Tuesday, June 28

‘It’s very cultured’: Fashion Company LuLaRoe’s Bizarre Billion-Dollar Fall | Documentary film


ROberta Blevins first heard about leggings in the fall of 2015, in a post from a fellow member of a maternity-themed Facebook group. They were loudly patterned, buttery soft, interesting – functional clothing to chase after toddlers, accommodating to body changes after birth, and cute enough to be socially acceptable outside the home. The woman who advertised the leggings said she bought them in bulk from a company called LuLaRoe and sold them for double the price.

Blevins was intrigued. She was struggling with the alienation of young motherhood and looking to supplement her family’s income, and LuLaRoe offered her a seductive and reassuring promise: sign up to be a retailer and she could run a successful virtual boutique from home while still around for your kids. .

LuLaRoe seemed to offer “this integrated community, where he knew he could have an instant friendship,” he told The Guardian. As Blevins recalls in LuLaRich, a four-part Amazon documentary series about the besieged multilevel marketing companyThe LuLaRoe women added her to Facebook groups, texted her, invited her to parties that doubled as fashion sales, and filled her with encouragement. In March 2016, Blevins paid $ 9,000 to become a LuLaRoe consultant and receive a starter package of clothing to sell.

At first, things turned out well: She was excited about the clothes and made money selling LuLaRoe on Facebook from her home in the suburbs of San Diego, California. But Blevins quickly felt the strain of the company’s breakneck growth, due to its emphasis on hiring new “consultants,” people in the “downline” whose start-up costs rose through the ranks as “bonus checks.” By the end of 2016, what had started in 2012 as a home business selling long skirts in the trunk of a car by two Mormon grandmothers had reached more than $ 1.3 billion in sales with more than 60,000 consultants, and faced lawsuits. They alleged that LuLaRoe founders Mark and DeAnne Stidham misled retailers and executed a pyramid scheme.

Over four episodes, LuLaRich, directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason (creators of Hulu’s Fyre, on the spectacular collapse of the scam music festival), looks at the rapid growth of a company that took advantage of the sense of lack purpose of millennial and overwhelmingly white women. , repackaged the fallacy of “having it all,” and burdened with thousands of debts and broken promises while the company’s top brass made millions. The company appealed, Furst said, to “Central American millennials who do not have the same opportunities as their parents, who face many different struggles, who are susceptible on the one hand to the patriarchal nuclear family structure but also the terrain of I play to be a girlboss and be empowered and be a feminist selling these leggings. “

Blevins, like several of LuLaRoe’s former consultants featured on the series, was initially convinced of the promise of running her own business. The company underscored the advantages of being not just a LuLaRoe retailer, but a member of a movement: a “boss babe,” “full-time part-time job,” that contributes to household income without having to go to a store. office. Or, as Mark tells Nason and Furst in the first episode: “Take your creativity, your passion, your zest for life, and here is a place that is pure meritocracy.”

“They saw me, they’re like I’m bubbly, she’s energetic, she knows how to use social media, it’s an advantage to move this forward,” Blevins said about the process of preparing the “love bombardment” that convinced her to join LuLaRoe. . “At the time, I was just another walking dollar sign.”

Slowly, the inconsistencies began to accumulate. Blevins would visit the “headquarters” in Corona, California, or attend company events, which increasingly took on the feel of pop religious festivals (corporate events included performances by Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry), and Mark would begin to recite passages from the Book of Mormon. “I thought we were selling leggings?” Blevins remembered thinking. “It seemed strange.” Blevins received an order for merchandise that reeked of mold; quality was slipping, and poorly designed straight leggings, with prints resembling anatomy at the crotch. Now, with several consultants online with her, Blevins passed questions down the chain, “and they would give me an answer that made sense,” she said.

