Are Skims campaigns the new Vogue covers?

Are Skims campaigns the new Vogue covers?

Usher featured in a February 2024 Skims men’s campaign. | Donna Trope/Courtesy of Skims

The internet loves Kim Kardashian’s shapewear company. But it loves its ads even more.

Before hitting the stage at this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show, R&B singer Usher graced the cover of Vogue’s 2024 Winter Digital issue. It wasn’t totally obvious, though, that he was meant to be the publication’s guest of honor.

The styling is tasteful enough, with Usher dressed in a cream-colored autumnal outfit like a fashion-forward sports dad. However, not only is he upstaged by a group of school-aged football players on the cover, he’s joined by supermodel Carolyn Murphy. Critics on X and TikTok quickly expressed their frustration over the direction of the shoot, which seemed intent on minimizing Usher’s presence. Along with Lebron James and Kanye West, he is one of only a handful of Black men to be featured on US Vogue covers. (Maybe not so coincidentally, the three mentioned share their cover shoots with white women.)

Then a few weeks later came a steamy underwear ad for Skims, Kim Kardashian’s shapewear and loungewear brand. Social media users praised Usher and Skims for the timely collaboration. The simple shoot featured the “U Remind Me” singer decked out in chains, holding a peach, and flaunting his six-pack abs while wearing briefs. It was received as a more rewarding press stop than the Vogue cover by many of his fans.

It’s safe to say that there’s no real challenger to the 131-year-old institution that is Vogue. Utilizing elite photographers and A-list designers — not to mention editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s unwavering dominance in the fashion industry — the magazine has remained one of the ultimate curators of celebrity image. But it’s hard not to notice that Skims’ star-studded ads generate the kind of positive buzz that Vogue and other legacy magazine covers have frequently failed to achieve — and that are often met with controversy regarding poor photography, underwhelming styling, and a lack of diversity.

Meanwhile, Skims shoots have seen a more consistently positive reception. Before Usher’s campaign, the e-commerce brand set social media ablaze with its annual Valentine’s Day campaign starring singer Lana Del Rey. And the holiday shoot the year before featured Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco, two Italian actresses from the hit HBO series The White Lotus.

More recently, Skims recruited Call Her Daddy podcast host Alex Cooper for a bridal lingerie campaign, capitalizing on her massive listenership. And pop girl du jour Sabrina Carpenter is the brand’s latest spokesperson, donning the new lace lingerie collection in a ‘90s-inspired shoot.

The ads have also arrived at a time when celebrity endorsements and influencer sponcon have become an integral part of the online experience. It’s maybe not so surprising that the mastermind behind all of this is Kim Kardashian, a modern pinup with a penchant for opening our wallets and making things go viral.

Skims put a “cool” stamp on shapewear

Since launching Skims in 2019, Kardashian’s juggernaut of a business (currently valued at $4 billion) has managed to give consumers a new outlook on body-sculpting innerwear.

Leading up to its debut, Kardashian and her influencer sisters were controversially shilling waist trainers on social media. Presumably, the media moguls’ seal of approval helped shed some of the not-so-marketable associations with foundation garments. For most of the 2000s and 2010s, shapewear was largely a punchline, even with its not-so-secret widespread use throughout Hollywood and the fashion industry. Spanx were for imperfect women trying to conceal their love handles on a date. The word “girdle” still brings to mind an older demographic of women. Maybe the most telling sign that Spanx and other body-cincher products were “meant” for older women was an early cosign by Oprah Winfrey.

As the body-positivity movement has made strides over the past two decades — infiltrating marketing for just about everything, from dating apps to soap — the standard of physical perfection that made the use of body-cinching products embarrassing has started to dwindle. By the time Skims released its first set of inventory, it seemed like shapewear was something young women were not only comfortable admitting they owned but sporting as outerwear as well. It certainly helped that trendy labels like Mugler, Charlotte Knowles, and Rui Zhou (and their fast-fashion dupes) have repopularized slimming, paneled bodysuits and underwear-inspired clothes. The shapewear fad is apparently so huge that forecasters predict a market share of $3.8 billion in the next seven years.

The impetus for Skims Solutionwear — initially controversially called “Kimono” — isn’t that different from shapewear founder Sara Blakely’s story. Blakely cut the legs off her control-top pantyhose to maintain a cinched look under her pants, creating what would essentially be the groundbreaking product Spanx. Kardashian similarly claims she was forced to cut her shapewear to complement her cutout and high-slit dresses. A more important selling point for the company was that Kardashian also said she couldn’t find shapewear to match her olive-y tan skin tone, leading her to go so far as to dye her undergarments with tea and coffee.

