You know how everyone has a topic of conversation that, if raised at dinner, will set their blood pressure skyrocketing, make their hackles rise, and will ensure that they manhandle the conversation for as long as feasibly possible before someone else wisely switches it? I have a few. My friends know to avoid them, unless they’re in the market for sitting back and eating popcorn whilst I rant. My current #1 contender for a rage blackout is Abercrombie and Fitch.
Specifically, the ethos and hiring policies of A&F.
Every time I see a teenager on the Tube with one of those (really, really stupid) A&F bags with a picture of a man’s (very) chiselled torso emblazoned across it, I want to shake the kid. I want to tell them the world isn’t like what’s in those stores. That the world is so much better, more complex, more accepting than that. I want to tell them that what they saw in that store…that’s the very worst of what can happen when one 69-year old CEO with the playground bitching mentality of an eight-year-old schoolgirl dreams up his vision of perfection and then markets it with terrifying consequences.
Mike Jeffries became CEO of A&F in 2002. He is, to me, the prime example of a vile, insidious human being with the power of money, creativity and daring behind him. I want to make clear, I know that what Jeffries is doing is working. There are articles everywhere about how the monetary value of A&F is falling – in fact, in the first quarter of this year A&F’s revenue fell 8.9% to $838.8 million. I’m not an economist but that doesn’t look like a figure that will cause Jeffries sleepless nights. Even if it is, no matter. His policies and ethos are being bought. Specifically, they’re being bought by teenagers and their parents.
His first real ethical “hitch” was in 2004, marketing thongs to girls ages 11-14. Not footwear. Underwear. With the slogans “Eye Candy” and “Wink Wink” printed on the front. Everyone’s got their own views about sexualising little girls – I know it’s happening earlier and earlier – but the fact remains that the act of wearing that underwear sends the signal that it could be a message for someone…even if no-one else ever sees it. It could be message for someone. It plants the idea that someone COULD see that message, someday. And, Jeffries, to argue that those are simply “cute underwear for little girls” and that “just don’t let your [kid] hang out with a bunch of old pervs” without giving any validation to the lobbyists is at best, ignorant, at worst, irresponsible.
Then of course in 2004, A&F paid $40 million to settle in a lawsuit brought by ethnic minority employees who claimed they were either forced to work away from the shop floor or denied employment, so they wouldn’t be seen by customers. This forced Jeffries to sort out his racially-based recruitment policies. Not that he ever, ever should have had to, but I’d almost give him a reluctant high five, if he hadn’t subsequently pointed out that now, “ if you go into our stores you see great-looking kids of all races.”
Well done for entirely missing the point.
I’d hoped this “great-looking” kids meant something other than er…hot. Perhaps Jeffries means kids that are eager? Bright? Kids who aren’t conventionally attractive but are incredibly beautiful for a whole host of other reasons? Stop that thought right there. In a (fascinating) 2006 interview with Salon, Jeffries makes abundantly clear that his business was built around sex appeal.
“It’s almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that…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.”
Image from The Militant Baker
The farce that is the A&F recruitment policy rumbles on. And of course, the numerous legal battles Jeffries and his cronies have had to fight because, surprisingly, being hidden away in a stockroom because your prosthetic arm doesn’t fit in with A&F’s “look policy” isn’t something people are willing to accept, not these days. Or, to be fair to A&F, it was more that Riam Dean displaying ”the link between her prosthesis and upper arm” was unacceptable, but then, so was wearing a cardigan on the shop floor to hide it. So, disabled lady, off to the stockroom with you. You might upset the customers. Dean’s quote remains one of my favourites in this whole debacle:
“I am born with a character trait I am unable to change, thus to be singled out for a minor aesthetic ‘flaw’ made me question my worth as a human being. Abercrombie taught me that beauty lies in perfection, but I would tell them that beauty lies in diversity, for I would rather live with my imperfection than to exude such ugliness in their blatant display of eugenics in policies and practices.”
This was in 2009. Such practise is showing no signs of abating.
