Dr. Aradhna Krishnais the Dwight F. Benton Professor of Marketing at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. She is considered one of the 50 most productive marketing professors in the world. In particular, she is considered the pioneer of the field of sensory marketing. Harvard Business Reviewrecently acknowledged her as “the foremost expert in the field” of sensory marketing. For her leadership role in sensory marketing, Prof. Krishna has been recognized as a Fellow of the Society of Consumer Psychology.
Dr. Krishna defines sensory marketing as: “Marketing that engages the consumers’ senses and affects their perception, judgment and behavior.” She suggests that “sensory marketing can be used to create subconscious triggers that characterize consumer perceptions of abstract notions of the product (e.g., its sophistication or quality).”
A new study shows that when consumers believe that a company is harmful in some way, then they feel justified participating in illegal activities, such as shoplifting, piracy or hacking to harm the company.
While many people consider themselves generally moral and honest, even the most upstanding citizens will likely become willing to lie, cheat and steal under certain circumstances, according to evidence from a new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
If consumers believe that a company is harmful in some way–to the environment or to people — then they feel justified participating in illegal activities, such as shoplifting, piracy or hacking, according to findings in the study.
“People are much more willing to do something that risks their own integrity if they believe a company is unethical,” says Jeffrey Rotman, a professor in the business school at Deakin University in Australia. “And this desire to punish a harmful brand occurs even when the consumer has not personally had a bad experience with the company.”
Rotman’s team discovered this effect in one study in which participants were introduced to a fictitious pharmaceutical company that produced drugs to treat Parkinson’s disease and a bacterial infection called Brucellosis. Some of the participants learned that the company planned to increase the price of the drug by 300 percent to generate considerably more profit, even if it meant that certain customers could no longer afford the medication. Other participants learned that the company would not raise prices despite the profit benefits.
The researchers discovered that the participants who were told that the company was raising prices were significantly more willing to punish the company via unethical means, such as lying, cheating or stealing. To better understand why consumers violate their personal code of ethics in these situations, the researchers conducted another experiment in which participants read a report stating that on average, Internet speeds in the United States are consistently below advertised speeds. The federal report explained that this occurs because many ISPs intentionally cap speeds at 20 percent lower than advertised speeds. One group of participants was told that their Internet speeds had in fact underperformed, and they were asked to sign a letter to the ISP asking for a 10 percent discount on monthly fees. The other group was told that their Internet speeds were as advertised, but they should still sign the letter based on the findings in the federal report. Even though their Internet speeds were good, they were encouraged to lie to justify the discount and capture the company’s attention.
Typically, people feel emotional consequences when they engage in unethical behavior, but the researchers found that negative feelings, such as guilt, were absent because people felt that the company was cheating customers. “People felt morally justified lying to the ISP because the report claimed that the company was not delivering promised speeds,” Rotman says.
The researchers discovered that this desire to punish companies perceived as harmful is also reflected in the real world. Participants rated how harmful they perceived a variety of different industries, such as pharmacies, supermarkets and home improvement stores. On average, the more harmful the ratings, the greater the rates of theft were in these industries.
“There is growing distrust among the public of certain aspects of business and government, and these findings suggest that if people perceive these entities as harmful, they might feel justified in being unethical,” Rotman says. “My hope is that organizations will make it a priority to build a reputation that allows consumers and businesses to be on the same side.”
It hardly needs stating that one of the biggest consumer trends of the past decade has been the rise of the sharing economy. Companies, websites, apps, and online communities that revolve around sharing products and services seem to breed like rabbits in the digital age.
Most obviously, there are the accommodation and ride-sharing giants Airbnb and Uber, but the sharing economy encompasses all manner of products (books, parking spots, Wi-Fi networks, creative projects, business ideas, loans, toys) and services (lessons, neighborly help, house cleaning, grocery shopping).
But why are we so obsessed with sharing? For me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of consumer psychology today, and the research reveals important insights that extend far beyond the sharing economy when it comes to understanding what drives consumer behavior.
What Is the Sharing Economy, Exactly?
The practice of sharing is as old as humanity. In order to cooperate and grow as a society, we’ve always relied on sharing knowledge and resources across time and space. Yochai Benkler in the Yale Law Journal calls sharing a “non-reciprocal pro-social behavior.”
So what does sharing look like as an economic activity? Investopediadefines the sharing economy as “a peer-to-peer (P2P) based activity of acquiring, providing or sharing access to goods and services that are facilitated by a community based on-line platform.”
York University researcher Russell Belk identifies two commonalities in our sharing and collaborative consumption practices. The first is the use of temporary access non-ownership models for goods and services, and the second is their reliance on the Internet to bring this about. The Internet has made it possible for people who have specific things and abilities and people who want those things and abilities to find each other. From an economics perspective, it’s a way for people to make money from underused assets.
But there’s much more than a utilitarian motivation at work in the growth of the sharing economy.
The Rise of Airbnb
Canadian winters are long. So instead of hibernating at home (read: slowly going insane), I booked a weekend getaway through Airbnb. We arrived at our charming little hodge-podge cottage just steps from the lake in a quaint little town on the shores of Lake Huron. It was far from perfect, but it had character.
We received recommendations from the hosts about their favorite places to go and what to do and see, and we had the whole place to ourselves. We perused their collections of well-worn books and watched VHS classics like GoldenEye. We struggled with a faulty bathroom door lock, cooked family-style meals in the kitchen, and vacuumed up some bugs seeking warmth indoors. It was a fun, authentic, local, memorable, and personal experience.
Airbnb now rivals big hotel brands like InterContinental and Marriott Hotels & Resorts for volume of rooms and bookings. The service has 150 million users across 65,000 cities in 191 countries. Needless to say, Airbnb is one of the most successful companies in the sharing economy, a market purportedly worth $250 billion that could be worth $2 trillion in the future.
So what can marketers learn from this massive growth and the reasons why people seem to be flocking to this economic model?
The Psychological Drivers of the Sharing Economy
1. Experiences over Possessions
Researchers Fleura Bardhi and Giana M. Eckhardt in the Journal of Consumer Research talk about the trend of wanting experiences over possessions: “Instead of buying and owning things, consumers want access to goods and prefer to pay for the experience of temporarily accessing them.” This means we’d rather rent a car to go on that trip than buy our own, or borrow a drill from our neighbor instead of purchasing one for ourselves.
Likewise, James Wallman, author of Stuffocation: Living More With Less, says that we have shifted from the twentieth century’s big dominant value system of believing that having more stuff will make us happier to the belief that happiness comes instead from experiences.
This bears out in the psychological literature, too. Studies have shown that materialism is detrimental to wellbeing, while investing in life experiences increases happiness. It appears we are starting to figure this out for ourselves.
As marketers, these insights lead to some valuable questions we ought to be asking at a high level: What kind of experiences are we offering through our brands and products? How do they fit into how our customers live their lives? What are the experiential stories we are weaving through our marketing?
2. Community Building and Pro-Social Behavior
Oxford scholar and historian Yuval Harari emphasizes the important role of sharing knowledge and resources for the development and progression of humanity in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
In a study in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour, researchers Pia A. Albinsson and B. Yasanthi Perera interviewed people who participate in swap, gift, and alternative market events. They found that a primary motivation for participation was community building, and that this was often connected with a protest against “hyperconsumption” and an overly “marketized” society.
This kind of reactionary engagement isn’t surprising considering our hard-wired drive for community building in contrast with the twentieth century’s culture of individual consumerism and an increasingly digitally mediated existence that removes much of the face-to-face social interaction we’ve always relied on. We’re just reinstating one of our most basic sociological building blocks.
The importance of community building can’t be overstated from a marketing psychology perspective. We should begin by a creating marketing strategy with large community-building components and ensure we are creating opportunities for our customers to interact with each other. We need to figure out how we can make our touchpoints more human.
We know by now that our audiences won’t accept mere appeasement when it comes to customer service. People want to feel truly heard, and they want to feel that companies take their opinions seriously. They want to feel that they have some control (or agency) over their relationships with companies and organizations.
