There are 138 million people who buy from Wal-Mart every week. L.A.-based blogger Shauna Miller is making it her mission to empower women who shop there by “putting Wal-Mart on a fashion pedestal” through her site, PennyChic. But, we ask you, is it right to support a company that’s been repeatedly charged with mistreating its female employees?
It’s no wonder that Shauna Miller’s fashion blog, PennyChic, is gaining widespread popularity. Her posts are cleverly written and creatively styled, her “models”—Shauna’s friends—are real-life gorgeous, and her clothes are both super chic and super cheap. But most intriguing to readers may be her backstory: Miller’s a born-and-bred L.A. fashionista, NYU grad, and Emanuel Ungaro alum who gave up haute-couture aspirations for the world’s largest and most notoriously dowdy discount department store: Wal-Mart.
“138 Million people shop at Wal-Mart every week and I was never one of them (until now),” Miller writes on PennyChic. “Do I prefer Wal-Mart to Neiman Marcus? Of course not … but looking stylish and effortless is not hard when you’re wearing a $5k outfit. What’s more intriguing to me is the challenge of looking chic at a time when this season’s must-have Little Black Dress is no longer an option.”
You can find every single item featured on PennyChic—from jumpsuits to lingerie to fedoras—in Wal-Mart stores or online at Wal-Mart.com. Who needs a pricey LBD when you can buy Furstenberg-esque printed wrap dresses ($12), on-trend boho headbands ($12), and classic Norma Kamali for Wal-Mart trenches ($35), all without maxing out your credit card? Not Miller, who says that even when she’s not styling “Gallery Owner Chic,” “Faux Versace Chic,” and “Fireman’s Daughter Chic” spreads for her blog, she wears pieces from Wal-Mart about 50% of the time.
“This isn’t some gimmick,” Miller told me. “I wasn’t planning for this to happen—to actually like clothing from Wal-Mart—but I do. I believe in this stuff. You have to walk the walk if you’re gonna talk the talk.”
Wal-Mart carries collections designed by brands like Kamali, Miss Tina, OP. and L.E.I., but doesn’t receive as much attention as other mega-stores like K-Mart, which recently launched a “Fashion Forward” campaign, or Target, the store credited for starting the celebrity designer/mass-retailer trend with Issac Mizrahi way back in 2002. Miller points to a Women’s Wear Daily article that made public Wal-Mart’s dismal 4th quarter results and blames the results on the fact that Wal-Mart "hasn't come up with a compelling brand proposition in apparel in some time.” Miller said she didn’t want to sound “too presumptuous,” but wondered if PennyChic could be the answer to Wal-Mart’s financial woes.
“Wal-Mart is the last standing taboo in fashion,” Miller said. “A girl from Arkansas, where Wal-Mart’s headquarters are, watches The Hills and then drives 5 minutes to Wal-Mart to go shopping. It’s ignorant to think she doesn’t care about looking chic.”
Miller’s goals are commendable, but raise a difficult question considering Wal-Mart’s most recent legal troubles: Is it okay to compromise what you think about a company in order to afford to dress more stylishly? Every major corporation faces lawsuits, but this month Wal-Mart is heading to the Supreme Court in the largest civil rights class action suit in United States history. The plaintiffs: potentially more than one million past and present female Wal-Mart employees who claim the company pays women significantly less and offers them fewer promotions than their male counterparts.
Two-thirds of Wal-Mart’s employees are female, but only a third of the company’s managers are women. The brief filed by the ACLU in support of the suit—which is 12 years in the making—claims that “women were repeatedly told [by Wal-Mart] that they should be paid less because they are not breadwinners, that they cannot be effective managers due to their family obligations, and that certain more desirable jobs are ‘men’s work’ and off-limits to women.”
In a statement in August 2010, Wal-Mart said that it "has been recognized as a leader in fostering the advancement and success of women in the workplace.” But this isn’t the first time Wal-Mart’s been accused of mistreating women. The company recently paid $11.7 million to settle another gender discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The National Organization of Women (NOW) calls Wal-Mart a "Merchant of Shame” due to the lawsuits and other egregious acts Wal-Mart has taken against women, such as excluding contraceptive coverage from their health plan, forcing some workers in Central America to take pregnancy tests, and paying El Salvadorian women only 15 cents per pair to manufacture pants that retail for $16.95 in U.S. stores.
Miller says that she’s “obviously” against gender discrimination, but that she believes Wal-Mart knows it’s an issue that “needs to be taken seriously.” Her purpose isn’t to represent the company as a whole, but “to make the millions of female Wal-Mart customers feel empowered and good about the clothes they are wearing.” Many of these women—some who’ve lost their jobs, others who are on strict budgets—have emailed Miller, thanking her for making Wal-Mart shopping a more positive experience.
“This country is in a crisis right now. So many people are jobless and struggling to make ends meet for their families and themselves," says Miller. "A startling number of women are already wearing Wal-Mart. I’m just making it chic.”
In theory, financially challenged customers shouldn’t be punished for Wal-Mart’s actions; it’s our legal system’s responsibility to make sure companies treat their employees fairly and with respect. But doesn't it seem iffy to endorse a company with a misogynist track record—especially when many of the same women Wal-Mart’s low prices appeal to have been fighting against the company for over a decade? It’d be different if Miller’s blog was geared solely toward long-standing Wal-Mart shoppers, but that’s not the case, as Miller happily points out.
“Even my city-dwelling friends who hadn’t stepped foot in Wal-Mart before PennyChic go on Wal-Mart shopping binges online, because of the outfits they see on the site,” Miller said. “I go to parties all the time and people are like ‘I’m Wal-Mart chic…look at my shirt!’ I’m exposing Wal-Mart to a new customer, which is very cool.”
Does Miller think women who have more shopping options available to them have any moral responsibility to boycott Wal-Mart? Not at all.
“People have a moral responsibility to provide food and shelter for their families,” Miller said. “If Wal-Mart’s low prices allow them to do that, then I don’t see any reason why they should shop anywhere else, regardless of whether they live in the city or the suburbs. It’s as simple as that.”