Abercrombie & Fitch has been the target of an online firestorm after its CEO said only young, cool people should wear its clothes. Is this latest scandal enough to break the controversial brand?
Mike Jeffries is the 68-year-old perma-tanned, flip-flop wearing, bottle-blond CEO of US fashion retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch, the self-styled "all American" brand targeted at cool and affluent college kids around the world.
It's the company behind thongs for pre-teens emblazoned with "Eye Candy" and "Wink Wink" and a range of T-shirts bearing slogans like "Who Needs a Brain When You Have These?" and "Gentlemen Prefer Tig Ol' Bitties."
It's also the company which settled a $40 million class-action suit brought by employees on the grounds of racial discrimination. And the company which was part of a $22-million settlement with other US clothing companies for contracting overseas sweatshops.
Abercrombie & Fitch is notorious for its risqué advertisng campaigns featuring buff, scantly-clad men
Abercrombie & Fitch is no stranger to controversy: A smorgasbord of unpalatable corporate truths has hit the headlines over the years. All of which makes the media firestorm surrounding the republication of comments made by Jeffries way back in 2006 all the more puzzling.
"A lot of people don't belong. 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," Jeffries was (re)quoted as saying. Shortly thereafter, the Internet exploded.
'Fitch the Homeless'
Critics have since been lining up to bash the brand and its CEO, but by far the most prominent protest adding fuel to the backlash is the "Fitch the Homeless" campaign launched by Los Angeles-based writer Greg Karber.
In a clip posted on YouTube, Karber encourages fellow A&F haters to take part in a little "brand readjustment" by donating their unwanted Abercrombie clothes to the homeless. "Together we can make Abercrombie & Fitch the world's number one brand of homeless apparel," says Karber.
His clip has been viewed over 7 million times and he's got no shortage of supporters. But, rather inevitably, it wasn't long before the critics turned on the "Fitch the Homeless" campaign too, accusing it of being "tasteless" and "debasing" the homeless for political ends.
Of course this isn't the first time A&F has been caught in a PR predicament, but will the latest controversy be enough to bring down the brand? With the anti-bullying message high on the US political agenda, Jeffries's comments seem to have hit a nerve - not least among the social-media-savvy generation the Ohio-based company is targeting.
Jeffries himself felt compelled enough to make a statement on May 15 emphasizing that A&F is "completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics."
Telling it like it is
Obnoxious, exclusionary, elitist? Absolutely. But then Jeffries was only really being honest. Aside from niche labels, you'd be hard pressed to find a big fashion retailer - high-end or otherwise - willing to admit that it targets its clothing at the average, uncool and overweight buyer.
Fashion advertising is full of impossibly thin, artificially beautiful, and unattainably cool people. It shouldn't surprise any of us that exclusion - not inclusion - is what drives the industry. You won't find sizes above L and XL in the majority of high-street stores, let alone the high-end boutiques, where the price of the garments alone prohibits the vast majority of consumers from even thinking about entering the door, no matter what size they wear.
With 1,049 stores across the four A&F brands (Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister Co., Gilly Hicks, and Ruehl No.925) and buoyed by its success in Europe and Asia, the company has ambitious plans to expand even further in these territories.
With only three Abercrombie & Fitch stores across Germany (in Dusseldorf, Hamburg and Munich), it remains a relatively select brand in the country, popular more among pre-teens than university students.
When asked about the latest controversy surrounding A&F, the majority of shoppers passing by sub-brand Hollister in the German city of Bonn, one of 18 branches in the country, were generally unimpressed by Jeffries's comments.
Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts like this have been causing controversy for years
"It's moronic and superficial," said one young, female student in jeans and pullover. "I actually find it really destructive because it influences the mindset of young people. They're starving themselves to death; it's terrible," commented another middle-aged woman.
Writing for Forbes, marketing expert Roger Dooley argues that, far from alienating customers, Jeffries's comments had actually served to sharpen its brand identity in a massively over-saturated market.
"When he 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," Dooley said.
Indeed, the much bigger battle facing A&F critics is that of changing the core values of a society in which youth, beauty and popularity are so highly prized.
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