As we’ve seen with the sharing economy, people are beginning to take control in other ways too by taking their assets and value into their own hands. It’s an entrepreneurial spirit rooted in the desire to have more control of your life personally and financially. In the psychological world, it’s called self-actualization, and it sits at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which are the five psychological drivers he identified as motivating all of our behavior.
One of the most challenging things as a marketer is finding the balance of control between you and your audience. Instinctively, you want to control your brand image and the trajectory of your marketing, but in some cases it may be better to relinquish some of that control to your audience who are operating on a desire to shape their own experiences with your company.
These psychological drivers fueling the growth of the sharing economy extend far beyond it, too. They describe our motivations as consumers and as people. We want experiences over possessions, we want to build and belong to communities, and we want to have control and an ability to grow and fulfill our potential.
It all comes down to how we really feel about what we choose to invest our time and money in. No amount of expensive pillow-top mattresses and Egyptian cotton linens can beat the cheaper experiential pleasure of finding a stack of old James Bond VHS tapes at your Airbnb and spending the evening devouring them and reminiscing with friends. Even with the bugs.
Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at AnewTraveller.com. Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
“I was urged to stop paying my bills to invest in more inventory. I was urged to get rid of television. I was urged to pawn my vehicle. I just had to get on anxiety meds over all of it because I’ve started having panic attacks.”
In June 2016, Sophie (name changed) quit her job in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas to sell for LuLaRoe, a rapidly growing clothing company that offers self-employment opportunities to American women in the form of hawking hyper-hued apparel. LuLaRoe’s consultants told her—and tens of thousands of other mostly rural and suburban women over the past five years—that she could provide for her family, join a sisterhood of supportive women, and find meaning in her life again through the conduit of colorful, stretchy fashion—all for a reasonable upfront investment of around $5,000.
As economic opportunity has become more concentrated in urban areas in the US, rural communities have fallen behind. Residents of towns like Casper (Wyoming), Spring Creek (Nevada), and DeRidder (Louisiana) all missed out on economic recovery following the 2007 global financial crisis. Bootstrapping, hard-working families in these regions are urgently searching for a way to regain their economic liberty, along with their dignity.
“I was urged to stop paying my bills to invest in more inventory. I was urged to get rid of television. I was urged to pawn my vehicle. I just had to get on anxiety meds over all of it because I’ve started having panic attacks.”
In June 2016, Sophie (name changed) quit her job in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas to sell for LuLaRoe, a rapidly growing clothing company that offers self-employment opportunities to American women in the form of hawking hyper-hued apparel. LuLaRoe’s consultants told her—and tens of thousands of other mostly rural and suburban women over the past five years—that she could provide for her family, join a sisterhood of supportive women, and find meaning in her life again through the conduit of colorful, stretchy fashion—all for a reasonable upfront investment of around $5,000.
As economic opportunity has become more concentrated in urban areasin the US, rural communities have fallen behind. Residents of towns like Casper (Wyoming), Spring Creek (Nevada), and DeRidder (Louisiana) all missed out on economic recovery following the 2007 global financial crisis. Bootstrapping, hard-working families in these regions are urgently searching for a way to regain their economic liberty, along with their dignity.
The difference between a MLM and a pyramid scheme can be blurry, both legally and practically. It’s never been legally defined in the US by a statute, but the FTC defines it as whether a consultant can make an income by selling to the public alone without having to recruit consultants underneath them. “Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate,” the FTC states in its literature on MLMs. “If the money you make is based on your sales to the public, it may be a legitimate multilevel marketing plan. If the money you make is based on the number of people you recruit and your sales to them, it’s probably not. It could be a pyramid scheme. Pyramid schemes are illegal, and the vast majority of participants lose money.”
“The majority of [retailers] earn income from only selling LuLaRoe clothing and not through participation in the Leadership Bonus Plan,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson of their recruitment-based bonus structure. “LuLaRoe’s success is based on [retailers] selling the comfortable and stylish clothing to consumers, not ordering more inventory.” LuLaRoe says that in 2016, 72.63% of their consultants earned their income through selling clothing alone.
LuLaRoe also says it invests “considerable time, resources, and talent” to support its “independent retailers,” as it calls its consultants. If they experience financial or psychological hardship through operating their businesses, it says it’s not the company’s fault. “Retail is not for everyone,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “Retailers own their own business and make their own decisions…The success of any business depends on its leader’s own respective and independent business goals, and the strategies they employ to achieve those goals.”
However, MLMs are nearly never the get-rich-quick plots their advocates promise. “The number of people who actually succeed at that is very small,” says Douglas M. Brooks, an attorney who represents victims of pyramid schemes. “And some do—people will get up on stage and wave checks around, but they represent a fraction of 1%.”
One such success story is Nicole Haas of Williamsburg, Virginia. A bubbly blonde and former personal trainer, she put $12,000 on a low-interest credit card to start her LuLaRoe business in January 2017. Through working 25 to 30 hours a week, she paid off her credit card in May and now puts $3,000 a month in her family’s account, less taxes. “It’s changed my life,” she says. “It’s changed who I am as a person.”
According to the Direct Selling Organization, she’s one of more than 20 million Americans who participated in direct sales in 2016. It’s a booming business, racking up an estimated $35 billion that year, a 30% increase from 2010. You might have been roped in yourself and not even realized it: If you’ve ever received a perky Facebook message from an old friend inviting you to a party at her house, had a cousin say she has a business opportunity that could help you take control of your life, or been handed a colorful business card outside of Target by a woman spilling with compliments, you might have been charmed by an MLM seller.
MLMs disproportionately flourish in suburban and rural America: According to LuLaRoe’s retailer map, it only has 10 consultants in all of Manhattan, which has a population of 1.64 million. By comparison, Pueblo (Colorado) has the same amount for its population of 110,000, St. George (Utah) has 12 sellers to its 82,000 residents, and Idaho Falls (Idaho) and Casper (Wyoming) both have nine sellers servicing each’s 60,000 citizens. In 2016, the US Census Bureau stated that the median rural household income is 4% lower than it is for urban families, and income inequality is also higher. Job growth in metropolitan areas has far outpaced that in rural areas since 2008, and the job market in these regions has shrunk 4.26% in the same time.
In 2016, the US Census Bureau stated the median rural household income is 4% lower than it is for urban families, and income inequality is also higher.The US government tried to help people understand the risks before joining these kinds of companies, but MLMs had their way. In 2012, federal legislation passed requiring all franchise companies to provide a disclosure document with information on weighing the benefits and risks of signing up. However, MLMs poured money into lobbying and flooded the FTC with more than 17,000 comments from consultants saying the disclosure would be a burden, and asked to be excluded. The FTC complied, and now MLMs aren’t required to disclose information on risks to interested consultants.
As a result, many women sign up unaware of just how hard the system makes it to earn a living selling for a MLM. “I’m trying to make it work the best I can without letting my family know I pretty much signed up for a pyramid scheme,” says Kayla, a consultant in her twenties who lives in rural Wisconsin.
Quartz agreed to Kayla’s request not to use her last name to protect her anonymity, and gave pseudonyms to others. Several of LuLaRoe’s sellers declined to go on the record with Quartz using their full names, citing concerns about possible reprisals from the company due to a non-disparagement clause in their contracts, and concerns about being harassed by other sellers. This fear only perpetuates the cycle as it pulls more women into its spiral.
Ask any woman living in the suburbs of America’s Bible Belt, and chances are she will be able to tell you all about LuLaRoe.
Founded in 2012 by a Mormon mother, Deanne Stidham, LuLaRoe is named after her three grandchildren, Lucy, Lola, and Munroe. As the company lore goes, she designed clothing for her daughter and had so much success selling copies to the parents of her daughter’s friends that she hired consultants to sell for her. In just four years, her company’s range of leggings, dresses, shirts, and other wares generated $1 billion in sales, making it one of the largest MLMs in the US; between October 2016 and June 2017, it claims it sold nearly 40 million pairs of leggings. Mary Kay, one of the oldest and most successful MLMs, had $4 billion in sales in 2015.
