Interview: Leonisa Responds To Finance Colombia’s “Whites Only” Catalog Claims
One week ago, on February 11th, Finance Colombia published an article about Leonisa, the Colombian textiles and fashion company that recently began partnering with Columbus, Ohio based Victoria’s Secret of Limited Brands. In the article, Finance Colombia details the “whites-only” catalog that Leonisa recently published (C18 of 2019), and the lack of Colombian models in the company’s “Top Models” section on its website.
Before publishing and during research for the piece, Finance Colombia reached out to both Victoria’s Secret and Leonisa but received no response. Victoria’s Secret still has not responded, perhaps because they have been busy responding to sexual misconduct allegations. The previous week, 100 Victorias Secret models signed a letter of complaint to the company’s CEO, demanding the company “change its culture of misogyny and abuse.” The New York Times had just published a damning investigative report earlier this month alleging “bullying and harassment of employees and models.”
Leonisa did not respond before the article was published but did contact Finance Colombia after the article was public. The representative, Juan Felipe Duque, who runs Leonisa’s North American operations out of Atlanta, Georgia insisted that the company is committed to diversity, and that it was unfair to look at only one 220 page catalog (with over 1,000 images). Finance Colombia agreed to publish a full interview, and to look at other sources. The full, unabridged interview follows.
Since the first article was published and immediately before publishing this article, Finance Colombia also looked at Leonisa’s social media accounts. Here are the findings as of February 18th. It is up to the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. Does this reflect the diversity of Colombia, Latin America, North America, or even Europe? The reader can come to his or her own conclusions. At time of publishing:
On Leonisa’s Pinterest account, there are 237 images including people. Of those,
- There were only 2 individual shots of anyone nonwhite.
- There were 4 more group shots that included a person other than white.
Leonisa has 3,611 posts on Instagram. Finance Colombia counted the last 300, going back to December 16, 2018.
- Only 2 of the individual images contain anyone nonwhite.
- 8 of the group photos included anyone nonwhite.
On Facebook, Leonisa has 2,969 photos, with 2,036 posted by other people. Finance Colombia focused on cover photos, which are intended to convey a brand image, and are posted by the brand. Leonisa has 76 cover photos. In those, there are images of 179 individually identifiable people.
- None of the individual images contain anyone nonwhite.
- In total, 9 nonwhite individuals, out of the 179 can be identified.
Leonisa points out that its C16 catalog of 2019 featured Colombian morning television personality Catalina Gomez, (click here) and points to its participation in the Concurso Nacional de Belleza which selects Miss Colombia.
Finance Colombia in the previous article made no judgement regarding the ethics or values of Leonisa, or what the company thinks. The article simply reported what the company did in a specific catalog and on its website and stands by the factual accuracy of its reporting.
Is Leonisa doing enough? Not enough? Finance Colombia has heard reactions to the first article from “I’m sure they didn’t mean it” to “I will never do business with them again!” Should Leonisa endeavor to reflect the diversity of its customer base, or is that a bunch of “politically correct” liberal nonsense?
Is the Leonisa catalog a case of “implicit bias?” Below you will read Leonisa’s justification for not using Colombian models in their Colombian catalogs. Does it make sense to you? There is a comment section after the end of the article. Share your feedback.
Finance Colombia: So tell me about the company Leonisa. I haven’t been able to find out much about it. There’s not a lot on the website, I understand that it’s a Paisa (homonym for Colombians from Medellín & the surrounding region) company from here in Medellín, but what’s the history of the company? Who founded it? Who owns it, and how big is it? What can you tell me about Leonisa, the company?
Juan Felipe Duque: It is a privately owned company and it was started in Medellín as you suggested, and it was founded in 1956. Since day one we have been doing women’s intimate apparel. When we started going to the United States, we saw that there was an opportunity and a growing marketing for shapewear, so knowing that we had very unique technology and we were vertically integrated —because the main difference between Leonisa and other brands is that we make 90% of our raw materials, so we make the fabric, the lace, the elastic, everything. The only things we don’t make are metallic or metal components like underwires, hooks and eyes.
