over the years. However, sensational media will always need something to latch on to and success, spandex and individuality (and mutton chops circa 2004) are certainly easy targets. And who knows - maybe the PR ups and downs are all part of our DNA as a company. What I do know is that after all the years I have been working for this company I can wholeheartedly say that American Apparel is an amazing and inspiring place to work. I can't speak for everyone, but I can represent of a ton of people I know when I say that we really like Dov and we passionately believe in his vision for a beautiful factory with sustainable practices. We are the largest sewing factory in North America, after all...10,000 jobs is nothing to sniff at. A lot of people would be very sad if this company wasn't around.

That said, we realize that we are in no way perfect and that we're still learning. We want to do better or differently in many areas, and we are actively working on them every day. You're literally witnessing a transparent, sincere, innovative, creative company go through puberty in the spotlight of modern media. It's not easy!

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.

Please feel free to contact me directly anytime. If you want to know the real scoop about our company before writing a story, I've got it (or if I don't, I can put you in touch with the person that does!).

Best of luck,

Iris Alonzo
Creative Director
American Apparel

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