When I first heard about the comments attributed to Abercrombie CEO Michael Jeffries, I thought it was an Internet prank. You just never hear that kind of raw, politically incorrect, straightforward honesty from businessmen-- philosophers, writers, artists, yes-- money-hungry businessmen, no. This is professional suicide, but if done right, it can be as successful as Abercrombie & Fitch. Part of me wants to laugh, the other part of me-- my inner fat kid-- wants to throw a tantrum along with everyone else who opposes their marketing strategy. Nothing good ever come out of such unbridled emotions, however, so let us analyze this carefully and rationally.
Abercrombie & Fitch chooses to not offer plus sized clothing, and that is fine because such is the beauty of freedom of choice. A&F isn't running on the platform of "making every woman feel beautiful." There are plenty of other businesses who are already happy to profit from that demographic. A&F is currently running on a platform of being "exclusionary" and making the customers feel like they are in an elite category. Whether or not we wish to buy into this marketing scheme is our choice as consumers. If enough people are offended, enough not to shop there, then the business will run its course. If not, then I suppose his plan is an effective one.
What surprised me initially was not that they are exclusionary, but rather, that they are so candid about it. Marketing is usually about the pretense that you cater to everyone equally-- most people like the idea that they are all equal and beautiful, so that strategy usually works. According Michael Jeffries, though, that strategy would make A&F "vanilla" and "boring," like everyone else. "Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny," explains the CEO. "But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.” The fact that we're talking about Abercrombie & Fitch and not Gap would prove that right. Plain clothes just by themselves are just plain clothes; but start telling people that they are only for the cool, thin, and beautiful, and soon you'll have even the overweight forcing themselves into the clothes; tell the employees that they are models, and they'll do your work practically for free in exchange of the title and the image it affords. (George Carlin on overinflated job titles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5s3n26yRAU)
Isn't that at the very core of our cultural obsession with euphemisms? Many aspects of society already work that way, but few ever take the time to analyze. It isn't until somebody tells them like it is, straight to their face, that they start paying attention. Most people can't read between the lines, or take the time to understand human nature and the social contract. They buy into euphemisms and political correctness without taking the time to understand that there is a different reality beneath the mask. Most of those who move the strings of business and politics are too clever to ever make any admissions such as Michael Jeffries, who blurted out what others only think.
Abercrombie and Fitch never caught my attention before this controversy. I had seen their larger-than-life-sized ads of well-defined abs in the front of their stores, but it didn't strike any particular interest. One sees that everywhere, all the time, so it didn't even cross my mind to assume that such modeling was part of their regular advertising campaign. What I did see is that their clothes are plain, and assumed they are as overpriced as all plain third-world sweatshop clothes with a label. The last time I saw an A&F label was on my mother's boss's shirt, on what I thought was a lazy day for him. I recall thinking, "This is a man who will waste precious business time fighting on the phone over a $2 discount, yet he doesn't mind spending more than triple the amount he could have paid for the exact same shirt, minus the label, at Fallas Paredes." Labels don't impress me, so that was the end of any attention ever given to this company.
It wasn't until I heard about this controversy that I took the time to explore the company a bit further. As someone who takes interest in labor issues and the foibles of corporate America, one of the things I always look for when researching a company is their work culture. As I was researching A&F I explored its work culture, and it sounds like an awful place in which to work. Sales associates and cashiers are called "models," which leads many to stick to the horrors just for the title (I suppose it's like every company, with its euphemistic titles of pseduoimportance). Horrors such as standing for five hours or more, with a plastic, painful permasmile, inviting people in. If you're having a bad hair for example, they send you to the back room. Ouch! I imagine it's quite demoralizing-- wouldn't even be worth it as a high paid runway model or actress, even less for retail cashier work at minimum wage. I also read that they instruct employees to live the Abercrombie & Fitch lifestyle AT work and OUT, which is a major cult alert red flag (reminds me of this parody of cult leaders: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3wTtmrFQxI). It is no wonder they got sued in 2009 by a girl who was sent to the back for having a prosthetic arm. Google "working at Abercrombie & Fitch," and read all the stories and personal accounts for yourself!