Click here to view Leonisa’s corporate profile
So we started doing business in the US primarily via e-Commerce, and you know, we saw that opportunity in shapewear, a growing market and the American consumer is starting to like a lot of our products, and a lot of the Latino women that would go to the United States, when they knew that Leonisa started selling there, they would recommend it to their friends and family. After a woman gave birth to her baby for postpartum, for daily use, and that’s how we started to become popular among consumers in the US, mostly for our shapers, then obviously, we try to sell some of our other products, like bras, swimwear, activewear…
Finance Colombia: It makes sense because you know, shapewear has a different market space or market perception in the US compared to here in Colombia. In Colombia it seems to be a lot more popular, you see a lot of advertising from Leonisa, or some of the other brands here, on buses and the stores in shopping malls. In the US, it hasn’t had that same presence, you can find it but it’s not…It’s like back in a different room or it may be a small specialty store, but it is not promoted as fashion, right?
Juan Felipe Duque: Definitely, definitively.
Finance Colombia: I saw that it’s a growth market, I was reading in one of the fashion business magazines, researching for the original story and it said that area is growing at about 2% per year. I remember Victoria’s Secret is from L Brands, from Columbus Ohio which is where I’m from, so I saw how that group of companies really grew and took off in the eighties and nineties and it was interesting my first time in Colombia in 2004, there were no Victoria’s Secret stores yet, but people would bring Victoria’s Secret…People knew about it, and would bring the brand down here and it was like contraband diamonds or something! Women were crazy to get their hands on it and now you do have some of those stores down here, like Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, and this still, Latin America still seems to be a growth market where in the US has matured for them and similar brands so I think that the linkup looks like, as I mentioned a win-win situation for the two companies.
Now tell me about yourself, your name and your role with the company.
Juan Felipe Duque: My name is Juan Duque and I am basically in charge of the company’s operations in North America, we’re based in Atlanta. From Atlanta we oversee Canada and Mexico.
Finance Colombia: So I’m glad you contacted us. We tried to contact somebody from Leonisa for the original article and now want to give Leonisa the opportunity to tell their side of the story or to set the record straight, whatever the case might be. We don’t do hatchet jobs, we don’t have any animosity towards any company at all, and we want to see increased trade and opportunities between Colombia and the US, and the rest of the world, the entire world.
Colombia now has 13 Free Trade Agreements I think, with countries is far away as Korea, relationships with Australia and New Zealand, obviously Europe, and so what I wanted to do is to is to reach out and…I’ll tell you how this story came about, because obviously Leonisa is a big brand here in Colombia. Your catalog was on my dining room table, my wife had it and it looks like she had her neighborhood direct sales representative listed in the catalog.
Juan Felipe Duque: Right.
Finance Colombia: And so I don’t know, I was just bored or something, and I started looking through it, I know that it has a men’s section. I didn’t look closely at first, but I looked at my wife and said: “how come nobody looks like you?” This is a Colombian brand, and you’re a Paisa, you’re from Santa Fe de Antioquia…and her friends were sitting around the table and I asked them, “you are the customers, but is this catalog supposed to be for you? None of you look like this.” And they kind of look at me and had no answer, and that was the genesis of how this article came about. Last week I tried to reach out to people from both Leonisa and Victoria’s Secret and was not successful in obtaining a response. So we went ahead with an article but I’m glad that you’re here to answer any questions, and so I guess the first question I would have it if you tell me about the process of how the publicity comes together. I used to do fashion photography for a brief time in the 1990s, but I have been out of that industry since then so the catalog, online, how do you bring the imagery together? Tell me about that process.
