By MELISSA WELLHAM
“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. 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.”
So said Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries back in 2006, in an interview with Salon.
It seems impossible that he could not have predicted what would be unleashed – at least eventually – with such a statement. Maybe times were different then. Maybe people were only starting to get onto the ‘body positive’ bandwagon. But that was then – and this is now.
Unfortunately for Jeffries, his comments from 2006 ignited controversy recently when a magazine called Business Insider mentioned them in an interview with Robin Lewis, author of The New Rues of Retail.
Lewis did not hold back in describing the company.
She said, “[Jeffries] doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people… He doesn’t want his core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing his clothing. People who wear his clothing should feel like they’re one of the ‘cool kids.’”
And then what happened?
Well, nothing happened from Jeffries’ end. But a lot happened everywhere else.
The internet went wild.
A petition was started on Change.org, asking A&F to “stop telling teens they aren’t beautiful; make clothes for teens of all sizes.”
The petition was signed 68,000 times.
Ellen DeGeneres spoke out criticising Jeffries’ comments, too. Ellen asked, clearly perturbed, “Since when was something over a size ten, plus-size?”
She continued, “Beauty isn’t between a size zero and a size eight, it is not a number at all, it is not physical. What you look like on the outside is not what makes you cool. At all. I mean, I had a mullet and I wore parachute pants for a long, long time. And I’m doing okay. What’s important is that you’re healthy and you’re happy. That’s the most important thing.” You can watch the rest of her amazing skit below:
A man named Greg Karber decided that Abercrombie and Fitch needed a ‘brand readjustment’, and so took to the streets, where he started handing out second-hand A&F clothes to homeless people.
Jes M Baker from blog ‘The Militant Baker’ decided to star in her own Abercrombie & Fitch ads – or rather, Fat & Attractive ads - in the style that A&F usually employs.
She wrote, “The only thing you’ve done through your comments is reinforce the unoriginal concept that fat women are social failures, valueless, and undesirable. Your apology doesn’t change this.”
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Most troublingly of all, was that Abercrombie & Fitch seemed reluctant to give any sort of real response – aside from one or two ambiguously worded statements – that offered a sincere apology for their CEO’s statements.
And then, profits started falling. When the company recently announced this year’s first quarter earnings, it fell drastically short of Wall Street’s expectations. First quarter sales fell by 17 per cent.
In a statement to investors, Jeffries said, “the first quarter proved to be more difficult than expected on the top-line due to more significant inventory shortage issues than anticipated, added to by external pressures.”
However, many credited the fall in sales to Jeffries “cool kid” comments.
With pressure mounting and scrutiny in the media, Jefferies finally decided to respond, and released this statement:
I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics.
The company met with a group of teen activists last Wednesday at the A&F headquarters in Ohio. One of the teenagers was 18-year-old Bejamin O’Keefe, who started the Change.org petition urging the company to rethink its sizing range (the largest size being size 10). The executives and activists talked for two hours, and discussed sizing issues as well as A&F’s sexualised advertisements.
Following the discussion, the company released another statement in which they said, “We look forward to continuing this dialogue and taking concrete steps to demonstrate our commitment to anti-bullying in addition to our ongoing support of diversity and inclusion. We want to reiterate that we sincerely regret and apologize for any offense caused by comments we have made in the past which are contrary to these values.”
O’Keefe also commented after the meeting, saying that he felt encouraged. “Our voices matter. When people come together to fight for something they believe in, change does come! We are proof of that.”
Whether or not Abercrombie & Fitch start making clothes larger than a size 10, or change their advertising strategies – or indeed, whether Mike Jeffries has honestly had his opinion changed by this furor – one thing is at least clear.
People are no longer willing to be told what is “cool” or “attractive” by companies and fashion labels. People are starting to define these terms in their own ways, by their own standards. And these standards are more and more realistic. Sometimes these standards are – gasp! – even based on what people are like on the inside, instead of the outside.
It’s no longer 2006. It’s well and truly 2013, Fitches.
What do you think of Mike Jeffries’ comments? Is the internet outrage understandable, or are people over-reacting?