Thursday, May 16, 2013

I (don't care about) girls who boycott Abercombie & Fitch

Flickr: Six Steps

Dear Mike Jeffries:

I feel sorry for you.  I really do. I feel as sorry as I can for anyone who owns an incredibly successful fashion company and who is sixty-one years old and says "dude" a lot.  I mean, you gave an interview to Salon in 2006 and now your words are totally blowing up over all of social media.  I mean, I'm much younger than you (although older than your target demographic group) and I don't even remember 2006.

So, this is the quote that has been getting you all the hate:

"Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive 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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

Again, this was said in 2006. This is news?  That fashion companies favor thin people over fat people? That your company isn't warm and fuzzy? Abercrombie has had lawsuits dogging it for YEARS about its racist and exclusionary hiring policies. Its sizing chart isn't a secret.

And now there is this manufactured 'love your body' rage against Abercrombie? I'd be tempted to say that it was all orchestrated by Lane Bryant, but you know what?  Even Lane Bryant, just like Abercrombie, uses aspirational marketing--that's why 'plus size' models are size 6s and 8s, so women who are size 16 and 18 can aspire to look like them, just like theoretically size 2s and 4s can aspire to fill the 00 jeans at Abercrombie & Fitch.

I also feel sorry for you because, as a decidedly uncool and overweight teen back in the day, I totally get your awkwardness when talking with the press. Because being really cool is like Fight Club.  No one who is cool needs to say they are cool.  I knew the cool kids in my school: everyone did. The cheerleaders and the football players wearing the latest clothes from the Gap and Express (back in the late 80s and early 90s, those were cool brands). They had perfect fake tans and nails and their lip liner was never smeared.  They had nice cars and their families went on vacations together to the Caribbean. They were in honors classes but never seemed to study or worry about grades.  And although they could be incredibly bitchy behind people's backs, they rarely openly mocked or targeted the most vulnerable members of the student body.  They didn't need to, unlike the desperate, sweaty, socially aspiring types with funny noses and no-name brand jeans.   In other words, the uncool kids like you, Mike (can I call you Mike), who thought that making fun of fat people was 'in.' Because you were secretly afraid that if you didn't pick on the fat kids, you were 'next.'

All of the really cool thin kids knew that the right attitude to take to fat people was a slightly patronizing attitude of tolerance: of course, we support your right to be yourself, but our natural skinniness is so powerful your fatness cannot possibly touch us.   That is why, more so than anything YOU said, this response from a supposedly ordinary mom that went viral really annoyed me:

Dear Mr. Jeffries:
Thank you for clarifying the reason you do not carry sizes larger than a 10 at Abercrombie. Your customer is an "attractive, all-American kid with a great attitude and lots of friends." I am a mom of 3 daughters, ages 17, 13, and 10. They are all thin, attractive, all-American kids with great attitudes and lots of friends. They shop at Abercrombie. I believe they are your target audience.
Please find the enclosed clothing, purchased at our local Abercrombie/Abercrombie and Fitch stores. My thin, popular, cool kids will not need them anymore.
Not only will I not let my kids shop at Abercrombie again, I will not let them wear what they already have in their closets. Normally I donate our unwanted clothes, but in this case, I wouldn't want any unsuspecting thin, cool person to send the message that being exclusionary is OK.
Andrea Neusner

'Kay, Andrea--could you say how cute and skinny your kids are ANY MORE?  In fact, I secretly think that you wrote this letter just to proclaim to the world how skinny and perfect your kids are--you know that is the ultimate standard of coolness, to perfectly embody the American ideal and then say that you do so without even trying very hard, that you can throw it all away like last year's jeans.

It's far harder and riskier to say that you hate Abercrombie & Fitch if you're too black, too poor, and too overweight to hope to embody that ideal.

And don't even get me started on the people handing out Abercrombie the homeless as a way of 'tainting' the brand image.  That's unbelievably offensive, to suggest that if a homeless person is seen wearing a particular item of clothing that it will 'hurt sales.' 

I hate to say it but the real problem isn't Abercrombie--it is the idea that somehow if we can find an item of clothing in a particular size that means we have to be that size. And that cuts both ways--truthfully, although I am certainly against self-flagellation, I can't agree with the idea that making larger clothing somehow makes the health consequences of America's obesity epidemic less troubling or the consequences of obesity less life-destroying.  It's just as bad as thinking that there is something wrong with you because you can't get into the smallest size of skinny jeans.  It's like deciding on what you should eat based upon the fact you just saw an advertisement for a brownie or a Lean Cuisine.

