Reese Witherspoon’s Fashion Line Giveaway Fiasco Is Highlighting the Perils of Celebrity Charity

The COVID-19 crisis has set everyone scrambling for a way to pitch in, and that includes celebrities, whose attempts at helping out have run from awkward to admirable. Reese Witherspoon’s boutique fashion line Draper James is a particularly interesting case study at just how complicated celebrity philanthropy can be, and how the best of intentions can go awry in a pandemic.

The story is pretty straightforward. On April 2, Draper James launched what sure sounds like a nice idea: since teachers are facing a particularly trying role in the pandemic, why not offer them a free dress? Dresses aren’t exactly essential but it’s still a nice gift. The idea wasn’t Witherspoon’s, but she liked it. So an Instagram post went out, telling teachers to submit a simple online application to receive their dress, valid while supplies last.

One problem: the post went viral and the application site crashed almost immediately. By the end of the application period, Draper James had about a million applications. The business itself is about five years old, and had 250 dresses onhand, in six styles.

“We felt like we moved too quickly and didn’t anticipate the volume of the response,” Marissa Cooley, the senior vice-president for brand marketing and creative at Draper James told the New York Times. “We were really overwhelmed. It was way more volume than the company had ever seen. We expected the single digit thousands.”

There was a social media uproar and an apology email with a 30 percent off coupon, but the damage to the brand is done.

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The damage is amplified by Witherspoon’s connection with Draper James. The line between actress and brand is intentionally blurry, and that’s usually a good thing for the brand. People like Reese Witherspoon and want to shop at her store. But when there’s trouble, that means Witherspoon is on the receiving end of the ire, however tangential her involvement.

All this adds up to a fiasco. Not a major one. Missing out on a free dress isn’t exactly high on the Life Stress checklist right now, especially for teachers who are trying to figure out how to run a Zoom classroom. But it does highlight the perils of trying to do a good deed before you’ve thought through the practical realities.

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