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Sizing up Abercrombie: Bad taste, but not discrimination

Posted by Scott Kearnan  May 20, 2013 02:11 PM

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For a brand accused of bullying, Abercrombie & Fitch took a lot of punches over the last week. And I don't mean the kind that land on your shoulder, bro, and are followed by somebody passing you a cold brewski while a Dave Matthews Band fiddle solo plays on the frat living room's stereo. ("It's a boss system, man. Graduation present. My dad owned a Tweeter.")

Here's the skinny (ZING!): a 2006 Salon interview was recently excavated in which Abercombie CEO-slash-Catman Mike Jeffries seemed to suggest that the reason his clothing stores don't carry XL- and XXL-sized women's clothing is because larger gals don't fit into the "cool kid" image he wants his brand to cultivate. (This during the same week that Abercrombie became only the second American company to sign on to a landmark factory safety plan in Bangladesh. Bummer, said A&F's PR department.) The social media consensus was swift and immediate, positing a two-point backlash. One, that Jeffries is a shallow, gross jerk. Two, that Abercrombie is discriminatory.

On the first matter, I concur. On the second, at the risk of inviting hate-tweets, I don't.

First, feast your eyes on this viral video by Greg Karber, Internet Guy. In response to Jeffries' remarks, and reports that Abercrombie disposes of unsold clothes rather than donate them to the needy, Karber passes out secondhand A&F threads on Skid Row. He dubs it a #FitchTheHomeless campaign, and encourages viewers to do the same.

This is the kind of misguided, kneejerk response video that has become infuriatingly common to scandals du jour. In his cavalierly launched quest to seize online infamy as an enlightened millennial who stands against marginalizing people, Karber manages to marginalize people: homeless people. His way of sticking it to the A&F Establishment is to incense Jeffries by associating his brand with the homeless, which actually cops to the idea that the homeless are sullying and embarrassing. The video misdirects us with tinkly piano music of the I-Am-Beautiful-No-Matter-What-They-Saaaay variety. But take it out, and you're left with a visual WAH-WAH horn. Karber thumbs his nose at square-jawed A&F preps, but his poor people-as-props exploitation bespeaks a mentality of similar privilege and even less self-awareness. (Karber has said he's glad the backlash to his video will "start a dialogue," which is Sanctimonious Hipster for, "I guess I didn't think of it that way.")

But back to the main question at hand. Is Jeffries a superficial twit? It sure seems like it. Where there's smoke there's usually fire, and Abercrombie has run into enough public controversies (over discriminatory hiring policies, in particular) to suggest that its CEO has a very narrow idea of what "cool" is. And I don't know what CIA Mind Control substance they put in that cologne, but that constricted worldview seems to trickle down to the shop floor. In college I had a short-lived part-time job at Abercrombie, where I folded sweaters to the sound of Darude's "Sandstorm." I got the hell out of there after a couple months, because the people were borderline cultish and way too obsessed with which relaxed bootcut corduroys they were going to wear that weekend. They also seemed to think I was hugely subversive because I'm gay and had light facial hair. Not my scene. Byeeeee.

It's weird. You'd think 68-year old Jeffries, who lives with his partner Matthew and three dogs, would want to cultivate an inclusive environment. I imagine that any gay man of his age would have endured a lot of ill treatment growing up, particularly by the cliques of jock bros his Abercrombie brand worships. He could leverage his company's popularity to make more customers - of whatever size or walk of life - feel welcome. Instead, it seems like his whole clothing store career (and refusal to DOFF THE FITTED POLO SHIRTS, ALREADY) is some sad, protracted attempt to gain acceptance by the mythic Big Men on Campus among whom he probably always felt like an outsider. Armchair therapist seat: filled.

Still, unlike last year's Chick-fil-A flap, Abercrombie isn't actively campaigning against equal rights for a segment of Americans; nor is there a scale at the store's entrance bearing a "You Must Be This Light to Enter" requirement. Anyone is allowed to shop inside - whether they find something that suits them, literally or figuratively, is another question. But the answer is likely determined by cold, calculated marketing decisions, not impassioned prejudice.

After all, Abercrombie isn't behaving any differently than any other store in the mall. None of them really sell clothes: they shill lifestyles, carefully cultivated ideas of "who buys this," and stock their shelves accordingly. Consumers don't just choose between Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, iPhones and Blackberries, or J. Crew and Hot Topic based on the quality of the coffee, their technological needs, or their style of dress. They choose based on what group of people they want to align with: the java sophisticate or the office everyman, the savvy hipster or practical professional, the prep or the punk.

Jeffries knows you can't build an empire on average clothes alone. But on a ridiculous fantasia filled with bodies sculpted by Adonis and Artemis, where everyone is "cool" and "hot" and "really enjoys being captured by a photographer while flexing and sexing in a midwestern wheat field"? That can work. Because it makes those that fit in feel special.

If appealing to elitism makes Abercrombie successful, maybe there is some discrimination happening here. But truth be told, more of it would be coming from Abercrombie's shoppers than from its CEO.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Scott Kearnan (@thewritestuffSK) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and communications consultant focusing on lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment. He's also a part-time smart aleck and buffalo wing connoisseur. "Media Remix" is where couch potatoes meet pop culture criticism. More »

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