American Apparel Creative Director: 'I'm Not a Mean Girl'

After Publicly Shaming Plus-Size Student Who Mocked -- and Then Won -- Contest, Clothier Extends Olive Branch

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After letting its own hare-brained PR scheme get the better of it this week, American Apparel may have finally done something right.

Upon publicly lambasting 24-year-old college student Nancy Upton for mocking its online contest aimed at plus -size models (and then, infuriatingly, winning it), the company has made an about-face and offered to fly Ms. Upton to its Los Angeles headquarters to tour its factories, meet its creative team and continue the dialogue about the perception of plus -sized women in the media. Oh, and they want her to blog about whatever she sees there.

Iris Alonzo, creative director at American Apparel and the writer of the letter to Ms. Upton, told Ad Age she never meant to come across as a "mean girl," and the media backlash inspired her to change her approach.

"After I sent her the letter, I got a lot of supportive feedback but even more telling me that I came off as mean and condescending. I'm not a 'mean girl' and I didn't want to leave it on that note," she wrote in an email to Ad Age . "So, I apologized and invited her out. I hope that she'll see another side to our company -- the progressive, creative and sincere side that I was defending in my letter to her."

Ms. Upton has agreed to make the trip, and applauds American Apparel's newly diplomatic approach to her.

"I think it says something good about them," she told Ad Age today. "In the past whenever something negative happened, they've pretty much just said, 'That's not true,' and never talked about it again. This happened, it got a negative response in media, so they looked at that and said, 'Maybe we should try something else.' I think [that 's] a sign of maturity."

Last month, the embattled clothing retailer launched a pun-tastic campaign dubbed "The Next Big Thing", encouraging plus -size young women to enter to win a chance to model some of its XL items.

Ms. Upton, a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, was nauseated at the contest description, which reads:

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.

... Show us what you're workin' with!

Nancy Upton poses in a tub of ranch dressing (which was actually whole milk and ranch dressing seasoning) as part of American Apparel's 'The Next Big Thing' contest.
Nancy Upton poses in a tub of ranch dressing (which was actually whole milk and ranch dressing seasoning) as part of American Apparel's 'The Next Big Thing' contest. Credit: Shannon Skloss
She showed 'em, all right; with the help of photographer friend Shannon Skloss, Ms. Upton imitated the clothier's signature soft-core-porn imagery in a variety of seductive poses, with a satirical twist -- she posed covered in pie, bathing in ranch dressing and dousing herself with chocolate syrup and potato chips.

Online voters loved her tongue-in-cheek take and voted her the winner. But instead of awarding her the prize (a trip to L.A. and a "bootylicious" photoshoot), Ms. Alonzo, sent her a shaming email criticizing her mockery and lack of empathy for their good intentions. She also shared that email with media outlets that Ms. Upton had spoken to:

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 Beyonce, 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?

... We realize that we are in no way perfect and that we're still learning. ... 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.


Though American Apparel never promised the prize to the contestant with the highest votes (the rules stated that the company would pick two winners from the top 10), and despite Ms. Upton's obvious disdain for American Apparel's efforts, Ms. Alonzo said the team had seriously considered choosing Ms. Upton as a winner. But by then, Ms. Upton had already publicly insisted she wouldn't have accepted the prize even if they had offered.

Still, even in light of the public back and forth, Ms. Upton said this new opportunity to engage in real, meaningful conversation is not about the contest, but about how to relate to plus -size women isn't something she can't pass up.

"I don't look at it as a last-ditch PR effort," she said. "I look at it as growth."

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