“Our Customers Were Guiding Us”

An Interview with Addition-Elle’s Wendy Sculnick

Jordan Tesfay modelling for Addition-Elle, Spring 2003

For years, Canada’s best-known plus-size retailer, Addition-Elle, has been producing some of the most beautiful and progressive advertising campaigns in the industry. But what led this company to adopt size celebration so far in advance of its competitors? Where did it find its inspiration? The answer may surprise you.

In this interview with Wendy Sculnick, who is the marketing manager for Addition-Elle, we learn about the choices that an acclaimed and successful company makes in promoting plus-size fashion, and in helping to reform society’s views of beauty.

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HSG: First of all, I should tell you just how much everyone appreciates the remarkable campaigns that we see from the various branches of Reitmans family. For its Encore line, Reitmans distinguishes itself with the winning combination of Valerie Lefkowitz and Barbara Brickner. Addition-Elle consistenly uses geunuinely full-figured models. And Penningtons, of course, made a big splash in 2002 with the launch of its cutting-edge MXM line, which is famously represented by Mia Tyler. It’s exciting to think of so many stunning models working for one company…

Jordan Tesfay (Wilhelmina ten20) modelling for Addition-Elle, Spring 2004

WS: Yes, I just wish that a few of the models were a little bit…larger.

HSG: Goodness, it is so encouraging to hear you say that! Much of the praise that your company earns for its promotions has always been due to the fact that you use fuller-figured models than your American counterparts.

WS: Yes, absolutely. And I think that the American market is starting to look at it differently as well. If you look at Lane Bryant—who is, of course, the U.S.’s largest plus-size retailer—they were using girls who were size 10 and 12 before. If you look at their campaign this season, they have gone to using girls who are closer to a 14 than ever before. It’s very encouraging to see.

HSG: My own theory is that you helped to make this happen. By exposing the U.S. to your campaigns, you showed them—both the professionals and public alike—that it is possible to use genuinely full-figured models and to shoot them in beautiful ways, and not to select models who are close to straight-sized as possible.

WS: Yes. I’m hoping that Addition-Elle has influenced markets everywhere. But I think also that if you’re a good retailer, you listen to what your customers want, and you respond to what they’re asking for, and I think with Lane Bryant, they probably started to hear their customers speaking out a little bit more.

HSG: And that touches on one of the questions that comes up most frequently on my forum: to what degree do the marketing professionals, photographers, stylists (indeed, everyone who is involved in creating these advertising campaigns) listen to the opinions of the public, and to what degree do they follow their own personal aesthetic vision?

WS: I think that being good at what you do is understanding who your customer is, and appealing to them at their level—and also maybe teaching them something a little bit new—but appealing to them at what they understand, and what they want to see and hear.

Jordan Tesfay (Wilhelmina ten20) modelling for Addition-Elle, Spring 2004

HSG: Speaking of being a good retailer, one of the purposes of these interviews is to inform anyone who is interested that there are many exciting career choices avaiable in plus-size fashion. My hope is that more individuals will get involved in the industry who do not necessarily possess a background in straight-size end of things, but who begin with a preference for the plus aesthetic. With that in mind, I would like to ask you a few questions about your role as a marketing manager. How directly involved are you in creating Addition-Elle’s advertising campaigns?

WS: Extremely! [laughter] Extremely. We obviously work as a team. We have a marketing team, a marketing director, and then as well we work with the merchants. The merchants bring to the table what their collection is going to look like, and what their direction is from that point of view, and then we take it and turn it into our image.

HSG: So do you decide which models get used, and which photographers get hired, or do you outsource that?

WS: No, no, no, we do that internally. We do everything internally. All design is done internally. Any brainstorming, any creative developments—what the image will look like, what the marketing tool will be—all of that is done internally.

HSG: Excellent. So I am putting these questions to the right person. And how did you get to where you are? Do you have a fashion background, or did you come to your position via a marketing route?

WS: I’ve been in marketing in the fashion industry for…many years.

HSG: And did you enter this line of work with a specific interest in working in plus?

WS: Well, I think mostly the appeal is women, and before, I was working with maternity fashion, and then I made the change to plus-size fashion.

Jordan Tesfay (Wilhelmina ten20) modelling for Addition-Elle, Spring 2004

HSG: And what do you enjoy about working in your current field?

WS: Oh, I think it’s so exciting to be able to be in an industry that’s relatively new, that’s in its…pre-natal state [laughter]…It’s really, as you said, showing women that they should be proud of who they are, that they can look and feel great, no matter what size they are. Life is not about size. It’s about being who you are, and being confident, and…being a woman.

