In March, Jet, a subsidiary of Walmart, acquired ModCloth. The indie retailer's devoted customers immediately revolted. "I loved ModCloth," Twitter user @RoyaltyAK tweeted. "Now that Walmart owns them? Nah. I can love clothes, but not hate myself or workers."
Similar comments flooded social media after the quirky clothing brand announced the news. Many customers, including the plus-size customers who flocked to ModCloth, vowed to boycott.
However, what they may not have realized is that their favorite body-positive brand allegedly abandoned plus-size customers long ago.
Gizmodo investigative reporter Anna Merlan's deep dive into ModCloth's unraveling is eye-opening.
Co-founders Susan Gregg Koger and Eric Koger built a body-positive business that prioritized feminism. Customers and employees were treated well, regardless of their size.
"It was an absolute dream job," one former employee told Jezebel. "The thing that made it so special is that the company was genuine when it talked abut its values. Everyone that worked there shared those values personally. It was a place you felt good about the work you were doing. Susan is a feminist. She’s open about that and the company aligned with those values."
ModCloth's reputation as an inclusive retailer traveled with them. They were the first brand to sign an anti-Photoshop pledge, included plus-size women in their advertisements, and even hired a trans model and named a dress after her.
However, former employees allege that ModCloth abandoned its inclusive foundation after hiring CEO Matt Kaness, relocating the company from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, and firing roughly 70 employees in six rounds of layoffs.
ModCloth built a reputation for cultivating plus-size customers. As Merlan highlighted, plus-size customers are ModCloth's fastest-growing consumer base and place 20% more orders than straight-size customers.
However, the hiring of Kaness made a huge difference in how ModCloth treated its plus-size customers. For instance, in October 2015, ModCloth removed the plus-size section from their site in an effort to make a more "inclusive" shopping experience.
"Plus is not a term that we love," Koger, who was still ModCloth's chief creative officer, said. "In the [fashion] industry, it stands for taking a segment of customers and making them an 'other.' And as a person, it never feels good to be excluded in any way. We really feel like shopping categories should be defined by types of clothing, not types of bodies."
While the decision seemed well-intentioned, a former employee told Jezebel that's when ModCloth began to abandon its plus-size customers.
"It was [Kaness'] decision to remove plus from the website," one former employee told Jezebel. "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."
At a company meeting to unveil ModCloth's private label line, Kaness then reportedly said that he wanted to limit the amount of plus-size models on ModCloth's site because it isn't "aspirational." He also allegedly said that putting plus-size models next to straight-size models encourages comparison of bodies.
In an email to Jezebel, Kaness firmly denied the allegations:
No, I did not say that. And if you look at what we have done in my two years at ModCloth, including (1) increasing the percentage of our apparel offer that is available in a full-size range from less than a 1/3 to more than 1/2; (2) adding both 'reg size' and 'plus-size' studio model imagery to the product detail pages of the commerce sites for the apparel available in a full-size range; (3) creating and opening a new-to-world store model that is specifically designed to include women of all shapes and sizes in the shopping experience; (4) more frequent and pronounced use of diverse models — including plus-size models — in our marketing campaigns; etc etc etc ... I hope anyone would rationally conclude that this allegation is baseless.
However, whether or not it's intentional, it appears that ModCloth isn't invested in clothing and representing plus-size women.
ModCloth fashion director Lizz Wasserman said she's still invested in "real-casting."
"I'm hugely inspired by Susan [Gregg Koger] and ModCloth starting 'real-casting' so long ago, and being able to cast and shoot with inspiring (and yes, aspirational) women (cis and self-identifying) of all shapes, sizes, religions, races, and ethnicities is one of the reasons I’m super proud to work at ModCloth," she said.
However, one current employee told Jezebel that not segregating plus-size clothes has resulted in less plus-size offerings overall.
"We were told they were going to bring in fewer styles, but at more size variety," the employee said. "On the site, there's fewer and fewer options available in these extended sizes that we were told they were going to focus on."
Attempting to just make straight-size clothes bigger has also allegedly failed customers.
"All the stuff on the private label fit poorly," the employee said. "We got tons of returns [from plus-size customers.] I don't know what the sizing was with that but there was a lot of feedback on the private label that the plus-sizes were not good fits."
Investing money into the fit label also tanked ModCloth and led to the sale to Jet. In a Facebook post as well as an email to employee stockholders, the Kogers said they didn't make a profit on the sale: "I am incredibly proud of my time at ModCloth (literally almost half my life so far) and grateful for all the amazing people who helped make it happen," Gregg Koger wrote on Facebook.
"Every employee, past and present, and every customer. We couldn't have done it without you. I'm also filled with regret. We did a lot of things right but also made tons of mistakes. No one, in life or business, is perfect."
It's true: No business is perfect. However, mistreating and abandoning a core demographic to be more 'aspirational' is beyond pale — and Walmart is benefitting most of all.