Gloria Steinem feature in the Lands’ End catalog. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Lands’ End, best known as a quiet purveyor of mom-friendly tote bags and tunics, has found itself at the center of a cultural firestorm.

In one of the retailer’s recent catalogs, it included an interview with womens’ rights activist Gloria Steinem. Now the company is apologizing for the piece and has removed it from its website after some customers apparently complained that Steinem should not have been featured because of her support of abortion rights.

In a statement, the company said: “It was never our intention to raise a divisive political or religious issue, so when some of our customers saw the recent promotion that way, we heard them. We sincerely apologize for any offense.”

But that attempt to calm customers was greeted with a swift backlash. Facebook comments poured in to Lands’ End’s page on Friday, with some users saying the retailer made the wrong call by distancing itself from the interview.

“What a terrible message to send to all the women and girls who wear your clothes,” one Facebook commenter wrote. “I’m sorry you see equal rights for women as a divisive issue. I see it as a human issue.”

Others pledged that they would take their dollars elsewhere: “I don’t intend to teach my children that anyone should do business with a company that is ashamed to even talk about feminism,” another Facebook user wrote. “You see equal rights as a divisive issue? Thanks for letting me know not to give you my money.”


Gloria Steinem feature in the Lands’ End catalog. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The Steinem interview, conducted by Lands’ End chief executive Federica Marchionni, did not directly discuss abortion; topics included the challenges that women face in the workplace and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. The feature also told shoppers that if they opted to select a certain logo for embroidery on, say, a tote bag or polo shirt, Lands’ End would donate 50 percent of the fee to the ERA Coalition’s Fund for Women’s Equality. Lands’ End has since decided it will not move forward with that program.

A representative for Steinem said that Steinem was traveling in the United Kingdom and was not available for comment.

The retreat by Lands’ End away from the Steinem interview feels strangely antithetical to a moment when many large retailers and other corporations have been unapologetic in their stance on social issues.

This was particularly evident last year when many companies took to social media to trumpet their support for the Supreme Court decision that made gay marriage the law of the land. Brands such as Target, Gap, Visa and Cheerios expressed enthusiasm for the court’s ruling. NBCUniversal parted ways with Donald Trump over disparaging remarks about Latinos that he made when he announced his run for president.

And when a national conversation took hold about the symbolism of the Confederate flag after a mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., Walmart and Sears moved to stop carrying merchandise bedecked with the flag in stores or online.

The message of these earlier moves seemed to be that the companies were willing to stake out a position they felt strongly about, even if it meant alienating some customers. Lands’ End, it appears, may have a different mindset.

The dust-up comes at a critical time for Lands’ End: Under new chief executive Marchionni, the company is making some big bets to invigorate a stale brand.  It has tried to shake up its fashion, rethink its merchandising displays, and to pull back on promotions to fatten its profit margins. But so far, it’s hard to see dollars-and-cents evidence of improvement:  In the most recent quarter, the retailer’s profit nosedived 40 percent, and sales at stores open more than a year were down 8.9 percent.

The turnaround efforts have also included measures to spiff up the Lands’ End catalog, and it appears the Steinem interview was part of that effort. The article was reportedly part of a feature dubbed the “Legends series,” which was meant to feature individuals who have made a difference in a wide range of fields.

In addition to peddling its familiar line-up of nautical-inspired clothes, Lands’ End also has a school uniforms business. It does not break out sales for the category, so it’s difficult to know how essential it is to the business. But at least one of its customers for uniforms appeared to drop Lands’ End over the Steinem interview. On a Facebook page that appeared to be maintained by Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, Mo., a message said that “Lands’ End is no longer an official uniform provider” to the school because the retailer “celebrates the work of someone so opposed to our beliefs.”

Fr. Tolton’s principal did not immediately respond to a phone call requesting comment.

More from The Washington Post:

How Lands’ End ended up in America’s vicious abortion fight

Betty Friedan to Beyonce: Today’s generation embraces feminism on its own terms