HSG: So you do have a sense that this is about more than the bottom line, that the industry has a sense of mission or purpose. I wish there were more people like you. Perhaps then, we would have more Addition-Elles in the world.

WS: Well, Addition-Elle can satisfy everybody!

HSG: [laughter] Okay, now to some questions about the company. Looking over Addition-Elle’s promotional material from the last several seasons, the first thing that one realizes is that you invest considerable resources in producing these campaigns. What is the importance of creating these images, and presenting them to the public in this manner?

WS: I think it’s important to communicate with your customer, to always let her know that we’re there, and that we are there to help her look great and feel great, and usually with the beginning of every season we will communicate with her so that she can see what we’re offering for her, and make it easy for her to make the decision to come in.

HSG: Why have you always used true plus-size models, even when much of the industry preferred a faux-plus standard?

WS: Because we’re in the plus-size business, and we are servicing the full-size woman, so we want to speak to her in her language.

Natalie Laughlin (Ford 12+) modelling for Addition-Elle, Fall 2002

HSG: There used to be a myth—some might even call it an excuse—that certain companies used (and regrettably, it still has some persistence), that full-figured women don’t want to see fashions on women who actually resemble what they look like—

WS: Oh, that’s not true.

HSG: It isn’t?

WS: That’s not true at all. We get e-mails all the time saying, “Thank you for using plus-size models. Thank you for showing us, and everybody else, that size is not an issue.” You can look beautiful at whatever size you are.

HSG: I’m not surprised that you do receive such feedback, because on my forum, contributors post messages of that nature about your campaigns as well—

WS: It would be like, trying to give a plus-size woman a message that, “You’re beautiful,” but using a regular-size model gives her the exact opposite message.

HSG: Yes, it is quite a mixed message, isn’t it? The words make one assertion, but the images assert the opposite. Now, in addition to using true plus-size models, you have also chosen physically attractive models. You have not rejected the idea of fashion being aspirational, but you have shown that this aspiration can be achieved by full-figured women. Why have you made this choice? What does beauty lend to your campaigns?

WS: Well, I think we choose models who are going to appeal to the customers. Our models, whereas some people might look at them and find them super-model beautiful, a lot of us look at them and find that they are everyday beautiful women.

HSG: Looking over your promotions of the last several years, I noticed that your campaigns became much more progressive with each season. It was almost as if you were upping the ante every time, pushing the boundaries a little more. Did you have a sense, when you were creating these campaigns, that you were pushing the envelope?

Natalie Laughlin (Ford 12+) modelling for Addition-Elle, Fall 2002

WS: I think that last fall, with the merchandise being such a fashion issue…fashion in general became a lot more trendy last year—the ruffles, for example! Fashion wasn’t casual, it was a little bit more dressy, and really a lot of very exciting details and elements. And with fashion going in that direction, we just followed that. We are seeing a trend now where fashion is becoming a little bit more basic. And I think that we are also seeing requests from our customers because we satisfy so many different lifestyles to not be so trendy. Not that we’re giving up the trendy, because we definitely have to satisfy our trendy customers. We are also paying a lot more attention to that classic and contemporary customer.

HSG: I’m looking now specifically at that Fall 2002 campaign. It featured Natalie Laughlin, Jordan, and a young model named Yanderis—and this, in fact, was my “first contact” with Addition-Elle, because I knew that these images could give people an entirely new idea about full-figured women, people who had never seen plus-size models presented in such a manner. This campaign ventured outside the “happy, smiley” tradition of commercial photography, and incorporated bolder, more sensual looks. My question is, did you feel that with these images, you would be reaching customers whom you hadn’t reached before, customers who might possess the kind of confidence that these models exhibit?

WS: Well, again, I think that season called for a more junior look, so in keeping with offering that type of merchandise we were just following suit, and making sure that our merchandise was properly represented.

HSG: So it really is the case—with Addition-Elle anyway—that you try to find models and photography that suit the style of the clothing on offer?

WS: Absolutely. And also, we have a “brand image” for Addition-Elle that we maintain at the same time. And as fashion changes, we will portray fashion based on our brand and our image.

HSG: Now, let’s move on to Winter 2002, which was as daring a campaign as any I have ever seen, and yet still very chic. Here we see vivid evidence of a trend that many have remarked on in the plus-size industry—i.e., the blurring of the lines between commercial and editorial photography. With your promotions, you have arguably gone further than even MODE magazine ever did in presenting women as beautiful, and sensual, yet still full-figured. With these campaigns, did you think that you could be “creating customers”—i.e., giving your customers a new self-image, and helping them realize that they have every right to look gorgeous and seductive?