“For me, I was just looking for a solution to the fact that I love to wear shapewear,” Kardashian said at the Time 100 summit last year. “There wasn’t a color tone that fit my skin tone, let alone most of my friends’.”

A few years prior, Rihanna’s makeup brand Fenty Beauty proved that inclusivity — especially when paired with A-list celebrity branding — sells. Likewise, Skims relied heavily on the message of diversity, with the slogan “solutions for every body.” Its 36-piece debut collection offered bras, underwear, shorts, and various bodysuits in nine shades from sand to onyx. Significantly, the brand offered an extensive size range, XXS to 5X, and used models representing that spectrum. In its first few minutes after launching, the brand made $2 million.

Of course, branding shapewear designed to make the body look slimmer as “inclusive” is a bit ironic, if not totally regressive. Still, it’s clear that millennial and Gen Z women felt more embraced by Skims and other direct-to-consumer companies, like ThirdLove and Savage X Fenty, than legacy brand Victoria’s Secret by the late 2010s. Since about 2015, the lingerie retailer has seen a cultural and financial decline due to public controversies, decreasing sales, internal issues, and a general inability to keep up with the times.

Things ultimately took a turn for the worse in 2018, when Edward Razek, former chief marketing officer of L Brands (which owns Victoria’s Secret), defended excluding plus-size and transgender models from the annually televised Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Since then, the company has attempted more inclusive messaging, expanded its size range, and retained high-profile spokesmodels. However, sales, particularly its in-store performance, have continued to plunge.

Celebrity Skims ads have filled a void in pop culture.

Aside from the inclusivity angle, Skims has remained a dominant force in the fashion world thanks to its internet-breaking collaborations. In a short amount of time, the brand has linked up with high-fashion label Fendi for a capsule collection and sports organizations like the US Olympic team, the NBA, and the WNBA.

Campaigns featuring some of the internet’s most beloved celebrities have made Skims a premier platform for viral photo shoots. You could liken the online response when a high-profile actor, athlete, or musician appears in a Skims ad to older generations seeing their pop culture idols in a government-sponsored “Got Milk?” ad or even a beloved athlete on a Wheaties cereal box. Commercials for Calvin Klein in the ’80s and ’90s, starring then up-and-comers such as Mark Wahlberg and Brooke Shields, generated similar excitement, if also controversy. In the social media era, when everyone is constantly self-promoting, celebrity photo shoots have lost a bit of their novelty. Still, Skims has managed to harness social media and the zeitgeist to deliver capital-M Moments.

Adrianne Pasquarelli, special projects editor and senior reporter for Ad Age, notes that timeliness is one aspect that works in Skims’ favor. She emphasizes that being a DTC brand helps Skims roll out these celebrity ads more quickly.

“As a direct-to-consumer brand, they’re able to be very nimble with their marketing,” she said. “[Kim Kardashian] handles a lot of the creative and can turn out that stuff on a dime, especially for a digital campaign. It’s harder to be as flexible and as fast with marketing for heritage companies with a bunch of brick-and-mortar stores and just decades of retailing.”

It seems like Skims is doing something that legacy brands have struggled to deliver in the age of the internet: spotlighting diverse talent in the right way at the right time and creating the sort of impactful images that fans want. While Vogue has attempted to feature more people of color in and on the cover of their magazines — albeit at a slow pace — and Victoria’s Secret now caters to a larger range of bodies, these brands haven’t been able to totally shed the below-par reputation they developed in the past or produce branding work that resonates with consumers.

Some of Skims’ illustrious spokesmodels include SZA, Cardi B, the Mahomes family, Ice Spice, PinkPantheress, Kate Moss, Lana Del Rey, Snoop Dogg, Brooke Shields, and Rosalía. One of the most eye-catching photo shoots was appropriately named “Icons” and featured fashion and lingerie models such as Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Candice Swanepoel, and Alessandra Ambrosio, all previous Victoria’s Secret Angels. Interestingly enough, Skims buyers called out Victoria’s Secret for allegedly copying the campaign with its “Icons Collection,” which similarly cast ’90s supermodels.