During the Mary Kay heyday in post-war America, consultants would invite their friends to in-home parties (think Tupperware) or go door-knocking to sell their products in their neighborhood (think Girl Scouts). However, in the digital age, the game has changed. Consultants who had previously run out of doors to knock on or neighbors to invite over had to put their goods in a car and drive to the next town for fresh clientele. Now they just form a group on Facebook, fire up a Live video stream, and sell to eager customers across the country, like their own miniature Home Shopping Network.
Using this model, LuLaRoe sellers busted out of the traditional confines of heritage, Avon-style MLMs. One of the reasons Avon had so much success in the 1960s was that it was the easiest way for suburban Americans who were an hour away from the closest department store to sample and buy makeup. Convenience won out. Now Facebook can provide their contemporaries with that same easy purchase availability from the comfort of their couches.
Sarah Stern, a stay-at-home mom in southern Florida, signed up with LuLaRoe in March 2016 after receiving a glowing review from a friend. “She told me that they have a cult following, the clothes sell themselves, and it’s under 10,000 people now, so you want to get in while it’s on the ground floor,” she says. Stern joined her friend’s LuLaRoe Facebook page and saw women fighting in the comments to buy beautiful leggings and dresses. She showed her husband, a VP of sales for a consumer-products company, the profit margins, and he told her to go for it.
“I did pretty well for myself,” says Stern, who split sales with her business partner. The work was part-time, and she pulled in anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a month in revenue. Every month, the head of her consultant group would post a leaderboard for the top inventory buyers and sellers, some of whom were bringing in up to $60,000 a month. Stern noticed that the amount of inventory bought correlated with higher income, so after attending one of LuLaRoe’s touring conferences, she was inspired to bulk up her inventory. She and her business partner went on a buying spree, posting pictures of all the unopened boxes on her Facebook page, which began to swell with excited customers.
Shortly after, Stern began to pull in anywhere from $18,000 to $24,000 a month in sales. She was working 80-hour weeks with seven women selling underneath her. “The moment I woke up, I was taking pictures and answering questions,” she says. “My husband had to do the food shopping. My daughter has dance one day a week. While she was dancing, all the other moms would talk, but my face was always in my phone. I was uploading albums, or I was part of a multi-consultant sale.”
Stern jumped in during the heyday phase of a MLM when the people at the top grew rich, and quick. By the start of 2017, nine months after Stern joined, LuLaRoe was pushing 80,000 independent retailers. According to interviews with several consultants, this is also the time when sales suddenly became tougher: The hundreds of thousands of ravenous customers who once clamored to buy leggings from 10,000 consultants flipped in less than a year to eight times that amount selling to just a fraction of the clients. The scales began to tip.
According to internal consultant calls, LuLaRoe is still onboarding more than 150 retailers a day. (LuLaRoe declined to confirm how many people are joining daily.) In this spandex rush, so many women were signing up to sell LuLaRoe that the onboarding queue stretched for weeks. Former customers were often convinced to become sellers so they could get their own wares wholesale, plus hopefully make some profit on the side. “Every time I got a really good customer, they would sign up under someone else,” Sophie says.
“As of the end of first quarter 2017, approximately 90% of all retailers who started an independent fashion retailer business since the time LuLaRoe was founded still maintain their businesses today,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “We are very proud of this figure.” In part due to this high retention rate, the market is becoming saturated, both online and off. Multiple retailers now often live within a few blocks of each other—and how many pairs of leggings does one neighbor really need? “They’ve flooded the market with so many consultants, nobody is making money, and everyone is so stressed out,” Sophie says. “Now it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s another consultant down the street.’”
“One of the unique facets of this business is that the victims are also perpetrators,” Brooks says, speaking generally of MLMs. “You’re trained to recruit your friends and family and neighbors.” He points out that when you onboard someone underneath you, especially if they live in your town or are in your friendship group, you are essentially creating a competitor. It’s as if you open a Subway sandwich shop and then encourage your neighbor to open a Subway right next door—and everyone is already sick of sandwiches.
Selling the dream
LuLaRoe’s messaging is filled with positive language: “I believe in you” is the company’s unofficial tag line, and body-positive imagery floods its website to showcase its large selection of flattering plus-size outfits. “It’s hard to find plus-size clothing that actually looks good—that makes you feel like you look good,” Sophie says. “That’s why there’s such a customer base for LuLaRoe.”
There’s another positive that consultants always emphasize: friendship. MLMs often provide a sense of belonging for their consultants; a crucial lifeline for moms sitting at home with only the kids to talk to. “I had come out of a rough situation, a custody battle,” Sophie says. “I was lost. I had no friends, I had no social life. And then instantly I had this giant family of women who I didn’t even know. ‘We love you. What do you need? Let me help you. You’re having trouble with sales? Let me share my customers with you. You can’t make an order this month? Let’s trade shirts so we have new inventory.’ It was a true, true sisterhood.”
LuLaRoe gives these women a way to have it all: a career, new friends, body confidence, extra money, all with enough time left over to be an excellent mother and wife. “Want to earn full-time income for part-time work? Ask me how!” reads a sign that was sent out to new consultants last year. Stidham often promotes the idea of her company being a perfect part-time job for mothers by talking about being a single mother of seven hustling out of her home—even though she was already remarried and her kids grown before LuLaRoe was founded.
Ashley (name changed), a mom and wife who lives in the suburbs of Indianapolis, signed up to sell LuLaRoe in August 2016 after her husband lost his job and was only able to make half his salary at the next one he found. “Simply put, I signed up to make money,” she says. Ashley opened three credit cards to cover the initial set-up cost and generated $3,500 a month in revenue for the first two months. But on the advice of other retailers, she plowed it all back into buying more inventory instead of keeping any of it for herself, her family, or their mounting bills. “Often increased inventory can assist in increasing retail sales to consumers,” says Justin Lyon, LuLaRoe’s chief marketing officer.
“There was a point in time where I had $8,000 worth of inventory sitting in my home while I was running up to food banks to feed my family.”Sales started to decline in the third month. Her consultant group told her it was because she didn’t have enough inventory, so Ashley followed their advice and bought even more. As sales continued to decline, she used her income-tax rebate to buy more, but it didn’t keep her sales from bottoming out at $500 a month. “There was a point in time where I had $8,000 worth of inventory sitting in my home while I was running up to food banks to feed my family,” she says. “I really feel like I failed my family.”
“Retailers should absolutely never put their personal financial situation at unreasonable risk to establish or operate their retailer business. Period,” Lyon says. “If any retailer is encouraged to do that, we do not support it.”
Regardless of LuLaRoe’s official policy, the selling community is rife with consultants strong-arming risky decisions with smiling faces. Emails outlining new policies are sent out to independent retailers directly, who then discuss the company’s communications between themselves. Directives for how to interpret rules are often filtered through Facebook groups by team leaders eager for bonus checks, leaving the door to miscommunication—and manipulation—wide open.
“These girls would listen to [their] leader as the Bible,” Stern says.
Kayla lives in a small town in Wisconsin. She’s single, 27, childless, and in grad school. In late 2015 she was working as an administrative assistant at an office earning $32,000 a year when a sorority sister from college invited her to a LuLaRoe in-home party. She was initially resistant to the very idea of leggings as pants, but she walked away with several dresses for $65 each. “I realized if they’re making the money that they say they’re making all over their Facebook pages and how it’s life changing, why can’t it change my life?” she says.
“I realized if they’re making the money that they say they’re making all over their Facebook pages and how it’s life changing, why can’t it change my life?”Kayla assumed she could just buy a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of leggings to get started, but she found out that she was required to buy a startup inventory package, which costs between $4,900 and $6,000. “Initial inventory packages are designed to provide sufficient inventory to help retailers succeed,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “If a retailer can’t afford it, a retailer should not buy it.”
At this point, even if she had quit the next day without selling a thing, LuLaRoe would have made its profit. Kayla acquiesced on Jan. 1st, 2016—and was then immediately encouraged by her upline to buy an additional $1,000 in Valentine’s Day-themed clothing. (Brooks says this tactic is called “channel stuffing” or “inventory loading.”)