Juan Felipe Duque: The catalog business to your point in particular, the catalog that you found on your table, that is a very, very unique business model and a very unique marketing…Or let’s say to your point model collection, so in general what it comes down to, just let’s say you are a model here in Colombia, and you are a local personality, you start, you go to classes, you learn how to model, you join a modeling agency because all of these relationships have to be done through modeling agencies, so you end up in one of the most well-known modeling agencies or more reputable modeling agencies, so at that point you are in a very good position, so a company like Leonisa comes to you, and we print that catalog six months in advance, but we have to design it, we have to, you know, the printing process, that is unfortunately a very lengthy process.
Juan Felipe Duque: Especially when you bring thousands and thousands of books, so we as a company we come to the models, and we say “listen we want to use your talent but you have to sign an exclusivity agreement that you won’t model for other catalog in the business for the next 7 months.” So would you agree to that if you were a Colombian model? Well, the answer, the most logical answer would be no, because for one photo shoot, for 1,2 or even a week, I’m not going to be, y, basically hand-tied without working in other places, and why is that? Because most women that sell catalogs, they don’t sell only Leonisa, they probably sell three or four other books, so if you see the same lady in all other books, wearing clothing, people are going to be confused, they’re going to say “oh, this is all the same product”, because now in textiles, it’s hard competition and that’s primarily why it is very difficult for us to use or to find qualified local women.
So you can find one, you can find two, but to have a sustainable catalog that gets printed every 21 days you then have to go and look outside of the country where they don’t really care about a Colombian catalog, they are never going to go there, they are doing business in Europe, they’re doing business in the United States or whatever, and when you tell them “listen, would you be willing to give me an exclusivity for a Colombian catalog, they will have to say yes.
So that’s one part of the story and second, let’s say you want to do your own research and you go to one of these modeling agencies, you tell them “okay, can you please show me the portfolio of women that are willing to model in Intimate apparel? So out of 100, the model comes down to probably 10, which then out of the ten, we choose those women that will be suitable that the product will do well, that are in a B or a C or a D cup, so it becomes very narrow and sometimes you have a really hard time finding it so that’s why at the same time you just go to reach out to the world and then you do try to find women that have a good attitude, that’s when you start designing your…How is the mood of the brand and once you have that process settled down you can basically use models from anywhere in the world and we have. We used models from Argentina, from Brazil, from Peru, compared from…You name it, from anywhere we could.
Finance Colombia: So let me make sure I understand what you’re saying correctly…
Juan Felipe Duque: Yes.
Finance Colombia: The way I understand what you’re saying is that Leonisa finds it difficult to find Colombian models willing to model in this catalog, that’s what I just heard you say. Did I misunderstand you? Because I want to be absolutely clear on this, because I find that…I find that very surprising as a photographer that has worked in that field before. I’m in here in Colombia, which is a country famous for models! Leonisa uses foreign models because it finds it extremely difficult to find models that are Colombian that are willing to work with Leonisa. That’s what I understood you say.
Juan Felipe Duque: Not that are willing to work with us.
Finance Colombia: Ok?
Juan Felipe Duque: That’s what I wanted to make very clear that it is for a catalog, for the catalog, for printing photography in a Colombian catalog. I could find them very easy, I will find them, but if I use them I’m going to see them in this whole catalogs of competitors.
Finance Colombia: Well, let me ask you this. You guys are now partners with Victoria’s Secret, they use models that are well-known, and they are well-known because they’re modeling! The reason that Victoria’s Secret wanted to use them is because they’re modeling everywhere, and you have models on your website from places like Serbia and Russia, who are well-known because they model elsewhere. You told me that Leonisa wanted to use them because they were already famous and had followings, so it seems that they’re working in other places, right?
Juan Felipe Duque: Right, but they won’t work with people in our local markets.
Finance Colombia: Okay, so for the record, there are a lot of Colombian models that are not willing to work exclusively with Leonisa, and for that reason Leonisa uses foreign models?
Juan Felipe Duque: Well, it’s not the rule, it’s difficult, that’s what I sent you, if you see the PDF file that I sent you. (Leonisa has given Finance Colombia permission to share with readers, click here to view)
Finance Colombia: Yes, it’s open here.
