I’ve only worn Abercrombie & Fitch once in my life. Living in Canada during my early teens, my peers routinely flocked to the store for their high school attire. The year was 2006: the same year in which CEO Mike Jeffries is revealed to have expressed his target demographic. “We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong, and they can’t belong,” he reportedly said. “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
It is without a fraction of surprise that I read this mission statement, currently making its rounds on the internet quicker than playground gossip. Yet, even after reflecting upon my 13 year-old self, desperately navigating his way through school with decidedly average social stock, all I feel on the matter is indifference, not rage. There are obvious cultural casualties – so-called ‘uncool kids’, consumers whose sizes aren’t represented – but without them realising, the biggest wounds made by Abercrombie & Fitch are self-inflicted.
I consider myself body-conscious. Even now, when I look at their ad campaigns – full of men that make manikins look out of shape – my self-esteem will plummet. However, consumers are slowly becoming more self-aware and attuned to the reality of these photographs – often edited within an inch of their life precisely in order to make us feel inferior.
Even the so-called ‘cool kids’ become collateral damage in the pursuit of exclusivity. Reports of rigorous demands from the company for employees to stay trim, tan, and toned are substantiated from a close friend of mine who previously worked for sister brand Hollister. Potential employees would have their photo taken during the interview process, then were judged if they were attractive enough to be a ‘model’ (read: glorified shop assistant). Those who didn’t make the cut were segregated to the ‘impact’ team (responsible for unpacking stock) in order to maintain the facade of diversity. “It’s not a good place to work if you have self-esteem issues,” she told me. “Girls would even compete based on how little they would eat.”
At 68 years of age, Jeffries might believe himself to be a shrewd businessman, but purporting to be an extension of high-school hierarchies only works if you’re marketing inclusivity. In the competitive environment of high street retail, aspirationalism sells, while exclusivity is simply bad business. After all, we’re dealing with striped polo shirts and ripped denim – hardly Swarovski crystals.
Certainly in England, the aesthetic of brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch (and home-grown cousins Jack Wills) are eschewed for more current, cost-effective and, in most cases, size-inclusive retailers like H&M. Meanwhile, Topshop is slowly growing an American market for itself. What Jeffries doesn’t seem to realise is that perceptions of ‘cool’ loosen once school’s out. Ironically, Abercrombie & Fitch have become the uncool crowd they so flippantly avoid. Sure, the body-conscious and the supposedly unpopular have every right to be offended by this. But to you I ask, do you even care in the first place?