She was told by one of the consultants in her Facebook group to take out a low-interest credit card to pay for the initial buy, and that she would pay it back within eight weeks at the most. If a consultant’s credit isn’t good enough for a card, some communities of sellers encourage would-be consultants to raise money; there are currentlyover 400 GoFundMe campaigns to start a LuLaRoe business.
How long would it take a seller to earn back their initial $5,000? Let’s say she sells 30 leggings in an online party. They cost $10.50 each wholesale, and the manufacturer’s advertised price is $25, so she would make a $435 profit. After that, consultants often tell other sellers to replace their inventory and build up more in order to be successful. “The question of inventory levels is determined by each retailer in the conduct of the retailer’s own independent business,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “If the retailer believes greater inventory would help, they are encouraged to order.”
The minimum order is 30 pieces at a time, and LuLaRoe requires sellers to buy a minimum of 33 pieces a month ($346 in wholesale leggings, for example) to maintain active status. This means that if a retailer sold 30 pairs of leggings a week, it would take them just under three months to make back their initial $5,000. As they also need to use their revenue to restock an additional 33 pieces a month ($1,038 worth of leggings over 11.5 weeks), it would therefore take another month or so of selling 30 pairs of leggings a week to start turning a small profit. (There is a more detailed mathematical breakdown of different business models here.) “Just like anyone starting a new business, there is risk involved and not everyone is guaranteed success,” LuLaRoe CMO Lyon says.
After earning $3,000 to $5,000 a month for a few consecutive months, Kayla quit her job in late 2016 to sell LuLaRoe full time. “The next month my profits took a dip. And the next month my profits took a dip,” she says. “I’ve not been able to recoup anything since I quit my job.” After trying to sell off as much inventory as she could, she resigned from the company last month and is awaiting her refund check—which, at the time of writing, still hasn’t arrived.
But for most MLMs, the real money isn’t in selling wares: It’s in signing up consultants. Up until July 2017, LuLaRoe’s sellers who signed up new retailers got a 3-5% commission on the inventory their downline bought. But they only garnered that commission if they and everyone underneath them each bought 175 pieces a month, a rule that incentivized inventory buying.
Some variation on this structure is common at most MLMs. Financial analysis on Pink Truth, a website that analyzes Mary Kay and other MLMs’ business practices, estimates that as a LuLaRoe seller advanced up the ranks, had 10 people below her, and garnered 3% of her recruits’ inventory-buy value, she could make a bonus of $1,500 a month—but only if her downline spent about a combined $35,000 on merchandise. That’s why struggling sellers used to be told to buy more inventory: Not only did their higher-ups get a cut of each bulk buy, but if their downline didn’t hit the minimum purchase mark, no one got a bonus. “The entire year that I did LuLaRoe, I was pushed to continue buying and buying more and more and more, no matter how the sales declined, and that buying more and more was the only solution to get more sales,” Sophie says.
On July 1, LuLaRoe instituted a much fairer Leadership Bonus Plan(pdf) that awards compensation based on sales to consumers rather than wholesale purchases. But there are still thickets of obscure rules: Leggings only count as half a piece; your bonus is based on your downline’s wholesale value of sales, not their retail value; and your team’s per-piece average needs to be at least $30, meaning that if you want to get your bonus, you can never sell your wares for discounted prices.
With the company’s rules shifting and no small-business training offered to consultants, it’s easy to let enthusiasm blindside reality—and if you’re drowning, you’re fighting against a riptide of consultants to save yourself.
You vs. the community
The upper echelons of LuLaRoe’s consultant community have a reputation for being vicious to their downline. “It’s like the policy police,” Ashley says. “‘We’re going to find you, stalk you, tell on you. How dare you guys say a single word bad. We’re going to shame you.’”
Whether they realize it or not, consultant leaders often use time-honored cult tactics of denial and blame to keep women within their sorority. A famous series of experiments from the 1950s conducted by Soloman Asch in England showed that three out of four people will deny evidence right in front of them if the majority says it’s not true. In the study, individuals were placed in groups where they were constantly contradicted by other members. When this happened over a length of time, they would start to agree with the majority—even though it was clear that the opposite was true. In MLMs, “you’re trained to avoid people who question whether this is a viable business or not,” Brooks says. “Which is exactly the same technique that cults use—they try to isolate you from people who question your belief system. I’ve been contacted by a number of people who deal with cult survivors, and some of their clients are former MLM people.”
“I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian,” one retailer wrote to someone trying to sound the alarm. “Where is the Jesus in you?”Even when consultants wake up to the fact they’ve been hoodwinked, many don’t warn their friends to stay away. That’s because if you speak out against any of LuLaRoe’s rules or mishaps, the community could publicly shame and harass you for being negative. “I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian,” one retailer wrote to someone trying to sound the alarm. “Where is the Jesus in you? I have to block you due to your constant-gross-delusional-uneducated opinions of LLR.” If you reveal you are struggling to make sales, you might be told to stop playing the victim, that you’re not putting in enough effort, to be more enthusiastic, and, of course, to buy more inventory.
“Success as a retailer results only from successful sales efforts, which require hard work, dedication, diligence, leadership and perseverance,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “Success will depend upon how effectively these qualities are exercised. As with any business, results will vary. In addition to the factors above, retailer success is influenced by the individual capacity, business experience, expertise, and motivation of the retailer.”
In other words, it’s not the system that’s broken—you’re just not trying hard enough.
To try and understand what LuLaRoe success looks like, I studied Nicole’s Facebook Live stream. What was she doing so right? Nicole and another consultant pulled out 71 pairs of leggings in an hour. They deemed almost every one “pretty,” “beautiful,” or “cute.” The most egregiously ugly leggings—like one pair covered in paintball splats with flowers overlaid on top—were “fun” and “different.” In an MLM, saleswomanship is key, no matter what the wares you’re selling look like.
They ended up selling 20 of them over the next 24 hours.
Mary (last name withheld) is a wife and mother who holds a master’s degree in nursing and works from home in Arizona. She bought her first pair of LuLaRoe leggings in 2015 and loved them. But what started as a fun social activity turned into a compulsion, and she found it taking over her life. “I spent more hours than I want to admit ‘hunting’ that pair,” she says. “I spent more than $3,000 in a month. I would lie to my husband about feeling ill so he would take the kids to their afterschool activities so I could be at home to watch pop ups. I would also drive as far away as an hour to attend LLR events.”
LuLaRoe merchandise boxes are like Lycra slot machines.LuLaRoe merchandise boxes are like Lycra slot machines. In the onboarding package, new recruits don’t get to choose the size or style of their items. For example, Sophie knew plus sizes would sell best for her, but her initial package contained five XXS dresses and several long-sleeved shirts that were a tough sell for a Texas retailer in June.
After that package, consultants can start choosing styles and sizes for their next orders, but they never get to choose the patterns they’re delivered. This means they can wind up with a box of clothes that is less “chic young mom” and more Pee Wee’s Playhouse. There are 400 new prints apparently designed every day, and LuLaRoe says most patterns are limited to around 5,000 pieces each. When a consultant opens a box, they hope to find a few “unicorns”—the styles everyone wants—among armfuls of duds, like the infamous Dorito pattern.
“Retailers can generate a sense of excitement among consumers because the garments they purchase are unique to them,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “Many retailers report that they use the unexpected nature of the shipment to build excitement among existing and new consumers for their new inventory. This also fosters a sense of cooperation among retailers as retailers will often refer consumers to other retailers to help consumers find the patterns that they seek.”
Sophie says she was often only able to sell five pieces out of every 30-piece order she made. “They said, ‘Be a creator.’ I hate that phrase,” she says. “It means: ‘Figure out how to sell them.’”
Stern was taught ways to unload her unwanted stock on unsuspecting buyers by her group’s leaders. “You have to be creative about how you sell it,” she says. Stern would bundle 10 pairs of leggings together—nine less desirable ones and one unicorn pattern—into “mystery sales,” where the first 10 women to comment “sold” would purchase a random pair, but only one would get the coveted leggings. She feels guilty about using this psychological gambling trick, but it worked.
