Columbus, Ohio based Victoria’s Secret, a part of L Brands, has recently partnered with Colombian intimate wear purveyor Leonisa, a dominant brand in Colombia based in Medellín that specializes in women’s wear but also offers its “Leo” men’s line. The deal makes Leonisa’s shapewear available to Victoria’s Secret online customers with the possibility of expanding into Victoria’s Secret retail outlets. Leonisa’s “shapewear” or body shaping underwear for women has been on store shelves in Colombia for years where the brand holds a dominant market position, and the company also has a direct sales operation similar to Avon, using catalogs and independent representatives.
Victoria’s Secret is struggling, with declining sales and rumors broke out yesterday of an impending sale of the company. However, according to fashion business journal MDS, shapewear sales recorded 2% growth in the US during 2019, meaning the link-up could be a win-win for Victoria’s Secret & Leonisa. The US market is almost seven times as large as Colombia in population.
There’s just one thing…In Leonisa’s recent 220-page print catalog (C18|2019) featuring almost 1,000 human images (including partial shots), the company strictly and exclusively features models that appear white-European; this even though Colombia has one of the world’s most diverse human populations, and where the predominant majority is multi-racial. The Colombian company features models from Europe but seems to leave out anyone from its own continent.
Leonisa features 6 “top models” on their website. Lada Kravchenko (Russia), Elle Wagner (USA), Marquita Pring (USA), Tamara Lazic (Serbia), Alexandra Elise (USA), and Nina Agdal (Denmark). None are Colombian or from Latin America.
Finance Colombia reached out to both Leonisa and Victoria’s Secret for comment but received no response. Leonisa’s behavior seems even more egregious than Columbus based Abercrombie & Fitch when it was led by the disgraced CEO Mike Jeffries. In Gonzales v Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, a class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Abercrombie & Fitch discriminated against job applicants who were not white, and the few that were hired were put in back-room positions, where they would not be seen by the public. In other words, the company worked hard to present a “whitewashed” image. Abercrombie & Fitch paid $40 million USD to settle the claims, and agreed to a consent-decree, or court-order to change their ways. Jeffries was ousted and the company reformed its policies and corporate culture.
On the other hand, L Brands, which includes Bath & Body Works, Pink & Victoria’s Secret has generally enjoyed a good reputation, even being somewhat progressive when it comes to diversity. Its stores, catalogs, websites and staff have consistently shown a conscientious approach to reflecting the diversity of the communities where it operates, and the customers it markets to. That begs the question whether proper due diligence was performed when partnering with Leonisa. Did they look at the catalog? The bigger question is: Why does Leonisa do it? What statement are they attempting to make through their exclusion? We reached out to them through their website, email, their Twitter account, and through their marketing manager on LinkedIn, giving them over a full business day to reply.
Colombia like many countries has its own struggles with class, color and ethnicity. A Spanish slave-holding colony until independence in 1825, the Spanish installed a class structure that replicated social conditions on the Iberian Peninsula. Aristocrats were of pure European blood and had to prove it to keep their Spanish titles. According to Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana, country founder Simón Bolivar’s grandfather Juan de Bolívar y Martínez de Villegas was denied the aristocratic titles Marquis of San Luis and Viscount of Cocorote because it was suspected he had at least one black ancestor. The native population, still going strong today, was subjected by the Spanish to the brutal “Encomienda” system of forced servitude. Since independence, a “de-facto” color aristocracy has lingered in Colombia and those that “look European” (or at least like Leonisa models) hold higher social positions overall than the rest of the country (the majority). Unlike in the British colonies, there was no taboo against non-aristocratic Spanish mixing with the local populations, so today most of Latin America is a diverse spectrum of complexions from a true melting pot of native American, African, and European ancestries. The only consequence for interracial marriages in Spanish colonies would be that for sure you weren’t going to make it into the “pure” European aristocracy. Terms like black & white don’t have the same meanings as in the USA, South Africa or Australia where they have historically had legally significant definitions.
Colombia does not have strong anti-discrimination laws, and it is both common and legal to see employment advertisements specifying age, marital status, gender, and even physical characteristics. In 2018, then President Juan Manuel Santos restored a portrait of Juan José Nieto, the country’s first black president during 1861 to the gallery of former presidents in the Presidential Palace after the portrait was taken down, sent to France to whiten his image, and then remained hidden. “They literally erased him from the history of Colombia to the point he had no place in the gallery of former presidents,” former Minister Amylkar Acosta was quoted as saying by Blu Radio.
In the 1930s, two Columbia University psychologists, Drs. Jim & Mamie Clark conducted a study using dolls of how images encountered in early childhood affect self esteem and racial perceptions. The study was used in the landmark US Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education in 1954, and replicated in 2010 by CNN with University of Chicago professor Margaret Beal Spencer. When children are shown images of success or glamour that exclude them or their kind, it has a deleterious effect on their psyche and self-esteem. For children who do conform with the images of success or glamour, when the images are exclusive, the children look at those people who don’t conform to the images as inferior or bad.
Click here for an abstract of the Clark Racial Bias Study
The questions remain regarding Leonisa’s business practices, ethics and how that reflects upon Victoria’s Secret, and even more broadly, bilateral trade between close allies Colombia & the United States:
- Why does Leonisa publish whites-only catalogs?
- Why does a Colombian company feature European & North American models to the exclusion of Latinos or non-white models?
- What message does that send to Colombian and Latin American men, women & children?
- How do these images affect the self-esteem of the majority of Colombians that don’t look like the Leonisa models?
- Was Victoria’s Secret aware of this?
- Did Victoria’s Secret conduct due diligence?
- Does Victoria’s Secret think it’s OK?
Finance Colombia has reached out, but no one is talking.
All photos Loren Moss except
L Brands screen capture thumbnail & “Diverse Planet,” Emilio Santamaría