Discussion | The Abercrombie & Fitch Fuss

It is my priority to keep this blog a happy space. A space of joy, where I share fun stuff I love. Inevitably, there will be posts which reflect my own opinion on certain subjects, products or other matters, but I will always be careful not to express myself in such a way that readers are bothered by heavy, existential discussions or moral issues. But. Sometimes, my dear readers, I do feel the need to set the record straight. So, for the first time ever, I want to start an All Things Jasmine discussion. Feel free to join in. :)


The Abercrombie & Fitch Fuss

Recently, a giant fuss has been made about American retailer Abercrombie & Fitch not selling XL and XXL sizes for women. I’m not even quite sure how the discussion started, but immediately after the size thing being leaked, people started linking the news to some things A&F’s CEO Mike Jeffries had said in a 2006 interview.

In this interview, Jeffries explains that Abercrombie targets a very specific group of people. Officially, Abercrombie targets adults aged 18 to 22. Jeffries elaborates on that, by stating that A&F “(goes) after the attractive All-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends.” He adds that “a lot of people don’t belong (in A&F’s clothes), and they can’t belong.” Also – and this is the public’s favorite quote to include in their rants: “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

In the blink of an eye, (social) media were full of A&F rants and outraged articles, all the way to outright brand boycots. One director even set up a campaign in which he asked people to donate their A&F clothing to the homeless. And don’t get me wrong: I understand the world’s reaction. The CEO of an immensely popular multi-million dollar company said some things that don’t tally with our view of the perfect society. But please allow me to shed a different light on the issues at stake here.

The glamour of elitism

Now. Am I getting this wrong, or is it exactly the exclusion that makes so many people love A&F? Isn’t it those perfectly tanned model torsos and those lines waiting outside A&F stores that feed the desire of many?

In Europe, A&F was immensely popular years ago. Why? Because the brand was only available in the US. You could only own an A&F T-shirt if you had traveled to the US. It was exclusive. Exclusionary – if you will. And we loved it. Far more than clothing or accessories, A&F’s unique selling point is the feeling of belonging to a specific group of people. The marketed exclusion – elitism, even – that we are all so shocked about now seems to have worked very well in the past. I would even dare to say that it was the most important factor in A&F becoming one of the world’s most succesful clothing retail companies.

Obviously, pointing a finger at the one you think is responsible is the easiest thing to do. But aren’t we (as in: consumers) the ones who feed these marketing strategies? Aren’t we – or, at least, some of us – the ones who secretly – or not so secretly – enjoy being part of an elite? And aren’t we the ones who get angry at companies only from the moment they don’t include us in their select target group anymore?

Abercrombie: casual haute couture?

Secondly: why is everyone all of a sudden acting as if A&F is the only brand ‘excluding’ certain groups of people? Haute couture brands have been doing so all along. Try finding a Balmain jacket larger dan a EU 36, for example. And next to body type: have you looked at the prices on those pieces? Exclusion of certain social classes? Yes, please. Plus, you don’t even have to go all the way to designer brands and haute couture. Most Italian high street brands, for example, claim to offer sizes up to EU 40 or 42. Well, I have tried to squeeze myself into those and trust me – they are not sizes 40 and 42.

Tacit vs. explicit exclusion

Which brings me to my third point, actually. Isn’t offering a size 40 that is actually a size 36 just as bad as claiming you only want tanned and slim people wearing your clothes? You don’t tell consumers explicitly, but they will find out soon enough that they don’t ‘belong’ (to use Jeffries’ words) when they try on your ‘size 40′. That’ll teach them! Lots of brands will turn to the old ‘our Italian sizes are smaller because Italian people themselves often are’-argument. Ok, but after years of producing clothes and also selling them in the rest of Europe, you know now that not all of us are. Why not offer a size 44 or 46, then?

Now, I don’t know Mike Jeffries personally. The man might be a giant prick – excuse my French – but I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there. And neither were all those idealists ranting on about A&F on social media. Maybe Jeffries is just the only one in the industry willing to be honest? People don’t seem to mind excluding others when it can happen in silence. But once the word is out, the social construct inside all of us pops up and we feel the need to go and rant about it.

After the comments, Mike Jeffries released an official statement in which he apologizes for anything he said seven (!!) years ago that could be interpreted as an offence to certain groups. Society got its way: the big CEO admits to having made a mistake.

But, in the end, my question is: what is worse? The fact that Abercrombie & Fitch excludes certain groups of people and is open about it? Or the fact that, when society complains, brands send out a generic message of peace and love – like Jeffries now did – while still excluding people? Is the exclusion less arrogant when a brand’s CEO doesn’t openly admit to it? Is the exclusion justified if only it exists in silence?

Think about it. That’s all I’m saying.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Please do join the discussion!

