How Lane Bryant took plus-size apparel from 'magalogs' to the cover of Vogue

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It's no coincidence that Ashley Graham appears in the retailer's new ad and on the front of fashion's most revered magazine this month.

In the ‘90s, Vogue promoted heroin chic with a very thin Kate Moss. Fast forward to this week, and model Ashley Graham—who is a size 16—lands on Vogue’s March cover, becoming the first plus-size person to do so.

Graham also takes center stage this month in a just-launched Lane Bryant ad, promoting its new Prabal Gurung line. In the past, the retailer has carried lines from designers Isabel Toledo, Sophie Theallet, Melissa McCarthy and Christian Siriano, but arguably, none have been as chic as Gurung, who counts former first lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Kerry Washington as fans.

"There was a certain level of fashion that [Lane Bryant] hadn't obtained yet," said Hans Dorsinville, partner, evp and group creative director at Lane Bryant’s AOR, Laird + Partners. "Prabal was going to be the gateway, so that the conversation could keep getting elevated because we needed the conversation to go up to the image makers, so that Vogue would actually talk about this. And the idea of using Ashley was really important, too, because she is really the crossover model. It was very much a conscious choice to have all of those things align."

The "Prabal Gurung X Lane Bryant" campaign features a 30-second digital film and a two-page spread in Vogue’s March issue, photographed by the same duo that shot the Vogue cover: Inez and Vinoodh. Other digital elements include 10 behind-the-scenes videos, which will show up on social media and YouTube.

This time last year, Graham tackled another plus-size first, by gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated’s famed Swimsuit Issue. Lane Bryant model Precious Lee took the gatefold ad inside. Shortly after, Lane Bryant debuted a TV ad featuring a naked Graham that was initially rejected by NBC and ABC; it’s since aired.

But the timing of Graham’s groundbreaking magazine cover appearances and Lane Bryant’s campaigns is no accident. The marketer strategically timed its most recent ad with the Vogue cover, and Graham ended up on Sports Illustrated's cover thanks to CMO Brian Beitler, a veteran marketer from David’s Bridal and Kohl’s, whom Lane Bryant hired in 2014.

When speaking at the Ad Club's 2015 Media Innovation Day, he took issue with the magazine's lack of body diversity, knowing that Sports Illustrated was in attendance. The next day, the magazine's publisher offered an olive branch that resulted in Graham being on the cover in addition to Lee's gatefold ad.

"Part of the reason I joined Lane Bryant was an opportunity to reshape the perspective on Lane Bryant as a fashion brand. The brand had become a little dated and tired in terms of its approach, and we wanted certainly to demonstrate that this brand is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago, when it was founded," Beitler said.

At first, Beitler’s collaboration with Laird + Partners was all about magalogs—the love child of a catalog and a magazine. But then Victoria’s Secret launched an underwear line dubbed "The Perfect Body" in the fall of 2014, and Lane Bryant saw an opportunity.

"We thought, let's use that as our comparison point" for the "I’m No Angel" campaign, Dorsinville said. If you’re a Victoria’s Secret Angel, you have a body like Adriana Lima, he said, "and then these women don't have a body like that, so they are not Angels. But not being an Angel is not a negative thing. Not being an Angel means you're yourself and you are going to be celebrated for the body that you have."

The result was a targeted outdoor campaign in major cities—think New York City subway wraps and Sunset Boulevard billboards—that featured the then largely unknown Graham and other plus-size models wearing Lane Bryant’s Cacique lingerie. "There wasn't anyone putting bodies that were different than the stereotype on the sides of buses, in large-scale billboards or in television ads other than a couple players like Dove who had taken on real bodies, but even those real bodies were very small and fairly standard," Beitler said. "Our goal was to say there's a much broader range of bodies that should be celebrated."

And it worked. Lane Bryant, who spent $8.5 million last year in advertising according to Kantar Media, followed "I’m No Angel" with its "Plus Is Equal" campaign, timed with New York Fashion Week in 2015, to challenge the stick-skinny models coming down the catwalks. The next year, it focused on the "This Body" tagline, featuring "Orange Is the New Black" actress Danielle Brooks. Also in 2016, Graham scored the aforementioned Sports Illustrated cover. 

"We obviously had worked hard to develop a relationship with a magazine that had been synonymous with projecting not as diverse stereotypes," Beitler said. "This was another time when we could step forward and say, ‘No, there's a different perspective on what looks beautiful and who is beautiful inside of a swimsuit.’ Every campaign has been tied to cultural moments where stereotypes were going to be projected, and we wanted to challenge those stereotypes."

One stereotype Beitler would like to bust is the one that spells death for brick-and-mortar retailers. He admits that Lane Bryant hasn’t seen hockey-stick growth since he came on board in 2014: "We, like everyone, are facing the tough retail world, so I can’t say that it’s been straight line growth. It hasn’t." Ascena Retail Group, Inc., which owns Lane Bryant and brands like Ann Taylor and kids’ retailer Justice, reported stagnant sales for its first fiscal quarter of 2017 at $1.67 billion, $245 million belonging to Lane Bryant, down 4 percent from the same time last year. But the brand is making digital strides by switching to a responsive website design later this month, and has seen increased social media following and engagement metrics. 

Sales may be flatlining, but culturally, Lane Bryant—along with Vogue, Sports Illustrated and yes, Graham—is surging forward.

"The reality is that 67 percent of women in this country are size 14 and larger. If you look across America, what you see versus what's being projected is very, very different," Beitler said. "The plus category has been the fastest growing part of the apparel industry. And people weren't celebrating [the plus size woman] as she was, so we wanted both give her permission to say, ‘You can spend on yourself today as you are. You don't need to be waiting for some change in your body to do that.’"