The salon I visit is located in a mall and across from a Victoria’s Secret shop. Each time I go in for a root touch-up or a cut and style, I pass by a double storefront window display brimming with ridiculously-thin mannequins in various stages of undress and sexy lingerie. There are more than 1,000 Victoria’s Secret stores across the nation, located mostly in malls and strip malls often populated by families and children. The chain’s annual runway shows — and their revealing, fasting-to-be-thin models — often make the headlines of newspapers and magazines across the globe.
So, why would a woman who wants to operate what is essentially a Victoria’s Secret-like shop for plus-size women be accused of being “unclassy” and face stiff opposition in setting up shop?
That’s the accusation and justification lodged by Redford Township, Mich. officials at Rochelle Allen, owner of Fancy Lingerie Plus, a plus-size intimate apparel shop specializing in the sale of undergarments, girdles and pantyhose. Allen hopes to open a brick-and-mortar shop to complement her burgeoning online business. Because of the nature of the products sold and clientele served, the shop would serve customers individually, by appointment only.
Allen wants to open a shop in Redford., a largely middle-class area of about 51,000 people, but her efforts there are being stymied by township officials who have been giving her a hard time for months about places where she could open shop. Allen says she originally looked at a location across from City Hall last year, but officials vetoed that idea. Understandable, in a sense, but when Allen tried to open in a space that used to be an adult entertainment store, the city said that she would not be able to sell any adult toys, books, magazines, games or videos and mandated that any mannequins in the windows would need to be “properly covered.”
Now Allen wonders if there’s any space in Redford where she can do business, unobstructed and harassment-free. As reported in Click On Detroit:
“I mean, if I open up my store in Redford, are they going to try and ticket my customers? Tow their cars away? Are they going to put speeding traps up?” Allen said. “I have to look at things like that but I also look at it as anything worth having is worth fighting for. I’m going to continue to fight.”
The Detroit News reported on Monday that Allen’s battle began in August, when she appeared before the township’s Site Committee seeking approval for the location across from City Hall. One day after the “heated meeting” — in which an “angry mob” hurled insults at Allen — the township building chief, Allan Hoard, was suspended and was later let go — the Detroit News story on this is now available only by purchase, but you can still read a cached version here. Some people speculate that the firing came because Hoard said Allen’s shop met township rules and that there was no reason to bar it from opening.
The story does not specifically name the fact that Allen’s is a plus-size shop as the reason for township officials’ objections, but the fact that Allen alone is facing so many objections and obstacles certainly raises questions as to why she’s being singled out. Redford is a suburb of economically-depressed Detroit — shouldn’t officials be encouraging new business and entrepreneurship? The location Allen hopes to open in was a former adult entertainment venue — why only now have township regulations on adult-oriented businesses become more stringent? A look at Allen’s website, which carries all of her apparel plus some other intimate body products, shows that her business isn’t so very different from, say, Victoria’s Secret. Victoria’s Secret has multiple locations in the vicinities around Redford — why is Allen’s shop being treated differently?
There are other forces at play, especially from those conservative numbers of Redford folk who are convinced that Allen’s is a sex shop. Allen, who is black, also believes racism is a factor. The Detroit Native Sun reports this exchange between Redford Township Supervisor Roger Miles Handy II and Allen during the August meeting:
“Take that to 8 Mile. We don’t want your type of traffic here,” Handy allegedly yelled.
“What do you mean my type of traffic? I assume it’s the color of my skin,” replied Allen.
And I thought Cincinnati was conservative. Even here Larry Flynt’s Hustler store is located just one block from the city’s convention center and only several blocks from City Hall. One local Redford business owner and Hoard supporter charged that Handy “runs this town like a dictator.” Perhaps this is among the reasons why he was defeated in the August primary. His term ended in November, but Allen’s battle wages on.
Allen said then that she planned to file a discrimination lawsuit against Redford, claiming the attack was racially motivated. The editorial in the Detroit Native Sun opines that Handy was not referring to Allen’s race, but that his comment was more associating Allen with “porn and strip clubs.” Even giving Handy the benefit of the doubt, I fail to see how an intimate apparel shop that, at most, may show lingerie-clad mannequins qualifies as either. Valerie Lockhart, the Sun’s executive editor, publisher and writer of the linked editorial had this advice for Allen:
“Instead of playing the race card, deal yourself a new hand. Present full figure women in a respectful manner – free of fishnet body suits and peek-a-boo bras. Then you’ll not only be able to play in the game, but can win the game as well.”
I wonder if the term “full figure” women is key here for Lockhart. Does she object to all lingerie, or just that for plus-size women? Is showing “full figure” women in a “respectful” manner a euphemism for cover-up-your-fat? Does Lockhart raise the same objections to Victoria’s Secret and their line of bras and lingerie as she does to Allen’s line of Just My Size and Playtex bras and baby doll nighties? And since when has being treated with respect and equal, non-biased consideration become a “game”?
Regardless of the motivations of township officials, harassing a would-be business owner and threatening her clientele — now that’s unclassy. For shame, Redford, for shame.