PICTURE: Abercrombie & Fitch

19 responses to “Discussion | The Abercrombie & Fitch Fuss

  1. Elitism is never OK- being a good human is about inclusion, not exclusion. This goes for fashion (both mass and couture), art, music… you name it, they do it and it isn’t pretty. Or smart. Less ego, more heart, I say!

    • I agree, but we have to stop the hypocrisy of society pointing at and blaming ‘big bad billion dollar brands’. It’s consumers that feed those brands. Singling out a brand or an individual might help some people realize that they are supporting the wrong ideals by buying those clothes, but I don’t think these rants will be the foundation of the dialogue that really has to be put in motion here.

  2. You’re right Jasmine.

    I always hate it when people criticize McDonalds or some similar company which is claimed by society to ‘do bad stuff’. To those people I say: nodoby is shoving unhealthy hamburgers down your troat. You are the one eating them and nobody is making you. And even though you KNOW it’s bad for you, you’re still eating them. Owe up to your damn decisions, I say.

    Then again, I’m a liberal, I’m pretty big on individual responsability and freedom. So I say to people: want to rebel against A&F? Just don’t buy their clothes. You like A&F? Then buy their clothes. I a society in which everybody WANTS to be equal, A&F would not survive a week. But they survive, so society is not what these people on high horses want it to be. And it will never be.

    Having said that, I think it’s pretty lame to target beautiful skinny popular people, but that’s what they do I guess. I don’t buy their products and I will not try to impact decisions of others thinking about buying A&F. Buy what you want. And then afterwards, give it to who you want. It’s your call.

    • My point exactly. People have to stop blaming companies for building their image and campaigns on certain ideals that exist in society. Companies make the campaigns, and sell an ideology. In the end, the consumer decides which one to buy – literally and figuratively.

      Thanks for the comment! :)

  3. I think what bothers me the most about the whole A&F scandal is the ideology that it’s coming from. We are raising children in a society where the most important thing a person can be is to be beautiful. Forget about having a brain. If you can fit into size 00 Abercrombie jeans and have perfect skin and hair, that determines your self-worth more than anything else. This message is rarely articulated out loud, but it is the subtext of everything in our culture – marketing, clothing, shopping, how we talk to each other.

    I think what has riled people up more than anything is the fact that Jeffries seems to be encouraging this ideology instead of questioning it. Yes, I understand his business is selling exclusivity, but that doesn’t make it right. His comments are just an example of the mentality that is holding our culture back from reaching a higher potential. We need to stop looking at appearance as determinant on someone’s self-worth.

    I could really care less if he gets a whole bunch of backlash from his heartless comments. Outrage is good. It means that people who read or heard what he said will stop and think, even for a second, about why we think about appearance the way we do. Maybe in the end, our rage at his ignorance will mean some small form of positive change for our mentality about appearance.

    • Hey Sam, I understand what you’re saying.

      My point here is not that we shouldn’t care about this kind of discrimination, but that we should realize that its foundation is not in the marketing campaigns of these billion dollar companies. The foundation of these distorted ideals is in society itself, in the consumer, in us, people.

      Of course, people can rage as much as they want. And you can interpret that as a good sign. ‘People care’. Yes, they might. But what I still see, even after all those awareness campaigns and stuff, is a lot of hypocrisy. People rioting the big bad company, while two months ago they were still in line to buy a sixty-dollar T-shirt just to feel ‘special’.

      Me recognizing and pointing out that A&F sells elitism, doesn’t mean I approve of them doing so. I just want to draw attention to the fact that their strategy seems to be working. They are a billion dollar company and have become so very succesful by selling elitism for one reason: because people loved it. People bought what A&F sold, ideology included.

      Just pointing at A&F here is wrong and hypocrite. The problem is far bigger than that. It is in our (or society’s) ideals and mentality. And if we want a change, that’s where we’ll have to start. I agree with you on that 100%. :)

  4. I don’t think the public outrage is all about the fact that A&F are exclusionary, but rather that their entire marketing strategy is based on just that. As far as I know they are the only company openly hiring only those with the perfect measures and colour. It might look a bit hypocritical to attack one single brand as we all know fashion is exclusive in general, but I’m pretty sure with all the media coverage of lawsuits etc. we all have a pretty good idea of what the company stands for. Sure, that five-year-old quote keeps getting rehashed because Jeffries doesn’t give a lot of interviews, but I think this whole public debate is based on a lot more than one provocative interview by Jeffries.

    • That’s exactly what I’m saying: just because A&F explicitly excludes some people, we feel the need to riot against them. My point is just that A&F is not the only one to do so and that, like you said, it is hypocritical to target one particular brand. Like Sam commented earlier, people ranting about A&F can indeed be interpreted as a good thing: people seem to care, and we are contributing to a larger discussion on society’s mentality and ideals. But most of the articles I’ve read are just plain rage about A&F’s policy, pieces written by those who have seem to forgotten how succesful A&F has become based on exactly that policy/ideology. Just like Kurt said, blaming Abercrombie in this case is like blaming McDonald’s for the growing obesity problem.