Natalie Laughlin (Ford 12+) modelling for Addition-Elle, Fall 2002

WS: Absolutely. It’s going where people in the past have tended not to go. However, it is important to note that we went there because our customers were guiding us there.

HSG: And did you make this determination based on your e-mail feedback, or on what people were saying in stores?

WS: Well, I think it’s also in looking at our sales, and analyzing our merchandise. Our sleepwear is always wonderful and amazing, and a very solid core business. Everybody loves to put on a comfortable pair of pajamas. In testing the more sexy lingerie as well, and adding that to our collection, we were successful with it. Our customers were requesting it, and once it was there, reacted well to it.

HSG: Do you ever use focus groups, or do you find that those are not necessary? Do you find that what you receive in terms of direct feedback at your stores gives you a more accurate picture?

WS: I think that getting one-to one feedback at the store level constantly across the country is a big priority for us. Our employees at the sales level naturally develop relationships with their customers, and we are constantly getting feedback from them.

HSG: Does that happen of its own accord, or do you actually solicit feedback from them, and encourage them to pass on any interesting comments they receive?

WS: Well, we really have one-to-one service at the store level. Right away, our employees are conversing with their customers on a daily basis. And then, obviously, in any successful business, there is open communication between department and department, so it’s shared constantly.

HSG: When I look at your promotions, I have an idea of a single Addition-Elle customer being taken and introduced to new ideas at every turn. First, you showed her what she could wear in the office. Then, you showed her that she can have fun, too, and have a social life. And in Spring 2003, you took her to an exotic locale—you showed her that she doesn’t just have to stay at home, but can find adventure around the world. This was a choice, too, because you could have just photographed all of your fashions in a studio. What does it lend to your campaigns to give them these such lush, exotic settings?

Jordan Tesfay (Wilhelmina ten20) modelling for Addition-Elle, Spring 2004

WS: I think it helps in creating a lifestyle around the Addition-Elle customer. Addition-Elle is your one-stop shop for plus-size, catering to all lifestyles, whether it’s casual, career, or intimates. In taking her out of the studio sometimes and showing that she does have a life, it helps in developing an image that our customer can relate to.

HSG: Now, we all know that with the exception of your promotions, and those of a few other progressive companies, plus-size women are poorly represented in the media. They are all but excluded from film, and from most periodicals. Is there a sense that with your campaigns, you need to provide your customers with these size-positive images, because if you don’t do it, no one else will?

WS: Oh, absolutely. But again, I think it’s a double-edged sword. We provide it for our customers because we know that this is what they want.

HSG: It’s such an interesting tension, between how much one can lead, and how much one should reflect. And perhaps the errors that cropped up in the past were the result of people losing sight of the wishes of the public.

WS: Yes. We specialize in plus size, and that means that we understand who our customer is and what she wants, and we’re going to give it to her.

HSG: Now that’s an interesting fact in and of itself. Unlike, say, Reitmans, where a customer will go in and see clothing of every size, and images of every variety, your stores are plus-specific. What are the benefits of being plus exclusive?

WS: It’s specialized for the customer. She knows that when she comes to us, we are focussing on her, on her needs, and whether it’s the styling, or the cuts of the merchandise, or the fit of the merchandise, it’s all been done with just her needs in mind.

HSG: Do you feel that your customers are more comfortable in the environment of your stores, where they are free of comparisons—real or implied—with straight-size imagery and fashions, and even with straight-size customers?

Jordan Tesfay (Wilhelmina ten20) modelling for Addition-Elle, Spring 2004

WS: Well, I think that whenever you can identify with anything, it makes you feel more comfortable. But I think there’s also the knowledge that our size 14 is cut for a true size 14, and not just scaled up from a size eight, so the fit is more comfortable, and it’s designed with her needs in mind.

HSG: I should ask you a couple of questions about your Web site. First of all, do you ever plan to use it for online shopping, or do you think that you will keep it a promotional tool?

WS: At this time, I have to say that I don’t know of any corporate plans to venture into e-commerce. You never know what can happen in the future, but for now, we’re happy using it as a marketing tool, a communications tool.

HSG: I’m sure that it is very effective in that regard. Many people around the world have become aware of Addition-Elle, and of the nature of your promotional campaigns, thanks to your Web site.

WS: And it lets us communicate with our existing customers, to let them know what’s coming up, and what activities are in store.

HSG: You created your Web presence somewhat later than other stores, but when you did, you certainly did it in style. I still remember one of your first designs, which was titled, “Awake the goddess within,” and featured a Lord Leighton painting on the cover page. It was very close in spirit to my own efforts in emphasizing that the modern, androgynous image of women is a relatively recent phenomenon, and that full-figured women were revered as the standard of beauty throughout Western history. What gave you the idea to adopt this classical approach?