LuLaRoe’s quality and return policies
In recent months, sellers have claimed that LuLaRoe leggings have a tendency to tear like “wet toilet paper.” The $25 leggings—their most popular item—are manufactured in the US, Vietnam, Guatemala, Indonesia, and China, and are mostly made of a mix of polyester and spandex. Starting in fall 2016, customers started reporting that LuLaRoe’s “buttery soft” leggings were falling apart. Sometimes within just a few hours of wearing them, pinholes would splatter across the fabric, a “blow out” would reveal the wearer’s underwear, or they’d lose all their dye in the wash, leaving them a sad, mottled grey. LuLaRoe has denied that anything was wrong with its leggings, saying that only 1% of its clothing is returned with defects.
Starting in fall 2016, customers started reporting that LuLaRoe’s “buttery soft” leggings were falling apart.That figure may be low because LuLaRoe products used to be so hard to return. For a long time, angry customers couldn’t send back faulty products directly to LuLaRoe: They had to return them to the consultant they purchased them from. Customers are instructed to hand-wash leggings inside out and air-dry them, but that hasn’t stopped the company from getting sued by angry consultants alleging that the leggings are poor quality. Some LuLaRoe retailers have even taken to fat-shamingcustomers, telling them if the leggings rip, it’s their fault.
Founded in October 2016, the LuLaRoe Defective/Ripped/Torn Leggings and Clothes Facebook group was initially intended for posting pictures of holey leggings. Now it has more than 30,000 members and has become a place for women to share pictures of ugly merchandise, screenshots of vicious consultant behavior, and to upload documents from the numerous lawsuits against LuLaRoe. (At last count, there are nine ongoing legal battles.)
After a slew of complaints, LuLaRoe rolled out a Happiness Policy in April 2017, which states that customers can get a credit, cash refund, or replacement pair (but not the same pattern) for defective leggings purchased between January 2016 and April 2017. However, many are saying their refund checks have still not been issued, even though they were told they’d arrive several weeks ago.
Consultants and clients say the clothing’s quality has been going back up, but the PR damage has been done. Shoppers are becoming wary—and wondering why they’re not buying leggings that don’t rip on the first wear for $7.99 at Wal-Mart instead.
With their leggings falling apart, parties going dead, and debt ballooning, going-out-of-business (GOOB) sales have proliferated. As a result, potential customers now know they don’t have to pay retail price for products: They can just type “LuLaRoe going out of business” into Facebook and find heavily discounted items. This makes it even harder for the consultants still in the game to make money, as they are competing with women who are undercutting their prices in an attempt to squeeze every last penny out of their remaining inventory.
These sales go against company policy. While a LuLaRoe spokesperson says sellers are “free to set their own sales prices for the LuLaRoe products they sell,” they don’t allow you to actually advertise those prices: “Out of fairness to all retailers, they are not allowed to advertise prices below MAP (Minimum Advertised Prices). LuLaRoe encourages retailers not sell product below MAP as MAP ensure that the LuLaRoe brand maintains a consistent level of value and fairness that benefits all Retailers. Advertising prices below MAP violates the agreement between retailers and LuLaRoe.” If caught, sellers are ostracized by the consultant community for diminishing the LuLaRoe brand, and some have claimed to be locked out of their point-of-sale systems.
Stern decided to get out after she realized she had $20,000 in unsold wholesale inventory sitting in her living room. “It clicked for me that if you order 30 items, they send you 10 quick movers and the rest sit. It’s a false sense of actually being successful,” she says. “I noticed all these people started going out of business. I started getting scared that my inventory would be worth nothing, and I would be stuck with $8,000 on my credit card.”
Thankfully, getting out is easier than it used to be—sort of.Thankfully, getting out is easier than it used to be—sort of. LuLaRoe has started providing free shipping so that consultants who want to leave can return their inventory and get back what they paid, as long as those items are in perfect condition and in their original packaging. This sounds reasonable—except that retailers generally have to unbox, hang, and photograph each item in order to have a shot at selling it, meaning a lot of their unsold inventory isn’t eligible for a refund.
But one woman’s trash may be another woman’s treasure. New consultants are reporting getting boxes full of old merchandise that appears to be from merchants who went out of business—the ugly stuff others couldn’t sell. “While LuLaRoe may resell some inventory returned in original packaging and in new condition to its employees in its company store,” LuLaRoe CMO Lyon says, “LuLaRoe prefers that product that is returned in original packaging and in new condition be used for donations or giveaways only.” Consultants dispute that claim, posting pictures of “new” merchandise with old patterns and tags that have been marked up by other consultants.
In April, Stern quietly put all her inventory on sale for 25% off, paid off her credit-card debt, and got out. She’s an example of someone who rode the wave and managed to leave before wiping out entirely. She has now started a new company selling leggings using the same skills she learned from selling LuLaRoe—without the binding policies, and with an added charity element. She’s one of the fortunate ones. But what about the rest?
The winners and losers
What made Nicole Haas so prosperous, but nearly ruined Sophie, Kayla, Ashley, and thousands of other women just looking for a small piece of the apple pie?
Perhaps the successful consultants are right: It’s all about enthusiasm. Perhaps some people don’t succeed because they don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Perhaps it’s about believing that leggings printed like hotel carpets are beautiful to someone. Perhaps you think that a thin polyester dress you could get for $15 in a chain store is worth $60 if you buy it from a friend. Perhaps it’s about having no qualms hawking clothes to people who struggle to afford them, or signing women up underneath you while you struggle yourself.
For a portion of independent retailers, LuLaRoe is to economic opportunity as Goop is to wellness: It’s for ladies who already have it all. The ability to throw down $12,000 to start a LuLaRoe business and work 30 hours a week sometimes comes from a place of privilege, not desperation. Some mothers who are just looking for a hobby have husbands whose salaries are already high enough to support their families. “I felt like I was trying to keep up with the Joneses to stay in business against these other consultants who can afford to drop a $500 order every few days,” Ashley says.
This is the story of rural disenfranchisement and the MLMs that offer desperate American women a chance at clawing their way out.This isn’t a story about leggings, however. It’s not even a story about LuLaRoe. This is the story of rural and suburban disenfranchisement and the MLMs that offer desperate American women a chance at clawing their way out. They’ve become part of the fabric of suburban America, as cherished and inevitable as barbecues and the county fair. Regional newspapers are rife with announcements for fundraisers for children with cancer and elementary-school fetes that promote LuLaRoe pop-up shops. Not buying a pair of leggings can be read as being unsupportive of your friends—or not chipping in for a local kid’s chemotherapy. It’s a genius manipulation of rural and suburban American societal norms.
But even if LuLaRoe were to go out of business tomorrow, another MLM pushing scented candles, jewelry, or kitchen products would rise up to take its place. “The regulators cannot keep up with these companies,” Brooks says. “There are so many of them. When one company blows up, the founders and high-level distributors move on to another company, and it goes on and on.” At best, LuLaRoe is a company that grew too fast; at worst, it consciously preyed on business-naïve communities eager for a sense of self-sufficiency.
Small-town America is built on the concept of community, meaning the psychological guilt games MLMs play are their most effective selling tool. Even Christina Hinks of Mommygyver has started positively reviewing other MLMS again, directing her readers to join consultant Facebook groups and helping MLMs with market research. Like America’s systemic class bias, it’s hard to escape.
“People need to be warned about this company now,” one anonymous woman said in a Facebook message to me in April. When I followed up a few days later, she had changed her mind. “I actually onboarded Monday with Agnes & Dora, another direct-sales clothing company. And as part of their policy and procedures, I cannot speak badly of another company.”
When I was a kid, I wanted to design clothes. I kept a dollar-store sketchbook and a case full of pencils. At first, I used them to trace and color in the clothes I liked in magazines. Eventually, I learned to sketch them on my own, from memory. They were bad drawings, but I was too excited to care much about that. I knew where the buttons and ruffles were supposed to go, and that was all I needed. One of my friends, a girl who had been heavy for as long as I’d known her, who was often cruelly picked on in classes, asked if I’d design something for her. I told her yes. My clothes would be made to fit everybody.
