Fashion's Dirty Laundry: Ralph Lauren

By Megan Barnett  OCT 26, 2009 8:30 AM

For the all-American brand, an ultra-skinny model wasn't thin enough.


Who sells clothes better: thin models or freakishly emaciated ones?

It might seem like an easy question, but some magazine editors and clothing designers still seem to be struggling with the answer even after recent backlash against ultra-skinny models. The latest culprit to garner fat criticism from its skinny ads is Ralph Lauren (RL), which took off in the 1980s with basics like the knit polo shirt, chinos, and oxford button-downs.

The Ralph Lauren skinny scandal, which erupted in late September, is especially egregious since the designer's marketing department didn't stop at just featuring an anorexic model in its ad. It actually used Photoshop to make a healthy model appear so thin she looked deformed.

The criticism might have blown over quickly were it not for Ralph Lauren's aggressive and litigious response. On September 29, a contributor to the website Boing Boing posted a copy of the advertisement (first discovered by the blog Photoshop Disasters) along with the single comment, "Dude, her head's bigger than her pelvis." 

By the following week, Ralph Lauren's legal department had claimed copyright infringement and demanded that Boing Boing's Internet service provider remove the image. Instead Boing Boing used the legal attack to further mock Ralph Lauren, generating even more attention to the poorly altered image.

Eventually, Ralph Lauren accepted responsibility for the ad. "After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman's body," the company said in a statement. "We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately."

But even that crisis PR response wouldn't tame this scandal. The model in the ad later told the Daily News that she was fired by Ralph Lauren for being too fat. The 5-foot-6-inch 120-pound model said her contract was terminated after the company said she was too big for their clothes.
Ralph Lauren Ad
Ralph Lauren said its relationship with the model ended "as a result of her inability to meet the obligations under her contract with us."

The blogosphere seemed determined to find more evidence of Ralph Lauren-induced digital anorexia, and it didn't take long to find it. A second absurdly altered image appeared in an ad for the designer in Sydney, Australia. So far, the company hasn't responded to it, or claimed copyright infringement to sites that post it.

Ralph Lauren, with its preppy origins and its classically tailored looks, may evoke images of a clean-cut, all-American Great Gatsby. But the designer has found itself at the center of a storm of controversy more than once.

Ralph Lauren Ad
The label was commissioned to design the uniforms for the US Olympic team in Beijing last year, and critics assailed it for the prominent placement of its signature Polo logo on the blazers. Others criticized the design as being "elitist." Still others were displeased that they were stitched by Chinese tailors instead of American ones.

It turns out that little polo-player logo has caused quite a lot of problems for Ralph Lauren. In 2000, the designer filed lawsuits against Jordache and the US Polo Association for infringing on its polo-player trademark. Ralph Lauren lost the suit, appealed it, and lost it again last year.

It's a good thing the company has a few intellectual property attorneys on staff because this summer they were put to work again -- this time on defense. In August, Lifeguard Licensing Co. sued Ralph Lauren for putting the words "Life Guard" on its shirts. The company claims it has owned the right to label swimsuits and apparel with the word since it was trademarked in 1937.

As of this writing, a boys Life Guard t-shirt remains for sale on Ralph Lauren's website. Fortunately, the boy modeling it appears perfectly normal in size.

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