WS: Well, actually, that campaign was before my time, but I agree with you that it was an outstanding message to be giving. It was wonderful.

Natalie Laughlin (Ford 12+) modelling for Addition-Elle, Fall 2002

HSG: Hint, hint—in case you might want to revive it.

WS: Aha!

HSG: You choose the photographers for your campaigns, yes? How do you make that choice? Is it based on the quality of their work in general? Or do you look at what they have done with plus-size models, to see if they shoot them in favourable ways?

WS: Yes, I do agree with that, but if he’s good, he should give us what we need. The photographer that we use, however, does have a lot of experience, and has been shooting plus for a long time.

HSG: You mean that all of your campaigns are the work of one man’s vision? What an extraordinary talent! Don’t ever lose him! He certainly gets it right.

WS: Well, as a matter of fact, since I’ve joined the team—actually, since Fall 2002 —it’s been the same photographer.

HSG: Would you care to plug him, or do you consider this a “company secret” that you would like to keep?

WS: No, I don’t think that would be a problem. His name is Max Abadian (www.maxabadian.com).

HSG: And is he specific to Addition-Elle, or does he do work across the Reitmans lines?

WS: Each division is run completely separately in Reitmans. Well, actually, plus size, which we refer to as “One Plus”—that’s Addition-Elle, Addition-Elle Outlets, and Penningtons—we work fairly closely together. We’re all together as a team, and certain departments overlap slightly. But the other Reitmans banners in regular size work separately, and each marketing department decides who they would want to represent them.

Jordan Tesfay (Wilhelmina ten20) modelling for Addition-Elle, Spring 2004

HSG: And that would be true of the Reitmans Encore line as well?

WS: Yes.

HSG: Interesting. I must say that there was some concern when Reitmans purchased Addition-Elle that it might have a negative impact, but the campaigns have not suffered at all.

WS: No. If anything, it will help the image.

HSG: Canada still lacks a plus-size fashion magazine of its own. Do you think that the overall “One Plus” entity will ever put out a thicker magalog to fill this gap, or do you think that we might someday see a plus-size fashion magazine in Canada?

WS: Someday. I think that the media will catch on shortly to the new plus-size industry that’s starting to boom. I think Hollywood is helping the industry with more notice. And I think that in time, Canadians are going to realize that a plus-size magazine is needed.

HSG: Do you think that your campaigns might, in fact, help to combat the negative imagery of the single-mindset media?

WS: I’d like to think so. We definitely see it in our customers, and in how they dress, and how they feel, and their attitudes when they come in, and how much more confident they feel about it. And they look forward to buying clothing now. For a plus-size woman, shopping used to be dreadful. Now it’s exciting. To be able to come into Addition-Elle and find a variety of different styles and different merchandise, knowing that the quality will always be there at affordable prices.

HSG: Lane Bryant gets a lot of press from its annual fashion show. Has Addition-Elle ever considered conducting a promotional event of that nature?

Jordan Tesfay (Wilhelmina ten20) modelling for Addition-Elle, Spring 2004

WS: [pause]

HSG: And are you considering it right now?

WS: When we sit down and put together our marketing strategy, we will consider a variety of different media that we can use. And then from there narrow it down based on what’s appropriate, budget obviously, and what we think will appeal to our customers. So if it’s put on the table, it might stay there, and manifest itself into a huge fashion show—or not.

HSG: Now that’s a safe answer! [laughter] When selecting models, do you prefer someone who has experience, or do you not mind taking a chance on a fresh face if, as you say, she represents the clothing that’s on offer at the time?

WS: Actually, Yanderis was quite a fresh face when we used her. So we’re looking for the right girl to represent our customer, and speak to our customer.

HSG: You do have a gift for that. For some time, the most popular model on my site, Shannon Marie, was simply referred to as the “Addition-Elle model,” because no one knew who she was. That’s how closely a model can become linked with a brand image. So, are there any nuggets of information you would care to share about your forthcoming promotions?

WS: The next promotion for spring, you must watch for it. It’s going to blow you off your chair.

HSG: [intrigued] No more information than that?

WS: No more information than that! Look for it, and call me back when you see it, and let me know what you think. If you’re excited now, you’re going to be very excited then.

HSG: Oh really? That’s quite an offer—and don’t think I won’t take you up on it.

WS: When I hear your voice, I’ll know you’ve seen the campaign. As I said, obviously we are an extremely customer-centred environment, and for spring, we are really, really identifying with and speaking to our customers.

HSG: Thank you for you time, Ms. Sculnick. It’s been a fascinating discussion.

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