I began my freshman year of college double-majoring in fashion merchandising and apparel design. At the end of my first semester, a professor told me I would be better off changing my major. I had earned an A in her course — for the first time in my life, I was a perfect student. But I was already a size 12, inching closer and closer to 14 each day. My professor was also big, and she told me there was no place for a body like mine in the fashion world unless I was a man or a genius, so I was wasting my money and my time. I don’t believe she meant me harm. I believe she meant to save me: Her experience working in fashion as a fat woman had been abysmal. I wasn’t even comfortable enough to go into some stores at my size, so how was I going to design for them? I changed my major to psychology.
Over the past several years, there have been many times I wished I’d stuck with that childhood dream. A 2012 market-research study estimated that 67 percent of American women wore a size 14-plus; last year, the data inspired the launch of Refinery29’s 67 Percent Project, a national campaign that included showing plus-size women in 67 percent of the imagery on its site. The number has only grown, and the market for plus-size clothing is valued at $20.4 billion. Revenue in the category increased by 17 percent between 2013 and 2016 (compared with growth of just 7 percent in apparel overall). There is, to put it crudely, an insane amount of money just sitting on the table, and it seems, finally, that there are some savvy entrepreneurs out there ready to shrug off fashion’s inherent snobbery and claim a piece of it.
What happened? Part of it is that the market has been growing, but, perhaps more important, the community that makes up that market — which for so long had to make do with oversize, colorless, or matronly looking options — began to see itself differently, because it could now see itself more easily. Before, images of bigger women in culture tended to be put out there to get a laugh, to inspire pity or a makeover. Now the images were being transmitted by us, for us. I discovered the body-positivity movement by accident. I was looking for a place to keep a personal blog when I stumbled on Big Girl Tumblr. Here, suddenly, was a world of beautiful, stylish fat women talking about clothes, looking great, and refusing to apologize or to put off buying things until they lost some weight. By eliminating the disinterested middleman — the designer, the editor — these women had created a whole world of trendy and classic looks for plus-size women who love to dress up. Women like me.
The queen of this movement is a blogger named aid. She, too, grew up hearing that bigger women were not welcome in the fashion industry, but she didn’t give up. She went on to Parsons, and she dug in. I saw Nicolette in form-fitting midi dresses, her best friend Gabi Gregg in crop tops, and so many other women wearing the bright colors and patterns I’d been taught to skip. The fat girls on Tumblr wore whatever they wanted, and they didn’t do it to hide the fact that they were fat. They did it to look good. And they did. They all looked fantastic. My friends and I started passing around photos of well-dressed fat women and teens like they were playing cards.
With the body-acceptance movement comes a new breed of stars, stars with bodies that don’t fit the old mold. Take Aidy Bryant, for example, the Saturday Night Live cast member who got a romantic subplot on the last season of Girls. When magazines come to take her pictures, she has a fraction of the options available to her peers. “I often wonder if I would be able to write a movie in the time I spend trying to put together these clothes,” she says. “But I know representation matters. If I was still a 14-year-old girl in Arizona, it would hurt my feelings to see the only fat young woman on TV constantly dressed head to toe in all black. I’m young, I’m cool. I want to be able to dress that way.”
If the world of online sharing and community building has been a boon to the body-acceptance movement, it’s only logical that the online, direct-to-consumer fashion market should come next. Recently, I was featured on a popular blog describing my style. But when the owner of that blog invited me to choose a gift for participation from the online fashion brand Everlane, I had to go with a backpack and a pair of shoes: Not a single piece of clothing available on the site came in my size. So it was thrilling to discover Universal Standard. “I was constantly compromising,” says Alexandra Waldman, the brand’s co-founder and chief creative officer. “We started this company with the idea that I wasn’t going to compromise anymore.” It’s shocking when you see it at first, and then you realize that the shock is coming from seeing sophisticated, minimalist fashion in larger sizes, which is almost impossible to find elsewhere. The response has been fantastic. Waldman and her co-founder, Polina Veksler, began the company modestly in 2015, using their own savings, but they recently closed a $1.5 million round of funding. Universal Standard has seen sales increases in the triple digits every quarter since launching in 2015. Part of the process has been reeducating customers. So many bigger women are “addicted to fast fashion because that’s all [they’ve] had access to,” Waldman says. “People ask why it’s so expensive, why a T-shirt has to cost $50, but a T-shirt shouldn’t cost the same as a sandwich. There are a lot of reasons why a T-shirt could cost the same as a sandwich, and all of them are bad reasons.”
There’s also Eloquii, led by chief creative officer Jodi Arnold and CEO Mariah Chase, which raised $15 million in series-B funding in 2016, after seeing a revenue increase of 165 percent in 2015. Eloquii began as a plus-size option under the umbrella of mall-favorite retailer the Limited. Eloquii clothing was placed in six different stores in 2011, and they all experienced satisfying sales. However, when the Limited began to show financial stress a year and a half later, the parent company shut down production for Eloquii, citing a need to focus on the Limited Group’s straight-size core brands. “People were pissed off,” says Arnold. “Customers sent us so many emails or reached out through social media. That’s where we got the impetus to say, ‘Okay, we need to find an investor and find a way to relaunch Eloquii, buy the assets from the Limited, and see what we can do.” Arnold and her team found and persuaded John Auerbach, now chairman of the brand, to invest in the company, which relaunched in February 2014 and has since thrived, primarily online.
Somehow, the online world seems like a safer place for these sizes. I took a walk around Bergdorf Goodman the other day and found plenty of things to want, but nothing in my size. When I asked an associate where I might find larger sizes, she directed me to look online, so I did: gorgeous Gucci, Prada, Saint Laurent. Not much I could afford, but even if I wanted to save my pennies, there was exactly one item available in my size: a bomber jacket. It was a really nice bomber jacket, but still, what would I wear everywhere else? Bergdorf is not alone. I found nothing at Saks over a size 14, but at least its website offers options up to a 24W. Barneys’ online store has a handful of products in a size 16, but when I had a walk around the store, I couldn’t find a single thing bigger than a 10. Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Michael Kors all produce clothing in a full range of sizes, but they’ve only recently begun promoting them. There is often the perception that larger size correlates to lower socioeconomic status.
The retailer Lane Bryant, which started as a maternity shop but began serving “stout women” after World War II, has made a concerted effort to up its offerings in recent years. It’s collaborated with Isabel and Ruben Toledo, Christian Siriano, and, most recently, Prabal Gurung, who says the announcement that he’d be collaborating with Lane Bryant was met with “snickering” from the fashion industry. During a premiere party for Straight/Curve, a documentary on body image in fashion, Gurung told the story of a woman who walked up to him at an art opening and asked, “Why are you making clothes for fat people?” His response was terse and clear: “I said to her, ‘Words are very powerful. They impact and affect lives. The majority of American women haven’t had a voice, haven’t felt like they belong in our world, and I wanted to be sure that they do. It’s people like you who make statements like these — there’s a reason I wanted to do this.’ ”
“Prabal has been designing up to a size 22 for years,” says Brian Beitler of Lane Bryant. “But he couldn’t get high-end stores to carry them [larger sizes]. That’s where we came in. It works out for us because we believe that high-end style should be brought to people at lower price points and across all sizes.”
Discussing fat fashion often gets personal, fast. For example: Beitler has five daughters and a son, and he doesn’t want their view of the world to be warped by impossible societal standards of beauty and thinness. “I want them all to feel confident and comfortable as they move through the world. I have a daughter who is 23 and a daughter who is 6. I want this for all of them. I want my son not to measure women by their size, just as much as I want my daughters not to be judged by their size.” He also wants it for his business. “If you want to remain relevant,” he cautions other designers, “you’ll have to.”
