Recently, Modcloth became the latest feminist-marketed company to fall (see also: Thinx, Nasty Gal). And in the wake of Modcloth’s sale to Walmart-owned brand Jet, many are asking, how did this happen? How did the once-beloved, size-inclusive, retro-inspired clothing company become just another Walmart brand?
At Jezebel, reporter Anna Merlan dug deep and found that a lot of the problems at Modcloth apparently stemmed from fatphobia. Merlan begins by noting:
Several insiders told Jezebel that CEO Matt Kaness made negative comments about the use of plus-size models, and wanted to see fewer of them on the site, telling employees in a meeting that they weren’t “aspirational” to look at. (Kaness denies having said that.)
A big part of Modcloth’s early success was its embrace of plus-size clothing. Reports from 2014 noted that Modcloth’s plus-size section was its fastest-growing category, and plus-size shoppers placed 20% more orders than straight-size shoppers — which makes sense, because clothing companies that offer cute clothes in plus sizes are pretty hard to find, and were even harder to find in 2014.
Merlan writes that a company HQ move from Pittsburgh to San Francisco brought in bad aspects of Silicon Valley culture, but the worst of it reportedly came with the hiring of CEO Matt Kaness (former Chief Strategy Officer of Urban Outfitters) in 2015; the original CEO Eric Koger, who with his wife Susan Gregg Koger founded the company, was asked to step down by investors. One of Kaness’s first decisions was to remove the plus-size category and integrate it with the straight-size clothing, a move that was applauded by some, but soon led to a shift away from Modcloth’s emphasis on plus-size fashion. Merlan writes:
Past ModCloth employees say the move didn’t make sense, and seemed to reflect the CEO’s discomfort with plus-sizes.
“It was [Kaness’s] decision to remove plus from the website,” one employee who recently left the company says. “That’s when we all really started to think he was not a great fit. A lot of us who’d been there for a really long time and were women who weren’t a size two ourselves—who were part of the demographic we were speaking to—felt it was a bad move and was going to make shopping for more difficult.” Kaness, she says, responded by saying he was “offended by the term ‘plus,’” as she remembers it.
Kaness also objected to showing plus-size and straight size models next to each other, a different employee who recently left the company told us.
“He didn’t want us to show a straight size model next to a plus-size,” she told us. “He said it ‘invited you to compare’ the two. It doesn’t. Unless you’re a misogynist.”
Kaness denied making remarks about plus-size women, but Merlan points out that Glassdoor reviews say otherwise; one review calls him “dismissive of plus-size models/customers.”
Employees who spoke to Merlan pointed to a move away from celebrating plus-size fashion and plus-size shoppers, a slow decline in the number of plus-size fashions offered by the brand, and a decline in the quality of the plus-size fashions the brand did continue to make.
Kaness’s fatphobia certainly wasn’t the only problem at Modcloth — employees also mentioned low pay, frequent layoffs, a culture clash between the San Francisco and Pittsburgh locations, and the high cost of Modcloth’s brick-and-mortar “fit shops.” But it seems like fatphobia was a significant part of what made the brand decline.
It’s worth remembering that plus-size shoppers make up an incredible number of American shoppers — 67% of American women are a size 14 or larger. That’s a group with significant buying power and limited places to spend their dollars. And when a company decides not to include plus-sizes, or includes only limited plus-sizes, it's not only fatphobic, it’s an incredibly stupid business decision as well.
Top image: Modcloth campaign from 2015
More from BUST