After Ann Taylor's second very public Photoshop disaster in recent months, we were left with so many questions. How could this happen? Who's responsible? Does Ann Taylor really think these images sell clothes? Spokeswoman Julie Fredrickson was happy to talk.
First, though, Fredrickson wanted to explain how it was that two very different versions of the same image — one relatively normal, the other retouched beyond anything but incidental similarity with the human form — came to be posted on her company's website. Especially after they'd pledged to do better. The latest incident was "a technical glitch," said Fredrickson. Specifically, the over-retouched shot was an old image that the company thought it had replaced because it, too, thought the shot was way too heavily 'shopped — but which was still cached on its servers.
Ann Taylor says it started changing its Photoshop standards in May — apparently, even before we first took issue with their unrealistic retouching, they found some of their images almost as weird as we did.
"We are embarrassed by what occurred," Fredrickson said. Fredrickson is the manager of social and digital marketing for the brand, and set no parameters for our interview. "We want you to know that these answers come from a place of passion and honesty and we hope you will read and respect them as such."
Herewith, we tried to break down the process.
What happens after an Ann Taylor shoot? Do the photographers you work with hand over raw images?
Julie Fredrickson: We shoot 156 days a year and roughly 650 images a month. The timing from shoot to posting is roughly 2 days; therefore you can imagine the speed in which we are working. Our photographers hand over raw images with our standard lighting.
At what point in the process are your images retouched? Who does that retouching, and what tools do they use?
JF: Right after we finish a shoot, the images are sent to our retouching vendor. We have a standard retouching guideline that shows realistic images. An art director will look over the selects, choose the best poses, and the retouching vendor will handle the rest. Our art directors are responsible for calling out any obvious issues and providing direction to the retoucher.
We are working with clothing that hasn't been fully fitted so we have to take care of that with some of the retouching. Retouching is not only about tweaking the clothing but also the lighting as well. As to the tools, our retoucher uses the standard programs for retouching.
Do you have house guidelines for retouching? (If not, are you thinking of developing any?)
JF: Absolutely, we are extremely specific. It's given to anybody and everybody who retouches our images now. We really put precautionary measures in place this year as we agree our retouching had been overzealous and inconsistent with our beliefs.
What happens then — who vets these images, and what standards do they apply?
JF: Because we're working so quickly and we have such a large volume of images, our process previously unfortunately allowed for no one within Ann Taylor to be reviewing the images individually. However, since May, we have redesigned our process to make sure that at least one person at our offices to review the images to make sure are consistent with our standards before they go live.
How many pairs of eyes typically pass over a heavily retouched image before publication?
JF: We have the retoucher, the quality control person at the retouching house, and now since May one person from our office. Before May, we didn't have the right quality control process in place. Thanks to our own internal reviews, Jezebel and the response from our wider community now we do.
JF: Everyone in the fashion industry works really hard and we respect our peers in the industry and their efforts.
At the same time, we want the community to understand that these are human hands that are retouching these images. One person can interpret another person's markups differently from another. There is always room for different interpretations and obviously the previous interpretations are not the ones we want for Ann Taylor.
Of course, there's also the why question. Why make so many alterations to an image of, as so many people point out, models who are beautiful, and very well lit and photographed already?
JF: We couldn't agree with you more. We choose beautiful models that wear our clothes well and showcase fit and beauty of all our garments (as commenter Zee noted, Ann Taylor carries what she says are some of the most flattering and classic clothing she has found). But, we work with clothes that aren't fully fitted to the model...We need to do standard removal of pins, clips, and temporary pinning. Sometimes we remove as standard practice, tattoos, blemishes, and excessive wrinkles or folds that may detract from true product experience.
Do consumers have a kind of false consciousness when it comes to retouching: we say we hate it, but at the same time we're hyper-critical of the perceived flaws that retouching aims to fix?
JF: This is a question for the ages and one we are not sure we are qualified to tackle on behalf of every individual consumer! And rather than get into a postmodernist discussion of reality and perception and the difference between what is and what something is perceived to be we think we might leave that one to the philosophers.
On a more practical level, in order to purchase clothes online, clients have to be shown garments online in the truest possible way. We want you to see an accurate representation of the clothing...no one enjoys purchasing a garment that does not look like what you thought you were getting.
And while we work to capture the elevated experience that you get from handling a piece of quality clothing in store, in a virtual world some of that emotional connection is more difficult to recreate online.
Do you think there's a truth-in-advertising issue with excessive smoothing of garment folds or color changes in post-production?
JF: Yes, and it is our best interests to show clothing that is as true to reality as possible. Obviously this issue it is something we think a lot about, because when shopping online you are trying to buy clothes without touching them. For example, if you're looking at an advertisement you miss the tactile experience that comes with a luxurious silk shirt. We work to recreate that experience of touching a garment visually. This is achieved with retouching and lighting.
Often, colors [in the garments manufactured for sale] come in a different color from the samples, so they have to be changed in post-production. We really try to make the clothes as real as they would be when you are in the store, but it is never going to be the same experience
We do request diminishing of excessive folds, but that can be interpreted differently by different retouchers. It's a human thing, and while we know that doesn't make it better when an unfortunate image occurs, we are real women at Ann Taylor and know that mistakes happen. All we can do is face them head on when they occur, work to mitigate them through improved standards and new improved guidelines and hope that our clients understand that we are human too.
So it's not just one rogue guy with a copy of Photoshop and a shaky understanding of anatomy on deadline — it's a company and its policies, governing the work of a photographer, the photographer's assistants and digital tech, a model, a stylist, an art director, a retoucher, and the retoucher's quality-control supervisor. There are obvious opportunities for breakdowns in this chain of command. Ann Taylor is in the midst of a multi-year effort to reposition itself as a company and as a brand and it seems like Gumby Photoshop is truly one of the emblems of the ancien régime it most wants to shed.
We asked for more details about the Ann Taylor retouching guidelines Fredrickson mentioned — what they think is an acceptable edit, and what takes us into the uncanny valley — but, alas, that document is proprietary. Still, Fredrickson said she'd formulate a more general response, and get back to us.
In the meantime, as a thank-you to the company for submitting to a no-holds-barred, on-the-record interview (are you listening, Saks? Dov?), I now direct you to this section of the brand's website, where you can see company employees wearing, in some cases, things they designed, and looking really happy.