Marketing

Fat or ugly? Abercrombie & Fitch doesn’t want you

The Globe and Mail

Shoppers walk next to a large at Abercrombie & Fitch, at a mall in San Jose, Calif.

(Paul Sakuma/The Associated Press)

It was the late 1990s and frosted tips were still fashionable when erstwhile boy band LFO declared that they “like girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch.” The clothing brand has a well-established history marketing itself as the favourite of young, nubile and attractive people. And in the fashion world, it’s hardly the only one.

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But now the retailer’s CEO Mike Jeffries is attracting criticism for accusations that he does not want unattractive or fat people wearing his company’s clothing.

In an interview with Business Insider last Friday, an industry analyst pointed out that while Abercrombie & Fitch sells XL and XXL sizes for men, it does not offer anything beyond a large size for women. While partly this is simply explained as vanity sizing, it reflects a larger marketing message from the retailer.

“He doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people,” Robin Lewis, analyst and co-author of The New Rules of Retail said in the interview . “He doesn’t want his core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing his clothing. People who wear his clothing should feel like they’re one of the ‘cool kids.’”

The article also cited a 2006 interview that Mr. Jeffries did with Salon.com, in which he said that his business is marketing to “the cool kids,” and that the brand is purposefully “exclusionary.”

“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,” he said at the time. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

While Mr. Jeffries’ statements are nothing new, the analyst’s comments have generated a great deal of attention online and on social media this week – and in response to his embrace of the “exclusionary,” many on the Internet swiftly stooped to his level.

A popular thread on Reddit , posted on Wednesday, was entitled, “I present to you Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch. Too ugly to work at his own stores.” The thread attracted more than 3,000 comments as users insulted the 68-year-old CEO’s appearance, and shared the most unflattering photos they could find. One user claiming to be a former employee also wrote claims about practices in the stores and recruiting policies that relied on appearance. It was not the only thread on the site set up to insult Mr. Jeffries.

The allegations of narrow beauty ideals at Abercrombie are certainly nothing new. A woman with a prosthetic arm sued Abercrombie in 2009, claiming that as an employee she was forced to work in the stock room because she did not fit its “look policy.” In 2004, it reached a $40-million settlement in a class-action lawsuit in which Hispanic, black and Asian employees claimed they were also forced to work in the back of the store. (In addition to payment, Abercrombie was required to bring in diversity recruiters and to make its catalogues and advertisements more diverse as well.) In 2002, the company was taken to task for selling thong underwear in kids’ sizes that were silkscreened with phrases such as “wink wink” and “eye candy.” In 2001, it raised critics’ ire with a summer catalogue featuring very young models partly undressed and in sexually suggestive poses.

The criticism over Abercrombie’s position shows how a story can find new life in a social media age. There is nothing materially new about the issues many people have with the retailer’s beauty standards, but all it takes is a comment from an analyst to stir up a debate again and drive Tumblr users to their keyboards .