Every person had to decide what state of being is right for him or her (not just weight but activity and other aspects of physical health).  People can't rely upon companies trying to sell stuff to justify their weight or their diet.

So I get you, Mike, you're just a guy trying to sell stuff. Overpriced stuff in stinky mall stores, but if that is what works for you, go for it.  Just like L.L. Bean sells stuff to a target audience of slightly podgy, middle-aged outdoorsy and WASP-y baby boomers and Forever 21 targets teenage girls who watched Pretty Woman a few too many times (although weirdly enough, the company is owned by devout Christians).

So go ahead, continuing to promote images of skinny kids once this controversy blows over (as I am sure it will) and people go back to posting pictures of Grumpy Cat on Facebook.  Between you and me, we both know that the fat, rich chicks will just buy a men's XXL sweatshirt that says Abercrombie.  The main people excluded from Abercrombie are poor people, even if they are skinny. But then again, the obesity epidemic disproportionately affects the poor and non-white, so I guess that all jives with your company image, eh?

Well, also according to the 2006 article, your 'branding' has very little to do with chicks at all, fat or otherwise:

A&F aged the masculine ideal downward, celebrating young men in their teens and early 20s with smooth, gym-toned bodies and perfectly coifed hair... (A&F has had less of a cultural impact on women’s fashion. Its girls’ line is preppy, sexy and popular, but the company has mostly remained focused on pleasing the all-American college boy.)For many young men, to wear Abercrombie is to broadcast masculinity, athleticism and inclusion,,, (that may be why the brand is so popular among some gay men who want desperately to announce their non-effeminacy). But because A&F’s vision is so constructed and commodified (and because what A&F sells is not so much manhood but perennial boyhood), there is also something oddly emasculating about it.

I think this is kind of Salon magazine-speak for saying Abercrombie & Fitch uses gay soft porn to sell its clothing, but in a way that doesn't make the moms and dads who pay for the clothing uncomfortable, so perhaps there is some 'social good' in your company's image, however unintentional...

But for me, the ultimate takeaway is that regardless of what your boycotters say, the larger problem won't go away, that people expect fashion companies to define themselves and their bodies rather than the other way around. 

But I guess that is what 'fashion' is--letting society rather than your internal voice tell you what is correct?


The least coolest girl in high school


  1. I'm not seeing why this is news either. It's one of several things that people are outraged about lately that makes me roll my eyes and wish they would read a book or take a long cleansing walk. (The other two are "Putting sparkles on Merida's dress sends the wrong message to little girls," and "I hate Mother's Day because it discriminates against women who have no children and/or no mothers, or who have bad relationships with their children and/or mothers. Oh and what about women who've had miscarriages? WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO HURT THEM, HALLMARK?") Mike Jeffries is more pathetic than anything else (well, aside from his immense wealth) what with the bad plastic surgery, ripped jeans, and the constant "dude! dude! duuuuude ..." but his views aren't all that unusual for someone who works in the fashion or beauty industry. For sure, the man should never speak publicly again, but there's something ridiculous about the proposition that all retailers should be geared toward all shoppers. You don't hear me complaining that I can't shop at Journeys Shoes because I'm not an unwed teenage dad.

  2. @flurrious--you expressed my thoughts even better than I did in my blog post (as is often the case)! It was the manufactured nature of the outrage that completely irritated me. Do they really think that other fashion people sit around together and say "love your body" or something like that? Anna Wintour won't even allow food near her in the Vogue office because she hates the way it smells, I've heard. And I feel the same way about Journeys fact, I try to block out the store from my mental picture every time I am in a mall.

  3. Given how much attention this has gotten recently I had no idea that the original comments were made in 2006! talk about old news...not sure what all the hype is about then. I've always felt awkward in abercrombie, even during the point in my life when I was a size just always gives off an air of "you're not good enough". Nope, I feel much more content in the Gap or Express or Old Navy...even if it doesn't make me a "cool kid".

  4. I am wearing Old Navy Right now, @Joanne! They make awesome running clothes!