Roberta Blevins at LuLaRich.
Roberta Blevins at LuLaRich. Photograph: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

“You arrive within the organization [for answers]. You do not communicate outside the organization to obtain information or to get answers to your questions. He is very cultured. “

Through interviews with past and current consultants, employees, and even Mark and DeAnne, LuLaRich has a bird’s eye view of what Blevins couldn’t see at the time: the company, supposedly designed to make money not from clothing but through recruiting. untenable. of new members, it was collapsing under its own weight. Mark and DeAnne, who married in 1998, registered the LuLaRoe brand in 2013 and were joined by members of their extended extended family. In 14 months, from 2015 to 2016, the company grew from $ 70 million in sales to more than a billion. The earnings for those who joined the company early, and whose downlines flourished in the thousands, were staggering: Some in the series claim to have received bonus checks of between $ 20,000 and $ 70,000 a month.

Meanwhile, most of LuLaRoe’s consultants struggled to make ends meet, encouraged to run into debt and burdened with merchandise they couldn’t sell. With a glut in the LuLaRoe consultant market, most gave in under the weight. “Many people lost their marriages, their lives were in shambles, people were selling breast milk for start-up costs, are you kidding me?” LaShae Kimbrough Benson, who started as an administrative assistant at company headquarters in 2015, told The Guardian. “People were asking for loans, all kinds of things. AND [Mark and DeAnne] knew that.”

The lopsided margins were due to multi-level marketing companies designing, essentially, legal pyramid schemes under the guise that they are selling a product rather than membership, according to experts appearing on the series such as Robert FitzPatrick, author of Ponzinomics: The Untold. History of multilevel marketing. Legal MLMs must have a buyback policy and prohibit the purchase of new inventory until the retailers have sold 70% and have at least 10 new customers. As Benson and other former employees recall, LuLaRoe far exceeded this line. “We always had a quota to hit,” said Benson, who eventually worked for the “onboarding” team for new members.

The Stidhams contend that LuLaRoe, which is still in business (although startup costs are down 90% and the commission structure has changed), was never a scam, but rather a meritocratic ladder that reflects personal effort and character. The couple participated in an initial interview with the filmmakers to detail the origin story behind the company and its entrepreneurial values ​​while maintaining a traditional family structure; They turned down a second interview to specifically address the claims made against the company in 50 lawsuits filed since 2016, as well as some of the most outrageous elements of corporate culture: They pressured consultants to undergo weight-loss surgery in Tijuana and they received bribes from the doctor, for example.

Instead, the company offered a statement presented at the end of the series: “We continue to focus more on our mission of improving lives and empowering families through the principles of entrepreneurship while continuing to educate small business owners about the opportunities that they lie in personal responsibility and individual choice. “

A still from LuLaRich.
A still from LuLaRich. Photograph: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

“It’s that double-edged sword of personal responsibility,” Furst said of the statement. “That’s what MLMs feed on in the first place: if you’re a failure, it’s your fault.”

Blevins felt stigma when he began to lose faith in the company throughout 2017. The last straw was joining a Facebook support group for former LuLaRoe consultants and “having every little thing that I had complained, whatever questions I had, they all answered, ”he said. She read the messages and cried.

“There is a grieving process that you go through when you leave an MLM,” said Blevins, who left LuLaRoe in September 2017 and now advocates against MLM through his own podcast. “There was a lot of excommunication, a lot of harassment, a lot of people telling me that I was crazy or telling me ‘You’re going to ruin your life by leaving.’

Internal pressure to stay quiet and avoid “negativity” was something that haunted many women who participated in the series, according to co-director Julia Willoughby Nason. “There was tons of peer pressure and harassment behind the scenes, and the pushback these women had already experienced, and I think they were very scared of the repercussions if they were going to have a platform like a multi-part documentary. series, ”he said.

In February, LuLaRoe agreed pay $ 4.75 million to Washington state to settle a 2019 consumer protection lawsuit alleging the company operated a pyramid scheme that made “unfair and misleading misrepresentations regarding profitability” of being a retailer. Through his collection of first-person testimony, LuLaRich offers a “tacit invitation to attorneys general across the country to do what Washington did, protect their consumers,” said Furst. Meanwhile, the company still promises a “community of lasting love and companionship” on a website featuring “creating freedom through fashion” with a single button: “Join LuLaRoe.”


www.theguardian.com

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