Juan Felipe Duque: When we are able to find local (talent) we try to do a whole campaign, a whole book, but you’ve got to understand that we print a book every 21 days, so is very difficult that you’re going to be able to have…and you can check even in any retailers in Colombia, you can go to Éxito, you can go to Avon, any local company that sells via catalog, most of them use international models as well, as far as their portfolio, because they have the same issue. And this was basically one campaign before the one you saw, it was unfortunate because if you would have seen this this campaign in 2019, you probably would have been amazed the other way, right? We found this lady, which is a very popular morning show personality, I don’t know if you have heard of her, Catalina Gomez.
Finance Colombia: Yes, of course.
Juan Felipe Duque: Ok so she’s a morning show personality, one of the most loved colombian women in the country, her popularity is very high, so we were able to get to an agreement with her, where she would do a whole campaign with us, and she was willing to give us an exclusive for catalog sales business and modeling, and we did a very good job with her. We wish we could find more like her. When you find something like this, there are also two components, right? You find the women and then you have to look at the financial aspect as well. So let’s say a current celebrity for telenovelas or a current personality, if they are in there. When you ask them for prices, they can cost five or ten times more than another regular woman, or another woman that could be doing the job.
Finance Colombia: Right…
Juan Felipe Duque: So then you go to the article and you go to many pages; you know we have been the main sponsor of the national beauty pageant for 10 years, and every year after the tournament or the pageant ends, they got a contract with Leonisa swimwear, and I shared some examples of some recent beauty pageant winners. We were very happy to work with them in some of the other catalogs I showed you to where we used local talent, so we always have a mix of people from all over the world: Latin, non-Latin, you know, we cater to women from their first training bra all the way to the last bra she will use.
You know, we have been in the market for over 60 years the company has been in business, we’ll just do a lot of work with, and we’re a very big supporter of the early detection of breast cancer, I mean, you would be amazed, so the printing of the catalog is the complicated one, now if you are able to go to the website—
Finance Colombia: Yes, I have it open here.
Juan Felipe Duque: Okay, so are you in Colombia or are you outside?
Finance Colombia: I’m in Medellin, I’m just outside of Guayabál, so I’ll go see your factory. (Guayabál is a neighborhood in Medellin where Leonisa has a factory)
Juan Felipe Duque: Because that’s the other point, women that, you know, model activewear, exterior apparel, is much easier. So if you scroll down and you go to where it says “Descubre lo que está pasando en Leonisa” (discover what’s happening in Leonisa).
Finance Colombia: I see: “Esta es nuestra experiencia, recomendado para ti” (this is our experience, recommended for you). Right, okay, I’m looking at this.
Juan Felipe Duque: So, if you were one of the pioneers in doing this, what we’re trying to do is empower women like your wife, like her friends, who are using our products: how do you like it? Are you willing to share? This has been a complete game changer for us, we thought that it wasn’t going to be so popular, we have had so much information that if you start turning right you will have Leonisa consumers anywhere in the world, and we have been doing this for almost two years and the amount of information—you are going to a particular product; in the product we have the women that are users of the Leonisa products, sharing their pictures so that women see real women wearing the product. To your point, women that look like them, women that don’t look like them, because through the internet we get to women all over the world.
Finance Colombia: Speaking of the website, I want to go to the section where it says “top models” under Leonisa > about us > modelos top, and this is something that we talked about in the article. I see some very beautiful women, and I’m sure they’re great people, Lada Kravchenko, Elle Wagner, Marquita Pring, Tamara Lazic, Alexandra Elise, Nina Agdal, and you know, I don’t think you use it anymore but I remember Leonisa used to use as a tagline “Tan latina como tu,” (as Latin as you are) but, you know, but I’m looking here and there are no Latinas, and in the all the featured models, if you say “we want to go to the rest of the world,” well we just had the Superbowl in the US, and there’s probably nothing more American than the Super Bowl, and we had Shakira and we had 25 dancers from Cali, and we had Jennifer Lopez, who is Puerto Rican, we had J Balvin, but on the other hand, I come here to the “Tan latina como tu” company—and there’s nothing wrong with using models from the US or from Europe—but it’s exclusive! And I have to ask why? I’m not judging or saying it’s good or bad, but I have to ask why.