Lane Bryant isn’t the only company that has exclusively produced clothing for curvier or fat women over decades. Marina Rinaldi, which is a division of the Italian Max Mara Fashion Group, has been serving the community since 1980. “The founding principle driving all strategies and initiatives has always been to dress, let’s say, a whole universe of women,” says Marina Rinaldi’s managing director, Lynne Webber. Over the past few years, as more and more brands have seen the moneymaking potential of including plus-sizes, some have made the error of believing they could simply offer larger sizes of a standard-cut item. This is a rookie mistake, Webber says: “Starting the design process from the bigger size immediately creates a different fit and feel to the garment. It’s a whole different accommodation of the body size, much more three-dimensional than simply designing with the regular size in mind. There are no real limitations to what a plus-size woman can wear.” This commitment to providing luxury clothing for bigger women has been good business for Marina Rinaldi and Max Mara. Marina Rinaldi’s annual sales for the past few years have been $180 million. So far, no real competitors have emerged to challenge Marina Rinaldi in this space. “We certainly hope there will be more competition in the arena,” says Webber. “Up until now, it’s been a lot of cheaper options and few high-end options. It is a very bad message for a woman who wants to spend money on herself and deserves it.”
Christian Siriano, who started out on Project Runway, has gotten a lot of attention for making clothes at all sizes. He often dressed famously voluptuous Mad Menactress Christina Hendricks, and he made headlines last summer after Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live actress Leslie Jones tweeted that she couldn’t find a designer to dress her for the blockbuster’s premiere. Siriano volunteered his services via Twitter, and Jones slayed in a bright-red high-slit number just two weeks later. (It should be noted that while Jones is six feet tall with an athletic build, she is by no measure “fat.” But by industry standards, she is still considered big.) Siriano says that dressing women of all sizes has always been at the heart of his brand. “My mom is a size 16, and my sister is a size 2. The people in my life and in our offices are all different sizes. It’s a normal thing. Some people may just be noticing it, but we’ve been doing this since day one. It’s not a strategy,” says Siriano. “I just think it’s the right thing to do.”
In the end, no one is more aware of how much business is out there waiting to be claimed than Nicolette Mason, my original Tumblr hero. Mason has partnered with her friend Gabi Gregg on their own clothing line, aptly named Premme (a mash-up of “premium” and “femme”). This isn’t a capsule collection or a collaboration with a well-known retailer. It’s big women designing clothes for big women. “It’s a brand we built from the ground up,” says Mason. “It’s unabashedly femme and feminist, plus-size focused, and carrying sizes from a 12 to a 30. It’s a whole new approach to how plus-size women actually shop.” In the midst of their excitement over the launch of Premme, Gregg is quick to state that they are not delusional. They know that there are some women who will be hesitant to dress in the patterns and colors they’ve chosen. “There are a lot of plus-size women who don’t like their bodies,” she says. “They have been told not to [like themselves] over and over. We’re trying to simultaneously change the minds of the fashion industry and women who have been brainwashed to believe they are not beautiful and so do not deserve to wear our clothes.”
After speaking to Waldman, Bryant, Gregg, and Mason, I can’t help but wonder if much of the future of fat fashion lies squarely in the hands of fat women themselves. Most high-end designers have been slow to respond to this market, and so fat women have learned to rely on and trust each other. My childhood dream of designing plus-size clothing may have fallen by the wayside, but there are women flourishing in their commitment to fun and quality clothes that allow them to express themselves fully. When I asked Aidy Bryant if she had any interest in making the clothes she has had custom-designed for herself over the years into a commercial line, she hesitated before answering. “If you’d asked me even a year ago if I had interest in designing clothes, I would have said, ‘Hell, no.’ But now I almost feel a sense of responsibility to at least try to do that sometime down the line.” (Melissa McCarthy launched her own collection after years of red-carpet frustration.) Bryant adds, “Seeing these smaller designers trying to do it, I feel like these bigger brands have the resources, and all they have to do is make the commitment. Who’s going to be the big brand who says we’re going all-in on this? In this time of intense political angst and inclusive versus noninclusive, to me, it’s like, where do you want to stand in history? Resistant? Or do you want to be part of the solution? All it takes is to just start. I feel optimistic about it, but in the meantime, we’re going to be out there doing it for ourselves.”
*This article appears in the August 7, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.
Tena and Ray Bluhm in their new home in the Westminster retirement community in Lake Ridge, Va. The Bluhms moved in to their new home in early August, and needed to sort through items to determine what they needed and could fit in the smaller space.
Mothers and daughters talk about all kinds of things. But there is one conversation Susan Beauregard, 49, of Hampton, Conn., is reluctant to have with her 89-year-old mother, Anita Shear: What to do — eventually — with Mrs. Shear’s beloved set of Lenox china?
Ms. Beauregard said she never uses her own fine china, which she received as a wedding gift long ago. “I feel obligated to take my mom’s Lenox, but it’s just going to sit in the cupboard next to my stuff,” she said.
The only heirlooms she wants from her mother, who lives about an hour away, in the home where Ms. Beauregard was raised, are a few pictures and her mother’s wedding band and engagement ring, which she plans to pass along to her son.
So, in a quandary familiar to many adults who must soon dispose of the beloved stuff their parents would love them to inherit, Ms. Beauregard has to break it to her mother that she does not intend to keep the Hitchcock dining room set or the buffet full of matching Lenox dinnerware, saucers and gravy boats.
As baby boomers grow older, the volume of unwanted keepsakes and family heirlooms is poised to grow — along with the number of delicate conversations about what to do with them. According to a 2014 United States census report, more than 20 percent of America’s population will be 65 or older by 2030. As these waves of older adults start moving to smaller dwellings, assisted living facilities or retirement homes, they and their kin will have to part with household possessions that the heirs simply don’t want.
“We went from a 3,000-square-foot colonial with three floors to a single-story, 1,400-square-foot living space,” said Tena Bluhm, 76, formerly of Fairfax, Va. She and her 77-year-old husband, Ray Bluhm, moved this month to a retirement community in Lake Ridge, Va.
Before the move, their two adult children took a handful of items, including a new bed and a dining table and chairs. But Mrs. Bluhm could not interest them in “the china and the silver and the crystal,” her own generation’s hallmarks of a properly furnished, middle-class home.
The competitive accumulation of material goods, a cornerstone of the American dream, dates to the post-World War II economy, when returning veterans fled the cities to establish homes and status in the suburbs. Couples married when they were young, and wedding gifts were meant to be used — and treasured — for life.
“Americans spent to keep up with the Joneses, using their possessions to make the statement that they were not failing in their careers,” wrote Juliet B. Schor, the Boston College sociologist, in her 1998 book, “The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need.”
But for a variety of social, cultural, and economic reasons, this is no longer the case. Today’s young adults tend to acquire household goods that they consider temporary or disposable, from online retailers or stores like Ikea and Target, instead of inheriting them from parents or grandparents.
This represents a significant shift in material culture, said Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers, a professional organization of moving specialists who help older people downsize.
“This is the first time we’re seeing a kink in the chain of passing down mementos from one generation to another,” Ms. Buysse said in a telephone interview from the group’s headquarters in Hinsdale, Ill.
Accordingly, the senior move management industry has experienced unprecedented growth in recent years, Ms. Buysse said. These move managers usually charge an hourly rate, typically $50 to $125. They spend time with clients, helping them sort through years of accumulated possessions and make decisions about what to dispose, what to donate to charities and what to try to fit into their new living spaces.
Final costs of the service, which may also involve an estate sale, can be $2,500 to $5,000 or more, depending on the size of the home and the density of its contents.
“We found that seniors have more needs than just the sale of their estates,” said Tracy Niro, a managing partner of Wise Moves, a move management company in Gaithersburg, Md.
Once the children have picked over what they want, and the items slated for the next home have been boxed up, the question is, what becomes of the rest?
“Some goes to auction, some goes to eBay, and some goes to our retail shop,” said Chris Fultz, an owner of Nova Liquidations, an estate liquidation company in Luray, Va., that works closely with companies like Wise Moves.
Ms. Niro said her company also works with nonprofits, like Habitat for Humanity, to find new homes for discarded items. Yet even these operations are feeling overwhelmed by the growing inventory of household goods delivered at their doorsteps.
