H&M is not, for me, a happy place. I associate it with fruitlessly searching for a school skirt acceptable to a teenager and getting up very early in the morning to queue for a Marni jacket.
In the unlikely event that I wished to replace my serviceable black swimsuit H&M would not be my first destination.
In my mind, H&M sells teensy scraps of multi-coloured nonsense designed to be worn with dangly necklaces and high heels to young women whose dress and shoe size are roughly the same. These are, as I recall, advertised by the type of amber-skinned goddess who splits her time between kettlebell workouts and drinking Veuve Clicquot on a yacht.
It seems that I have underestimated the Swedish fashion chain. The skinny minnies in macrame pants are still part of the store’s marketing mix, but look! There is Jennie Runk stepping out of the surf in a sturdy bikini.
Runk, according to her card at Ford Models, is a US size 14, which is an 18 over here. There she is again in a substantial-but-sexy black halterneck one-piece. She looks fantastic, with tousled hair, feline eyes and a soft, womanly body.
I am not the only person to admire these pictures, and the company for using them to showcase its swimwear.
American feminist blog Jezebel summed it up with the excellent headline H&M Shows Collection On Plus-Size Model, Doesn’t Make a Big Deal Of It.
There is much to like. For a start, the images of Runk just appeared on billboards. No pre-publicity flagging up how inclusive and sensitive the fashion chain was being in deigning to use a big sonsie lassie in its swimwear campaign.
And on the poster itself, there is no big fuss about Runk’s bikini being part of the plus-size (which goes from 18 to 28) range. It’s just a picture of a lovely, natural-looking young woman with the legend H&M+. That tiny “plus” is the only clue that this is any different to any other H&M ad.
It’s a sign of just how unrealistic most advertising imagery is that women all over the world have thanked Runk and H&M for using someone they recognise, and identify with, on these billboards.
Runk, a 24-year-old from Missouri who was spotted by a model scout while working in a pet shop, appears overwhelmed by the attention but she is dealing with it in a charming and constructive way.
“I had no idea that my H&M beachwear campaign would receive so much publicity,” she told the BBC. “I’m the quiet type who reads books, plays video games and might be a little too obsessed with her cat. I found it strange that people made such a fuss about how my body looks in a bikini, since I don’t usually give it much thought.
“Some even told me that my confidence has inspired them to try on a bikini for the first time in years. This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to accomplish, showing women that it’s OK to be confident even if you’re not the popular notion of ‘perfect’.”
Compare this to Marks & Spencer’s disastrous “I’m Normal” ad campaign, which ran a decade ago. In this, a similarly well-upholstered dame, naked, ran up a hill proclaiming that she was “normal”.
Women (and religious groups) loathed the ad. And it didn’t work. Women continued not to buy M&S’s clothes until they were advertised by Twiggy and other familiar faces, in commercials that actually showed cardigans and bras, not rolls of flesh.
M&S’s mistake was to make a big song and dance about backing “normal-sized” women. It was patronising and cheesy. Also, in what way does a naked chick sell dresses and trousers? What women over the age of Primark actually want, as M&S’s female shareholders never tire of telling its executives, are flattering, comfortable, functional, well-made clothes that make us look fantastic. In a full range of sizes. Not to be talked down to.
On her show America’s Next Top Model, Sports Illustrated cover girl Tyra Banks regularly casts plus-sized contestants. (Unfortunately she calls them “fiercely real-sized”, but her heart is in the right place.) At one judging session, while considering at a picture of a particularly bodacious item in denim shorts, another judge questioned her size.
Banks shot him down. “Outside of this industry, people don’t look at that photo and think plus size. They think hot girl.”
That is what is so great about Jennie Runk: she is a hot girl in a swimsuit, not a gloss-sprayed alien from planet perfect. And, advertising agencies, fashion editors and store executives please take note, she makes women like me, who already own a perfectly viable if far from foxy swimsuit, start thinking about ruched halternecks.
Unlike M&S’s misjudged attempt to woo fiercely real-sized consumers, this ad really works. «