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    Abercrombie & Fitch’s exclusionary tactics may be backfiring

    Marketing bully

    Pedestrians in New York passed one of Abercrombie & Fitch’s signature ads.
    Pedestrians in New York passed one of Abercrombie & Fitch’s signature ads.

    Abercrombie & Fitch loves to court controversy; edginess gives appeal. Accused of hyper-sexualizing fashion, it has gotten the attention of teens who see the company’s occasional advocacy of, say, group sex as another form of rebellion. But sex isn’t A&F’s real problem. Rather, it’s become something of a schoolyard bully. The company loudly trumpets its commitment to diversity — of race, religion, and sexual orientation — but there’s one type of diversity you won’t see: If you’re bigger or overweight or just not hip enough, Abercrombie is not for you. The company doesn’t want you in its stores. Indeed, it won’t even make you clothes that fit.

    Women in particular feel the brunt of A&F’s wrath. It doesn’t carry XL sizes for them, and pants max out at a size 10. (To add fuel to this particular fire, XXL sizes are readily available for guys.) This is hardly unintentional. “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 . . . Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” Those are the words of the company’s CEO, Michael Jeffries, in an interview from seven years ago. That quote, recently rediscovered, has over the last few weeks provoked a firestorm of controversy in social media. After some delay, Jeffries finally issued an apology, but it was one of those acts of contrition we hear too often from those who are just trying to do some damage control: “We sincerely regret and apologize for any offense caused,” read a press release. In other words, we’re not sorry for what we said; we’re just sorry it got us in trouble.

    Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries

    A&F’s marketing strategy indulges in and legitimizes that worst of adolescent rites, the creation of cliques and through them, inevitably, decisions about whom to exclude. After shocking incidents such as the 2010 suicide of South Hadley’s Phoebe Prince, parents and schools mounted efforts to stop bullying and to get kids to think about the consequences of hurtful words and actions. Abercrombie pushes hard in the opposite direction.


    Further complicating things is who A&F defines as being in and out, and it all relates to size and shape. The fashion industry has been under fire lately for creating unrealistic conceptions of body shape and A&F seems a prime example. Size 10 may be the company’s largest, but size 14 is the average for an American woman, meaning that, at best, A&F leaves most girls and women feeling badly about themselves and, at worst, feeds into the rising epidemic of eating disorders that affects adolescent girls in particular.

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    To a degree, A&F and Jeffries’s attitudes are so over-the-top as to seem absurd, easy pickings for outrage. Other clothing retailers catering to the young and hip — H&M, Forever 21, American Eagle — have sizing charts that go to 18 or greater. And their CEOs don’t go about uttering fatuous pronouncements about whom they’re willing to allow in their stores.

    Indeed, A&F is so extreme that it may appear an easy-to-dismiss outlier. It’s not, though. “The fact that Abercrombie is so clear about their goal actually forces us to consider the many subtle messages that kids get about how they are not good or skinny enough,” says Stuart Koman, who heads up Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham, a treatment center for those with anorexia, bulimia, and the like.

    Which is why the current spate of controversy is such a good thing. The reaction to A&F is getting kids — all of us, in fact — to think hard about the pressures under which we put girls. Even better, the company seems to be suffering the consequences. Its sales are dropping, its stock price is now under $50 (well below 2011 highs of $77), and there are rumors that Jeffries may be let go when his contract expires in 2014.

    Some of this may just be the vagaries of a fickle market, but some also seems connected to a growing discontent with A&F and the philosophies it espouses. Abercrombie may have made one critical miscalculation. In trying to define what is cool or not, it may have missed out that for many of today’s teens, one thing that is not cool is making fun of others.

    Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.