So this week everyone got really upset at the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, Mike Jeffries, after a seven-year-old Salon article surfaced in which he stated the only customers he's interested in serving are the "cool kids" and that "a lot of people don't belong" in his clothes or store. Further, according to Robin Lewis (a "retail expert" and consultant), Jeffries is only interested in catering to young, attractive clients.
The Internet exploded, naturally, and Mike Jeffries became one of the most hated guys-you-never-heard-of-before just about overnight. My initial reaction to this attitude -- conflating "coolness" with thinness, and the blatant use of "otherness" as a branding strategy -- was shock and anger.
But my question is this: Have you ever been in, or even walked past, an Abercrombie & Fitch? If the answer is "yes," you should honestly have been ready for this level of douche-ness.
Apparently, however, some people were not prepared. Take Kirstie Alley, for example. Well known for her struggles with weight, the actress and Dancing with the Stars alum went on record to bash Jeffries, saying neither she nor her children would shop there given his "exclusionary" attitude. In the Salon interview, Jeffries explained his approach to creating cachet through exclusion: "We go after the cool kids...the all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely." Jeffries goes on to explain that when you try to please everyone, you become "vanilla."
While there is nothing "cool" about conflating coolness and belonging with thinness and attractiveness, the blowback on this seems a little disingenuous. Did Jeffries really do anything other than explicitly state an attitude that fashion -- from haute couture to mass-market retail -- has been cultivating for years? Is Jeffries really a heartless asshole, or did he articulate a simple, widespread marketing strategy: "Want" sells, exclusivity creates desire and consumer desire is what brings people to your brand.
Writing for Forbes, Roger Dooley penned an article on Thursday titled, "The Perverse Brilliance of Abercrombie & Fitch's CEO" where he explores this very idea. "Before we write off Jeffries as an out-of-touch-elitist, let's think about the apparel market. It's enormous, and many if not most brands focus on a particular demographic." To put a fine point on it, Dooley continues, "When [Jeffries] says he doesn't want customers who don't fit that image, he's making his current customers more loyal and making the prospect of becoming a customer more attractive."
In short, if you're a huge douchebag -- one who is of the same mind as Jeffries on issues of What Makes Kids Cool -- you probably already shop at Abercrombie & Fitch, and part of the appeal is probably that you can shop in peace, without having to look at any fatties. A&F is an oasis for douchebags, a place where they can just be themselves and feel like they really belong somewhere, without having to gaze out on a less-attractive expanse of humanity. While at first this seems awful, on further thought the idea is appealing: a place where douchebags can go, that you and I might not, and thus we are less likely to run into said douchebags.
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Seems like a win-win to me.
The other part of this whole kerfuffle that bothers me is the way that people who object to Jeffries's attitudes toward attractiveness are so willing to attack his appearance. Folks sharing this story in my Facebook feed went on the offensive, mocking Jeffries's appearance without the slightest hint of irony at all. Fighting appearance-based bullying with appearance-based bullying seems...counterproductive.
And speaking of fighting bullying, another response to Jeffries's statements has gone viral: an A&F clothing handout to homeless folks. Organized by filmmaker Greg Karber, the project involved scavenging Goodwill stores for A&F gear and then handing it out (on camera, natch) on L.A.'s Skid Row. One's gut reaction to this might be, "Awesome! That'll show Jeffries!" but further inspection begs a few questions. Do we really have the right to enlist the homeless in a political exercise like this, just because they presumably need the clothing that Karber is handing out? Is he sitting down with them and explaining why he is giving them this particular brand, or asking their permission to film the process and share it in a social media campaign? Does Karber's campaign really challenge Jeffries's concept of "otherness" or does it simply take it, flip it and turn it back around -- not changing anything, but simply weaponizing it and turning into a counteroffensive? There seems an imminent danger here in using a largely helpless population -- more "other" than "uncool" or overweight kids -- as billboards for a campaign they don't even know is happening. I, for one, am a little uncomfortable.
It took a few days and a lot of Internet huffing and puffing (and HuffPo-ing), but eventually Jeffries released a statement via the brand's Facebook page saying that while Abercrombie & Fitch is an "aspirational brand," they are in favor of diversity and opposed to bullying or discrimination. The "apology" hasn't been warmly received, and calls to boycott the brand continue. Personally, while I find Jeffries's approach depressing and insulting, I am glad that the discussion is putting a fine point on an important discussion in the world of fashion. How do we create clothing people want, that they feel will set them apart, without creating a sense of "otherness" that reinforces damaging notions about appearance and weight?