“We are definitely getting overrun with furniture, and about 20 percent more donations of everything than in previous years,” said Michael Frohm, chief operating officer of Goodwill of Greater Washington, in a telephone interview.
Changing aesthetic tastes are also responsible for the overflow.
“The whole ’90s were the English country look, collections, chintz,” said Jennifer Lacker, an antiques appraiser in Mystic, Conn., who cited the influence of the interior designer Mario Buatta (known as the “Prince of Chintz”). The look, she added, was decidedly “rich and lavish.”
Beginning in the 2000s, though, clutter was out, and minimalism in. Mr. Buatta’s paradigm has been replaced most recently by that of Marie Kondo, whose 2014 book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” remains a steady best seller.
Millennials are also less inclined to want their parents’ household goods simply because they have no place to put them.
As his parents begin to contemplate moving from their two-story colonial home in Annandale, N.J., to a smaller living space, Travis Miscia, a 30-year-old lawyer, would like to lay claim to a good number of his family’s belongings. But he and his wife live in a two-bedroom apartment in Jersey City that is too small to hold them.
“I am very interested in family history, and I would like a lot of my parents’ things on some level,” Mr. Miscia said, “but I have had to limit myself to taking what I would call primary-source documents, like books and some pictures.”
Another option for older people and their heirs is self-storage. Like the industry that manages moves for older adults, the $32.7 billion storage business is experiencing rapid growth, projected at 3.5 percent annually over the next five years, according to statistics reported this month by SpareFoot Storage Beat, an industry tracker.
Yet often this strategy only postpones the inevitable.
“Some children take the objects just to keep Mom and Dad quiet,” said Roger Schrenk, Mr. Fultz’s business partner at Nova Liquidations. “They’ll take them and store them until Mom’s dead, and then they can’t wait to get rid of them.”
With this in mind, Mrs. Bluhm, whose adult children only wanted the new bed and dining set, recommends a philosophical approach to the process of letting go of possessions that children may not cherish but others may.
“By donating them to charity, I knew they weren’t going to go into a Dumpster and that someone who really wanted them would purchase them,” she said. Though the items are no longer hers, she said, many of her familiar household objects are not altogether gone.
“What I had left were the memories attached to them, in my heart and in my head,” Mrs. Bluhm said.
In the mid-aughts, Burberry faced an unusual problem: too many people were wearing its signature pattern. B-list actors, hooligans—they were all going around in the company’s iconic beige, red, and black check, sometimes in counterfeit form. This diminished the pattern’s status in the eyes of high-end shoppers. “It was so successful that everyone had it, and if everyone has it then the people who normally can afford luxury items don’t buy it,” Ketty Maisonrouge, a marketing professor at Columbia University, told me. Burberry executives decided that something had to change.
It’s the perpetual dilemma of the luxury brand: How do you sell more stuff without desecrating your name? Samsung, Pepsi, and Tide presumably prefer their products in the hands, mouths, and washing machines, respectively, of every person on the planet. But high-end goods require exclusivity. Last year, Kelefa Sanneh profiled the Harlem haberdasher Dapper Dan, who copied luxury brands’ logos onto his own styles and, in return, “was raided and sometimes sued by virtually all the companies whose logos he used.”
A report scheduled for publication in the Journal of Consumer Research, however, suggests that luxury brands can have both a secure reputation and mass appeal. Silvia Bellezza, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, and Anat Keinan, a marketing professor there, introduced three types of hypothetical consumers: the Brand Citizen, someone widely perceived as belonging to a distinct group of people who use the same brand; the Brand Immigrant, someone who doesn’t belong to the clique despite claiming that he or she does; and the Brand Tourist, someone who admires the brand without any pretense of membership.
In one study, the authors surveyed sixty-four female owners of either Prada or Marc Jacobs products who earn at least five thousand dollars per month; they characterized these people as Brand Citizens. Bellezza and Keinan wanted to understand how these shoppers might feel if Prada or Marc Jacobs began handing out free paper shopping bags, meant as collectors’ items, to whoever happened to enter their stores. Dividing the participants into groups, the researchers told one group that even though an imaginary customer named Lucy was unable to afford a designer purse, she still thought of herself as belonging to the community of Prada/Marc Jacobs owners and intended to use her complimentary shopping bag “to show that she is a customer of the brand.” In contrast, researchers told another group that while Lucy was unable to afford shopping at the store, she simply wanted to use her shopping bag to express her affection for the Prada/Marc Jacobs brand without any desire to come across as something that she wasn’t.
The participants were then asked to record how Lucy’s ownership of the free collector’s shopping bag would affect the prestige of Prada or Marc Jacobs, with one representing less prestige and seven representing more. The first group’s average score was a 3.6; the second a 5.5. Brand Tourists, the research suggested, are much better for a brand than Brand Immigrants. “This is really all about generating a fan club,” Bellezza told me. “It’s about cheering up the core users without making them feel that the brand is losing its distinctiveness.”
In another study, Bellezza and Keinan examined the outlook of Harvard students. Framing Harvard itself as the brand in question, the researchers surveyed sixty full-time undergraduates willing to relay their thoughts on students enrolled in a six-week Harvard summer program. Dividing the participants into two groups, the authors told one group that upon completing the program the summer-school students intended to “put Harvard University on their résumé, because they think of themselves as real Harvard students.” The other group was informed that the summer students did not intend to put Harvard on their résumé, because they did not consider themselves genuine students of the institution. The participants were then asked to assess how the summer program would impact both Harvard’s reputation and image on a scale of one (very negatively) to seven (very positively). Those presented with the first scenario reported an average combined score of 3.8, while those presented with the latter reported a 4.4. Like the shoppers in the Prada/Marc Jacobs study, Harvard students appeared more welcoming toward those who respected the distance between themselves and the brand, as opposed to those who denied that a distance existed.
Not all of Bellezza and Keinan’s studies, however, have such a strong element of social class. The authors focussed on athletes who partake in Tough Mudder events—multiple-mile obstacle courses that can include crawling through mud, swinging on ropes, and scaling up walls—to find if there were similar concerns of outsiders spoiling the Tough Mudder brand name. There were. They enlisted eighty-three participants who had earned their way into the Tough Mudder community by completing a race, and presented them with an imaginary spectator named Mike. One group of participants was told that Mike planned on buying a twenty-five-dollar ticket to attend both a Tough Mudder event and its related after-parties to associate with Tough Mudders and give the impression to friends and family back home that he, too, was one of them—even though he had never entered a race. The other group was told that Mike wanted to attend simply to witness Tough Mudders in action and applaud their dedication. Again the results found that while participants thought a Brand Immigrant stance posed a potential threat to the brand’s integrity, a Brand Tourist attitude could enhance it.
Why might some people feel so invested in their brand? Because to brand something, after all, is to give it a mark of distinction. Other research, Bellezza told me, suggests that certain brands have grown to assume the role that politics and religion have traditionally held in shaping an individual’s identity. She said that she sees certain flagship stores designed by famous architects as our modern-day cathedrals. When a brand loses its sheen, then, so do the people who believe in it.
Bellezza mentioned Tiffany & Co. as a good example of a company executing the policy outlined in her and Keinan’s report. Some store locations offer side entrances and private viewing rooms to physically separate the élite shoppers from those looking to purchase a seventy-five-dollar Heart Tag Charm. The core Tiffany users, Bellezza says, are therefore defined by their access to privileged retail space, while the company can still grant a degree of access to the masses without tarnishing the brand. In 2013, the Luxury Institute, a research and consulting firm, conducted a survey that revealed that Tiffany was the jewelry brand most widely purchased by American women with a minimum net worth of five million dollars.
As Amy Merrick noted in April, Burberry recovered from its overexposure problem. Following the arrival of Angela Ahrendts as its C.E.O., in 2006, (who has since left for Apple), Burberry began scaling back its licensing agreements and removing its signature check from about ninety per cent of its items. A sense of sustainability has returned, thanks to a clear balance of insiders enjoying their cachet and outsiders looking in.