In mid-March, just around the time that American schools and offices started closing because of the coronavirus pandemic, not that long before numerous designers had suddenly become heroes for volunteering their services to hand-sew masks so that surgical-grade ones could go to those who needed them most, the staff at Draper James, Reese Witherspoon’s fashion label, started talking about doing something for teachers.
Many of the staff had young children. Like so many other parents with children now permanently at home, they suddenly appreciated their schooling in a whole new way. What if we gave teachers dresses, someone said. Everyone loved it, including Ms. Witherspoon.
On Thursday, April 2, Draper James announced the offer on its Instagram page, writing: “Dear Teachers: We want to say thank you. During quarantine, we see you working harder than ever to educate our children. To show our gratitude, Draper James would like to give teachers a free dress.” They were instructed to apply by a form, given a deadline, and told when “winners” would be notified — as well as that it was valid “while supplies last.”
Unfortunately for the company, that turned out to be not very long, given the response. And that made the dress debacle at Draper James both a case study in fashion’s wide-ranging power to symbolize hope and positivity, as well as what happens when national crisis, celebrity business, altruism and social media collide.
Other brands were also donating products: Pronovias, the bridal group, said it would give wedding dresses to engaged hospital workers, doctors and janitors alike; Keen, the outdoor recreation company, said it would donate 100,000 shoes to people affected by Covid-19.
But the Draper James combination of teachers, dresses (not exactly essential, but the sort of fairy godmother extra that makes people feel special) and Reese Witherspoon added up to a viral moment.
“In many parts of the country, a lot of teachers really don’t feel appreciated, and don’t get paid very well, and the idea of a free dress during a high-stress time was really exciting,” said Natalie Ornell, a substitute middle-school teacher in the Boston public school system. “It was really like Cinderella.”
Tammy Meyer, a kindergarten teacher in the Georgia public school system, felt the same way. “It was Reese Witherspoon!” she said. “She’s always been one of my favorite actresses. To have a dress associated with her at a time when everyone is so overwhelmed — I guess we were grasping at straws.”
The problem was, Draper James, a company that is only five years old and has fewer than 30 employees, had only 250 dresses, in six different styles, to give away. There are more than 3 million public schoolteachers in the United States, and a large majority of them are women.
The application form crashed almost immediately. Just days after the original Instagram post appeared, it had been viewed more than 400,000 times. Teachers were emailing one another and sharing it online. By the close of the application period, Draper James had almost one million applications — which was approximately seven times the total number of dresses they had sold in 2019.
The numbers were never going to add up.
Credit…via Draper James
“We felt like we moved too quickly and didn’t anticipate the volume of the response,” said Marissa Cooley, the senior vice president for brand marketing and creative at Draper James. “We were really overwhelmed. It was way more volume than the company had ever seen. We expected the single-digit thousands.”
The company tried to backpedal as soon as it did the math, contacting everyone who applied to let them know it was a raffle, not a mass giveaway, and posting the actual giveaway number twice on its Instagram Stories. But the damage had been done.
All of a sudden the desire to help started to look like a cynical marketing ploy.
“Celebrity #Covidwashing,” as David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at Parsons, called it on Twitter, had entered the conversation.
Especially because, in order to qualify for the giveaway, teachers had been asked to submit both pictures of their school IDs and their work email addresses, which at once were clogged with multiple Draper James promotions, which didn’t stop even after the dress raffle had been held. (Those who didn’t win were offered a 30 percent discount, and the opportunity to unsubscribe.)
“In the end, it felt like her brand profited more than the teachers,” Ms. Ornell said.
Teachers had a lot to say about it.
Ms. Cooley said that when the company realized the extent of the misunderstanding, its employees were very upset. After all, their intentions were good. Two hundred fifty teachers were made very happy.
But while it is true that the company is small, Ms. Witherspoon herself is big, maybe even “one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.” In good times, that perception benefits her brand. It probably is part of what convinced her to enter the fashion arena in the first place, monetizing her image and following in the footsteps of Gwyneth Paltrow at Goop, Jessica Alba at the Honest Company and Kate Hudson at Fabletics. It also created a disjunction between perception and reality that contributed to misconceptions.
It would not have seemed out of the realm of possibility to many teachers, who as of May 2019 had a median annual income of $59,670 (per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), with the lowest 10 percent making only $39,020, that Ms. Witherspoon, whose most recent pay rate was reported to be $2 million an episode for “The Morning Show” on Apple TV, was giving everyone who applied a dress.
Assuming she was giving away her cheapest dress, which sells for $78, and if the cost of that dress to her company is, say, $40, which takes into account the average wholesale margin, that would have meant spending something like $40 million on the giveaway.
This is a time when — thanks in part to social media — the cult of personality that attaches to a founder is often conflated with the company they run. Giving away $40 million in dresses may even have seemed in character, at least as far as this public character went. Ms. Witherspoon is a very plausible dream benefactor, swooping in to do something entirely unexpected and joy-giving.
“She always seemed like such a down-to-earth celebrity,” said Laura Deckman, Mr. Carroll’s sister and a teacher in the Rochester, N.Y., public school system, who said she followed Ms. Witherspoon on Instagram. “She has a really strong brand that is about being a mom and regular person.”
But then it had all turned into a moldy pumpkin, and they felt like chumps. Which made it even worse.
“It’s like a marketing 101 fail,” Mr. Carroll said. “The intentions were good, but the execution was terrible.”
Because of the breadth and depth of the pandemic — because it touches such an enormous swath of people in a way that is unlike anything we have experienced before — “these are really uncharted waters,” he said.
Now the company is scrambling to repair the damage, trying to source more stock and put together another giveaway.
Over Easter weekend, Draper James sent another letter to its applicants, stating that it was making a donation (the company declined to say how much) to a charity that supplies teachers with school necessities to send to their remote-learning students, as well as “actively working on expanding our offerings, both internally and with outside retail partners who were also inspired by your stories and want to join in honoring your community, and we ask for your patience while we organize this effort.” It added a gigantic “unsubscribe” button to the email.
Ms. Meyer, for one, was not particularly satisfied.
“It was a pretty weak apology,” she said. “They weren’t very clear with what they are specifically going to do with their ‘partnering up’ and trying to make up for their mistake and satisfy educators.”
Ms. Deckman didn’t necessarily even want a free dress any more, Mr. Carroll said. The power of that dress and what it had represented — the balm of beauty and fame — had been tarnished. Instead, he said, she wanted the company “to stop trying to use her profession as part of their branding.”
And to take this as an education, at the very least.