The retailer first was criticized by conservative customers for carrying the interview with the feminist in its catalog and on its website. But an apology was greeted with a swift backlash from other customers.
Lands’ End, best known as a quiet purveyor of mom-friendly tote bags and tunics, has found itself at the center of a cultural controversy.
In one of the retailer’s recent catalogs, it included an interview with womens-rights activist Gloria Steinem. The company has apologized for the piece and removed it from its website after some customers apparently complained that Steinem should not have been featured because of her support of abortion rights.
Beyond possible issues with individuals, Lands’ End conceivably could have faced a more serious problem in its school-uniform business, which includes private, religious schools as customers.
At least two — School of the Ozarks and Father Tolton Catholic High School, both in Missouri — said Wednesday they would no longer buy uniforms from Lands’ End.
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In a statement, the Wisconsin-based company said: “It was never our intention to raise a divisive political or religious issue, so when some of our customers saw the recent promotion that way, we heard them. We sincerely apologize for any offense.”
That attempt to calm customers, in turn, was greeted with a swift backlash. Facebook comments poured in to the Lands’ End website Friday, with some users saying the retailer made the wrong call by distancing itself from the interview.
“What a terrible message to send to all the women and girls who wear your clothes,” one Facebook commenter wrote. “I’m sorry you see equal rights for women as a divisive issue. I see it as a human issue.”
Others pledged they would take their dollars elsewhere: “I don’t intend to teach my children that anyone should do business with a company that is ashamed to even talk about feminism,” another Facebook user wrote. “You see equal rights as a divisive issue? Thanks for letting me know not to give you my money.”
The Steinem interview, conducted by Lands’ End Chief Executive Federica Marchionni, did not directly discuss abortion; topics included the challenges women face in the workplace and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
The interview was part of the Lands’ End “Legend Series,” which features people “who have made a difference in both their respective industries and the world at large,” according to the company.
The feature also told shoppers that if they opted to select a certain logo for embroidery on, say, a tote bag or polo shirt, Lands’ End would donate 50 percent of the fee to the ERA Coalition’s Fund for Women’s Equality. Lands’ End has since decided it will not do that.
A representative for Steinem said she was not available for comment Friday.
The retreat by Lands’ End feels strangely antithetical to the unapologetic stances on social issues by many large retailers and other corporations.
This was particularly evident last year, when many companies took to social media to trumpet their support for the Supreme Court decision that made gay marriage the law of the land. Brands such as Target, Gap, Visa and Cheerios expressed enthusiasm for the court’s ruling.
NBCUniversal parted ways with Donald Trump over disparaging remarks about Latinos that he made when he announced his run for president.
And when a national conversation took hold about the symbolism of the Confederate flag after a massacre in Charleston, S.C., Wal-Mart and Sears moved to stop carrying merchandise bedecked with the flag in stores or online.
The message of these earlier moves seemed to be that the companies were willing to stake out a position they felt strongly about, even if it meant alienating some customers. Lands’ End, it appears, may have a different mindset.
The kerfuffle comes at a critical time for Lands’ End: Under new CEO Marchionni, the company is making some big bets to invigorate a stale brand. It has tried to shake up its fashion, rethink its merchandising displays and pull back on promotions to fatten its profit margins. But so far, it is hard to see dollars-and-cents evidence of improvement. In the most recent quarter, the retailer’s profit nose-dived 40 percent; sales at stores open more than a year were down 8.9 percent.