Juan Felipe Duque: Yeah, because that “Tan latina como tu” as a campaign, was probably in 2005, then starting in 2009, 2010 we started selling for international markets that were not Latina exclusive, in the United States and Europe, at that point we started using more international models. These models are models that at some point made the agreement that we could use them for this particular section, but then we stopped doing that because when the when the eCommerce started growing, they basically, it was more expensive to add for that particular permission.
This would be something that will stay there for some time with the photo shoot basically, we stopped using or filling this section of the website with new or top models, but also the fact that we were able to find talent worldwide also. I mean, there is no reason to be paying like Nina Agdal, you know, she became very popular after this work she was the wife of I think Leonardo DiCaprio, you know, a very famous personality.
What I’m saying is that it really became no longer financially feasible to start using supermodels for online. It became more expensive than regular for you to be able to find an agency in Barcelona or New York, or in Bogota, or wherever you were, you had to fly over there, talk on the phone, send me…Now you can just go online and get any model in the world and find work very easy like that. That’s the beauty of the world at your fingertips, but I don’t know if that answers your question.
Finance Colombia: Well, it leads to other questions, and it’s related to what you were saying about the catalog. Even though I will take you at your word that if it’s difficult to find colombian models that are willing to work under the conditions you need. When I think about people who are aspiring models who would probably model for free just so they could be famous in the catalog like Leonisa. I know so many women in the US that their dream is to be a Victoria’s Secret, or Sports Illustrated model, but okay: if as you say, you can go to the world market for people for either online or your catalog, if you go outside of Colombia, you have Puerto Rico, you have Panama, you have 60 million latinos in the United States, even more than in Spain, even more than in Colombia, and a lot of them are signed up to be models, you want exotic? I know a Russian-Dominican model in Miami, okay, who is six foot tall and is a professional runway model who has never been to Colombia so wouldn’t care about exclusivity.
Did anybody notice when they were putting this catalog together that it excludes absolutely anyone who’s not white? How does someone produce a 200 page catalog and nobody even notice, is what I’d ask and what I thought I would ask you.
And another thing that I noticed, and this very good especially when you talk about the fashion industry, you have begun to use plus size models. I think even one of the international top models are plus size. Victoria’s Secret has come under pressure but to their credit they responded very well to that, and I think that you have an initiative that talks about things like body dysmorphia: bulimia and anorexia, and my wife is psychologist, so that’s her field, but it’s good that you all are taking an active role and being proactive in that. So first let me be fair and complement you on that. But that leads me to ask the question that: at the same time of somebody who doesn’t look like a runway model who’s not 6 foot tall, size 4 and a B or C cup, maybe for the same reasons that somebody looks at a catalog, or at images in the media are at images in in fashion and feels like they have been excluded. That contributes to a negative self-image and the fashion industry is responding to that. What about the little girl in Chocó, or La Guajira, or Sincelejo? I know one of the models of that you even have in the PDF you sent me is the former Miss Colombia from Sincelejo, Ariadna Gutiérrez.
Juan Felipe Duque: Yeah, we use them, we use them.
Finance Colombia: So when a girl, or man for that matter, because you have the Leo brand as well, or woman sees that and they get this catalog in their hands and they’re looking, and like every country, you know the US has had its own problems, and Colombia’s problems are different and the history is different, but has them, so if that girl looks at the catalogs and sees that this is what is defined as attractive, “but nobody looks like me, just maybe, I’m not attractive,” the same thing that happens with body dysmorphia, isn’t that a danger for your own people here in Colombia, across populations?
Ariadna Gutierrez suffered social media harassment for sharing an unretouched teenage photo of herself (click here).
