But the two brands are not totally unrelated; Chippendales, the male dance revue, legendarily got its name in the late 70s from the time-honored furniture that founder Steve Banerjee had in his dilapidated California nightclub. Like their namesake Chippendale chairs, the dancers were to be classy and top of the line.
Jump forward to the 80s and Chippendales is a major success. Thanks to the choreography of Banerjee’s partner Nick DeNoia, the act has produced touring shows and expanded into several clubs. Apart from just being a male strip show, Chippendales has differentiated itself in the field as “classy.” The trademark white cuffs and bowties of the dancers ingeniously suggest the missing tuxedo. Chippendales had achieved legendary house-hold-name status – the only strip show to ever really do so – and appeared, for all purposes, entrenched in the American cultural landscape.
Oh, for it to end there. To paraphrase: you can put a (-n invisible) tuxedo on a strip show, but it’s still a strip show. Inevitably when people get naked for money, seediness happens. It turns out that the only thing bigger than Chippendales’ success was its founders’ egos. After heading to New York to start the rival “Chippendales Universal” show, DeNoia was found shot in the face in 1987. Like a poorly plotted film, the end is already obvious; after being charged in 1994 for contracting the DeNoia hit as well as racketeering to promote Chippendales, Banerjee killed himself.
Thus followed dark days. The Los Angeles and New York clubs closed. And while the troupe continued to tour and perform, Chippendales remained unconsolidated, aimless and disjointed, their tuxedos resembling more of a horrible ironic joke than any sort of signifier of class.
Enter Louis J. Pearlman. That the king of boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC should come to own and control Chippendales borders on divine providence. Acquired by Pearlman in the new millennium, Chippendales quickly took on the characteristics of a Pearlman automaton. United and systematized, oiled and overhauled, Chippendales will tour in 518 theatres in hundreds of cities in America, Europe and Mexico in 2004. The group has a regular show going in Las Vegas and will soon be the subject of a cable TV exposé. By all accounts, Chippendales looks as if it is getting back on its feet. However, in spite of its infant recovery, as a brand Chippendales faces two major challenges. One it has considerable control over. The other is largely out of its hands.
As Chippendales now stands its brand is on an iconic level just south of Playboy. Aside from the flesh, this is no hollow comparison. Like Playboy, the Chippendales brand is rooted so deeply in conventional wisdom that changing or updating it presents a daunting task. Just like the generation of men that grew up with Playboy in its heyday, the women who knew Chippendales in its halcyon days are no longer the core audience. Like Playboy, much of Chippendales’ popularity exists in some kind of tongue-in-cheek homage to kings of yesteryear (think Burt Reynolds’ career). But the task is not impossible by any means, and with a strategic rebranding and revitalization, Chippendales could easily make the move back from ironic to iconic.
Chippendales’ larger challenge, however, lies elsewhere.
As society becomes increasingly familiar and comfortable with gay culture (witnessed in popular televisions shows such as “Will & Grace,” “Sex & the City” and personalities Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres), one of Chippendales’ principal challenges is keeping to the straight and narrow of its brand promise…particularly the straight. Cases of potential straying include: Numerous gay websites retail the Chippendales calendar; on a recent season of the American reality TV show “The Amazing Race,” the winners were a handsome gay couple that other competitors referred to as “The Chippendales.” (It didn’t help that the couple was named Chip and Reichen.)
The danger of course is that blending along the straight/gay lines will subtract from the fantasy element at the core of the brand’s promise, namely that these men could, maybe, if the planets align, go home with you. Despite not being an expert on the subject, I will hazard that catering to the erotic entertainment of women is a much trickier game than that of satisfying the less-fair sex. Because Chippendales bills itself as more than just bodies in motion, thinking that the dancers are gay would kill the complete fantasy for women. While this is not too difficult to control (i.e., make it contractual that the dancers act straight), a closely related problem arises.
In the modern world, upholding the Chippendales’ former “women only” policy is considered discriminatory. Allowing men means that gay men, legally, can attend any Chippendales’ shows. While the brand can manage the message from its dancers (“I’m straight and I like women”), it cannot manage the subtler message sent by having a gay audience at a show (“If there are gay men here maybe only some of the dancers are straight?”).
This leaves the brand in a battle for its image that Playboy hasn’t had to face (yet). There is a great deal of attention focused on this in the Chippendales’ press material. All press releases and promotional materials refer only and loudly to women to such a degree that the overall objective is clear: “Brides-to-Be Storm Chippendales,” “…the total worship of women,” “Over the last 26 years 11 members…married women they met at the show,” “…exactly what a woman wants,” “…must-see for all women,” “…for the sole purpose of entertaining women” – and so on.
The Chippendales brand is definitely too ingrained to be at risk of dying. Pop culture’s increasingly cannibalistic tendencies toward masturbatory nostalgia worship alone will assure its survival in some way, even if as a punch line. Resuscitating and preserving the Chippendales brand in its current form is a larger unknown, but it promises to be a better show.