Now, I get that I’m not Jeffries’ ideal customer. I have a brain, I don’t tend to make men double-take on the street, and I’m not going to spend £80 on a tshirt, ever. A few years ago I did, in the interests of research, go into the flagship London store just to see what it was like. Well, Mr K dragged me in there because he thought I’d think it was funny. I came out filled with fire and righteous indignation. Greeting customers, at the door, is an eighteen-year-old with his tshirt off. There are a queue of girls waiting to have their picture taken with his ridiculous abs. Holding their A&F bags. Once you elbow your way past this shambles of an entrance you then descend into what I can only describe as a fetid pit of consumerism, where sex sells. To teenagers. Dance music blares, the whole place reeks of aftershave, and three girls in hotpants and bras writhe around on a balcony overlooking the store. The clothes are piled high on mahogany desks, the aisles are infested with coltish limbs and beefy biceps. I asked a tall, blonde girl perched on the side of a display table the price of a jumper. ”Oh, I don’t do the prices”, she responded in monotone. “What is your job?” I asked politely. ”I just sit here” she replied.
You can’t see anything, either, by the way. The lighting is low and, I assume, designed both to emulate a nightclub but also to hide any of their customers’ flaws. However, the atrocious lighting was my favourite part of the whole experience.
Now, A&F aren’t marketing to me, and aren’t going to give two hoots that I found it vile and degrading. They’ve done their research, and that experience may well be what your average 17-year old wants to content with when shopping with friends. It’s not the “fun” aspect that’s the problem.
That Salon article goes on to comment on Jeffries’ chilling ethos more eloquently than I ever could: “[Jeffries'] biggest obsession, though, is realizing his singular vision of idealized all-American youth. He wants desperately to look like his target customer (the casually flawless college kid), and in that pursuit he has aggressively transformed himself from a classically handsome man into a cartoonish physical specimen: dyed hair, perfectly white teeth, golden tan, bulging biceps, wrinkle-free face, and big, Angelina Jolie lips. But while he can’t turn back the clock, he can — and has — done the next best thing, creating a parallel universe of beauty and exclusivity where his attractions and obsessions have made him millions, shaped modern culture’s concepts of gender, masculinity and physical beauty, and made over himself and the world in his image, leaving them both just a little more bizarre than he found them.”
I don’t care what Jeffries looks like. It’s a free world, he can tart himself up all he wants. I care that he says things like this: “I don’t want our core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing our clothing.” I care that he’s using his considerable business talent to push a policy of exclusivity and beauty in a world where we’re only just beginning to treat kids who have faces and bodies anything different from “the norm” as accepted. And it’s not only the kids who don’t fit into the A&F army that I worry for. Life will unfortunately throw them bigger curveballs than being told they can’t wear an overpriced hoodie because they have the audacity not to have a left leg.
It’s the kids that do fit in, that are deemed worthy of wearing the A&F brand that I think are in danger of being overlooked by this A&F farce. Being told you have a place in the world because of how you look, being told you belong to part of a team because you’re skinny enough, because you’ve got all your limbs, because your hair is glossy, because of something you were born with? What is that teaching kids, really? How is what you look like a valid criteria for giving someone a job? I know this doesn’t apply to ALL of the A&F army, but how likely are those kids going to feel the need to strive, to achieve more, to become nurses, doctors, librarians, teachers? How likely are they to learn that it’s your actions and your words that leave your mark in life? How likely are those kids to promote a culture of acceptance, of equality, of understanding that beauty comes from flaws and that not fitting can be an incredible thing? How likely are they going to want to listen to what the disabled, fat kid next door has to say when they’re taught that that kid will never be part of their world?
There are kids doing what they can to take a stand against A&F, and the stand has been powerful. People care, and the backlash is growing. Whilst Jeffries and his cronies are doing everything they can to promote exclusion and self-doubt, parents over the world are trying to raise their kids to have some semblance of self-worth, one that does not come from what size or brand their jeans are.
That’s how we fight this. And, of course, by never setting foot in one of those stores. By never buying their stupid clothes. By never fawning over their topless staff (this is me! Next to a six-pack!”). But mostly, by having to re-teach kids about being inclusive, about acceptance and about tolerance.