      Sure, some of the writers of those articles have thoroughly investigated the A&F case, and constructively contribute to the dialogue, but most of them haven’t even read the Jeffries interview or – more generally, if you will – A&F’s general policy statement, and are just (fake) idealists trying to show how socially responsible they are because that makes them look good. That hypocrisy, to me, is what we have to get rid of. Only then can we discuss our ideals in a constructive way.

    • (This is probably going to look like I’m replying to myself. oh well). I think it’s a good thing that the broader public becomes conscious of some of the terrible values in (western) societies nowadays. True, they are a very popular brand so clearly their marketing and policies are effective. This debate may bring about a step in the right direction for the fashion industry, that’s all I’m hoping for. I completely agree with what Sam said.

  5. It all comes down to this (very hard) question: is it OK to make money off dumb/ignorant/weak/… people? Most people would say “no”. I think “yes”.

    If people behave in idiotic ways, think the wrong things or have undesirable traits, then what better way to get rid of that by making money off those people and make them pay for their mistakes? You can also preach the good message to them, but that never does much good it seems. So why not exploit them? Is it wrong to exploit people with idiotic beliefs when education clearly doesn’t work?

    Making money out of erroneous behavior is probably going to price the error out of the market. If a lot of people like something for all the wrong reasons, chances are it’s value is too high and sooner or later it will collapse (just as in stock market).

    So in that way, A&F might even make the world more fair in the long run, by exploiting the undesirable characteristics of their buyers. I know, it’s all crazy and I’m probably sounding like a capitalist asshole. But I think my logic makes sense.

    • :D Isn’t that exactly what all companies do? All companies that sell a certain ideology make money off people that (choose to) believe in and follow that ideology. That all includes some naivety. How many ‘environmental friendly’ companies (with a socially accepted and lauded ideology) actually have a CEO that doesn’t drive a big fat BMW or Range?

      What I’m trying to say is that A&F does it the other way around: they sell the opposite ideology – an ideology that is perhaps not entirely socially accepted -, but at least they’re open about it. They don’t want ‘fat’ people in their clothes. Okay, now we all know what they stand for. Anyone who wants to buy at A&F can go ahead and do so, and they’ll know exactly what they’re buying into – in contrast to when they buy other brands who _implicitly_ exclude certain groups. I wouldn’t even say that makes them dumb or ignorant or weak. It just makes the choice for certain ideals more explicit, and that seems to bother a lot of people.

  6. Of course their strategy works. Elitism has been in place for…well…forever. And the thing is, I personally don’t believe elitism is always a bad thing. For example, in sports and academics elitism is a great motivator because it encourages competition and personal betterment. People look up to the elite athlete and academic for a good reason, they are the best in their field. However, elitism fails when we start using personal appearance as a determinant of the “elite”. Pretty people don’t make society a better place. People with brains or a motivation to change things make society better (and if they are pretty too, that’s just a bonus).

    I know what you are saying here. People are getting outraged over something that they buy into every day. However, I would argue that a lot of people are not able to articulate WHY they buy into it. They don’t see the subtext to their decision to purchase A&F clothes – they just think this will make me seem cool. So, in a way, the outrage to me, signifies understanding – we don’t agree with this, this is wrong. To me, understanding is the first step to change, even if the number of people is small, any change is good. :)

    • The way I see it, the A&F case touches a fundamental problem of our hypocritical society. Those rioting against A&F are fighting – as you put it – ‘something that they buy into every day’. I believe that, with A&F being so explicit, everyone understands very well what they stand for. But that’s just how I see it.

  7. I’m always right, Jasmine (except the other 99% of the time when I am wrong) ;) Good things are on the horizon.

    • Heheh. :)

      Thanks for sharing your opinion. I always love to discuss about these kinds of things. I feel it opens my mind, and I tend to learn a lot from others in the process. :)

  8. Yes you ARE right A&F is not the only clothing brand that is exclusionary. But the simple truth is it doesn’t only attract 18 to 22 year old all American type of kids. It excludes those 17 year old girls with thighs and hips and boobs. It’s pathetic, no it isn’t the only brand but we have never heard a CEO go on a interview and Blaintly say it. The problem is that clothing brands are looking for the size zero blue eyed blonde hair typical young adult. You walk in those stores and that’s exactly all you see it. What example is that setting for children? About there body image, what they should look like. Either way its absurd and her company should be held responsible. Although the company is only building there sells off what our citizens allow, it goes way deeper in just the big billon dollar company.

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