One of the top businessmen here in Colombia I know, who is at the top of one of the biggest Colombian companies told me one time about how his parents were not allowed into Club El Nogal (an exclusive private club in Bogotá), because they were of Arab descent, because his grandparents were, like many people in the Atlantic region, they were Arab immigrants. I don’t think Club El Nogal is like that today, but he related to me this history that happened to his parents back in the 60’s or 70’s.
Juan Felipe Duque: Right.
Finance Colombia: So what if you don’t look like the way “the proper Colombian” is supposed to look? Just like where you don’t have to be thin or look like a runway model the same question is what about most Colombians who don’t look European, because they’re mestizos or mulattos?
Juan Felipe Duque: No, I get your point, but the whole issue here is that you’re judging, you’re making the judgment on a 5% sample. We print 21 catalogs a year; the big ones, 200 pages. Then we print 24 smaller catalogs a year, then we have the inserts, we have, so you are judging by probably 1% or 3%, If I show you this catalog on page 16, where we used one of the most well-known people, very relatable to everybody in the country,
and we have used many other personalities or women that to your point, look like our mainstream consumer but at the same time you have to, you think—and I don’t blame you for it—but people think that is really easy to select, I mean, you have to go through modeling agencies, in Colombia, the labor laws, if you don’t contract them, it is, you know how complicated it is.
So that you don’t have to take my word, like you made an article, blamed me and Leonisa for not using Colombians and working with Victoria’s Secret. If you saw the products that Victoria’s Secret was working for with Leonisa and the three models, all of those three models on victoriassecret.com, were 100% Colombian.
Finance Colombia: Let me ask you a couple more questions because I want to be fair with you. Looking forward, you are expanding into the US market and in our publication has probably more readers in the US than anywhere. Finance Colombia generally is read by executives that are doing business with Colombian companies or looking to do business here or looking to form business links here, whether that’s in fashion or petroleum or wherever. What would you say to those companies as to what Leonisa’s policy or commitment is as you go into more and more diverse markets like Mexico and the United States, like Europe, which is about as diverse as United States, if not more so these days?
“I mean, you have to go through modeling agencies, in Colombia, the labor laws, if you don’t contract them, it is, you know how complicated it is.”
Juan Felipe Duque: We really don’t have to say because we prove it every day with our work, with the models we use on our website, the partnerships we make, the charities we contribute to, social responsibility combined with the environment. We are the number one recycler of fishing nets in the ocean and we use and reprocess those nests and make swimwear out of it. We support our employees with. Anywhere you look, we don’t have to say it, and if you ask anybody, you can even ask your friends in Medellin about Leonisa, how we do. The people know us, they know our culture, they know our brand for women and we try to be the best we can as a company and as people, as employers, as entrepreneurs.
Finance Colombia: Last question, because you’ve been very generous with your time: What is Leonisa’s commitment, not just to Colombian women and not just to Latin women, and not just to women because you have the Leo brand of some very attractive menswear? So if Leonisa has a commitment to that diversity and not just in the warehouse, and not just in the factory but in the retail stores and in the catalog, and on the website, what is that commitment not just that Colombians can expect but as you go to the US and European in global markets that global consumers can expect to see from Leonisa as you grow and as you internationalize and as you form partnerships.
Juan Felipe Duque: Yeah, I know this is a commitment, has been and will continue to be, to make sure we are a very socially responsible company that we are a company that helps women look their best, embrace their beauty, no matter her size or age or nationality, we want to continue to be good with the environment, we think it is a very big responsibility, we are a pioneer in that, and, you know, in the world where we go we are all we will always stay true to our roots where we are a Latino company, that will never change, and we feel proud that, really we don’t want to change it, so I mean, we will stay committed to what we have been throughout the years and what has led us to be a company in most of the countries where we have presence and we sell our goods.
Leonisa photos used were provided by Leonisa and used with the company’s permission.
Natura is https://www.natura.com.co/