J Crew at Center of Gay Economics With Openly Gay Model

PHOTO: J Crew Catalog
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J. Crew surprised consumers again with a May 2011 catalog that features its employees as models, including a gay designer with his boyfriend, who are described as "Happy Together."

The preppie clothing giant was quiet on its presentation of the same-sex couple -- "Our designer Somsack and his boyfriend, Micah" -- but gay advocates applaud what they say is a strong message.

"Nothing is unintentional in this kind of marketing," said Cathy Renna of Renna Communications, which serves the LGBT community. "Bravo to J. Crew."

"It's a giant step forward," she said. "As an activist, it's great to see a diversity of images and to see gay families represented in more regular media."

Just last month, J. Crew stirred controversy when its online newsletter included an image of its president and creative director Jenna Lyons painting her son's toenails hot pink.

"Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink," said the caption. "Toenail painting is way more fun in neon."

Social conservatives reacted with outrage at what they considered "liberal, transgendered identity politics." Some critics suggested that her son Beckett might be "turned" gay or transgender.

"The Men's Shop" section in the back of the 135-page catalog includes J. Crew's in-house stylist with his 9-month-old son, bearded brothers, a designer with his dog and also the photographer's African-American husband and their Asian daughter, headlined as "Family Matters."

A spokesperson for J. Crew told ABCNews.com that the company did not want to comment on what some saw as a new rainbow campaign.

More American companies recognize the consumer buying power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual community. According to a report in the online magazine Treasury and Risk, their spending will exceed $769 billion this year.

Now, J.Crew seems to have jumped on the bandwagon, according to advertising experts.

"I am loving it," said Bob Witeck, CEO of Witeck Combs, a public relations and marketing firm that specializes in LGBT clients.

"Abercrombie and Fitch have gotten away with selling around men without clothes and they never told us how they were related to each other," he said. "Obviously, it's time to bring them out and it's exciting."

Witeck said the image "does not sexualize nor exceptionalize this couple in any way."

J. Crew's appproach "suggests they are updating and speaking to a more youthful and more self-aware audience that wants to see the truth and complexity and authenticity about every identity," said Witeck.

J. Crew Imagery Reflects a Diverse World

Gays were early adopters of the Internet and social networking, first using chat rooms to connect with others. Now, they have a disproportionately high presence on Facebook.

In the past, advertising has used a "stock gay photography," according to Witeck. "There's a joke about gay ad imagery -- they think the same couple banks at every bank."

J. crew designer and model Somsack Sikhounmuong is Asian and his boyfriend Micah is white.

"This is new -- you're not seeing this all over the place," Witeck said. "More multiracial images push back the monochromatic [image] of the white gay man."

Some companies have had a long tradition of targeting the LGBT market, most notably American Airlines, which offers equal benefits for same-sex partners and has strong diversity policies.

The company was among early sponsors of the GLAAD Media Awards. The airlines boldly ran a 2010 billboard ad in New York City's predominantly gay neighborhood: "Here's to his and his beach towels."

Two others -- Subaru and Kimpton Hotels -- have been supportive. And the LGBT community, it turn, shows strong brand loyalty, he said.

"We are incredibly loyal and informed," said PR guru Renna. "I don't fly on any airlines except American and Jet Blue. "They have good policies. I tend to support these products even if they cost more."

But advertising to this niche market can be tricky. "It's important not to pander and to get it right," said Witeck.

As for J. Crew, he said, "I do think they got it right."

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