So far, unlike Calvin Klein’s ads of yore, there’s hardly any controversy involved. For the most part, Skims’ photo shoots have yet to stir an overwhelmingly negative response. The company was briefly in hot water for featuring San Francisco 49ers player Nick Bosa in a Skims Men ad last year after some problematic tweets resurfaced. However, a short-lived, largely forgettable scandal is ironically a feat for Kardashian, whose name is practically synonymous with backlash.

The shoots are all tastefully sexy and, in some cases — like with the Mahomeses — family-friendly. Rather than leaning into a hypersexualized, male-gaze aesthetic like Victoria’s Secret shoots, they rely on beauty, brand synergy, and the cultural climate and don’t attempt to truly shock or titillate — well, except maybe in the case of some of their men’s ads.

Many of Skims’ splashier celebrity ads have also featured and targeted older adults. Sorilbran Stone, head of content marketing at influencer marketing company the Shelf, notes that older millennial and Gen X consumers have a more traditional, “old-school” idea of celebrity that Skims’ ads often hit upon.

“I think Skims focuses on content for young consumers and campaigns for older consumers, which makes it accessible for everyone,” she said.

For example, in one brilliant 2020 campaign, Kardashian unveiled Skims’ velour loungewear collection with the help of her best friend, Paris Hilton. The girly, tabloid-style photo shoot shows the pair exiting a grocery store and walking through a parking lot, harkening back to their early socialite days being followed by paparazzi. The casual shoot wasn’t just leaning into Y2K aesthetic trends. It was also capitalizing on Hilton’s reemergence as a foregone cultural figure that millennials were beginning to appreciate again and Gen Zers were presumably becoming familiar with.

Stone says Skims has managed to reflect the interests of a wide range of consumers with its diverse casting.

“If you don’t listen to hip-hop, then you’ve got Kim Cattrall,” Stone said. “If you don’t know who SZA is or whatever — there’s someone standing in the gap who can loop you into that world.”

We’re living in peak celebrity endorsement culture

It can’t be overstated that Skims is a billion-dollar business because of extremely famous founder Kim Kardashian, who’s constantly posting Skims products on Instagram to her 364 million followers. But the company has also been a word-of-mouth success, with many reluctantly praising the quality of its products. Of course, there have also been detractors, regarding its alleged unsustainability.

“It does have to do with the extensive reach of Kim Kardashian,” Pasquarelli said. “She just commands a celebrity that a lot of others don’t. ”

It’s fair to suggest that Skims’ ads also thrive because of the landscape of celebrity branding and sponcon that she helped foster. Of course, the Skims founder isn’t totally responsible for influencer marketing as a concept. Celebrity advertisements in the 1980s and ’90s really set the stage for much of what the scene looks like today, with Michael Jordan’s myriad brand deals and Pepsi and Coca-Cola commercials starring huge pop stars.

Still, in 2024, there’s a noticeable level of excitement on social media when a celebrity collabs with a popular brand and the partnership feels just right. Ben Affleck and his long-running, heavily memed relationship with Dunkin’ is a prime example. Ironically, his trilogy of Dunkin’ ads, the third installment of which aired at this year’s Super Bowl, feels like the biggest cinematic event he’s partaken in recently.

“I think the appeal of Ben Affleck for Dunkin’ is because of how much it plays into meme culture,” said Vulture writer Rebecca Alter, who writes about celebrity endorsements. “We’ve all seen images of Affleck looking exhausted fetching his Dunkies, and I think people find it really endearing and amusing when a celebrity plays into the meme image of themselves, because it’s an image that fans helped create.”

Usher’s Skims campaign leaned into the sexy image he’s always projected himself but certainly amped up in recent years as the singer went viral for serenading his largely female guests at his Las Vegas residency. The same can be said about Lana Del Rey, who was a somewhat surprising spokesmodel. Del Rey is more of a private figure and not particularly known for shilling anything aside from her albums and poetry books. But it seemed like her fans appreciated the direction of the shoot, a callback to the 1960s pinup look she’s embraced throughout her career. The photo shoot even earned Skims a whopping $13.7 million in media exposure.

Ultimately, Skims’ success formula for advertising is admittedly simple; it’ll always have the ability to impress as long as other legacy brands are getting it wrong. Time will tell whether it can adapt to ever-changing trends in fashion and body image. But for now, it’s proven to be more agile and forward-thinking than your older sister’s lingerie shop or the glossy editorials resting in a pile on your mother’s nightstand.

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