The loud beats of the club music vibrated the racks of overpriced spaghetti straps while my nostrils filled with the signature scent of A&F No. 1. To add to the effect, my pupils begin to adjust to the dark atmosphere with images of scantily clad women and near naked men on the walls. To my conformity seeking middle school self, this store was the epitome of cool. I was sufficiently scandalized and intrigued by the high prices, indecent clothing and beautiful models of this lifestyle brand. And that’s exactly the psychological effect that Mike Jeffries, the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, wants. According to him, the sex appeal is the backbone of his advertisement strategy: “good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people.”
Jeffries has made several jaw-dropping comments about the exclusion of certain shoppers and employees at his stores in an attempt to enforce his all-American image of A&F. In an interview with Salon magazine, he admitted, “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” Sadly, it has become clear, in recent years, how relevant his statement is to A&F’s business model. Hani Khan, a Muslim woman insisting upon wearing her traditional headscarf, a hijab, was abruptly fired from A&F for not supporting the all-American look of their brand. Two similar cases regarding the hijab’s violation of the “look policy” have been brought to light, and the company was deemed guilty in all three. The subset of Muslim women, however, is not the only group that is susceptible to Jeffries’ obsessive desire to maintain the company’s image. In 2004, A&F was forced to pay $40 million in a class-action suit concerning the discrimination against Black, Asian, and Latino employees and applicants. A corporate pilot, Michael Bustin, sued the company in 2010, claiming he was fired solely because of his old age. Hollister’s entrances, simulating the steps to a beach house, were ruled to be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, the company also displays blatant sexism and support of gender roles, setting standards for both men and women.
A sort of carefree promiscuity is encouraged among teenage girls with both sexualized advertisements and the sale of revealing clothes. In addition, A&F defines cool individuals as those not only able afford their clothes, but, more importantly, fit into them. The company refuses to carry XL and XXL in women’s clothing and any size larger than a 10 in jeans, even though the U.S. national average women’s pant size is a 13. In an obvious attempt to bar certain shoppers from their stores, A&F alienates a large subset of the population. But according to Jeffries, if “you don’t alienate anyone, . . . you don’t excite anybody either.”
This alienation, however, is not exclusive to women, unlike most other companies. A&F seeks to create a “cool boys club,” emphasizing the American male dominance and pure manliness to which his shoppers must conform. Pictures of washboard abs on shopping bags and clothing designed for brawny athletes serve to create a sense of masculinity in A&F’s male shoppers. Not only does it cultivate this masculinity and athleticism in those that already posses it, but it also introduces, to the boy’s mind, the male’s expected ruggedness, both in dress and behavior. To make matters worse, the sale of T-shirts with messages like “Two Wongs Can Make It White” and “Who Needs a Brain When You Have These?” (referring to a woman’s breasts) subtly implant the racial and sexual superiority of the white man in the minds of A&F’s shoppers.
However, the strategy of marketing to only skinny and beautiful people has its drawbacks: namely, it constricts the target audience at the time of an economic recession. Therefore, Jeffries has finally begun to make some minor changes to increase A&F’s appeal to the modern teenager. They have changed the ambience by brightening their rooms, decreasing the loud volume of their music and strong perfume scent, and removing questionable photographs from their walls. In response to many anti-discrimination cases, A&F has, over the years, modified their “looks policy” to allow hijabs. In addition, they have changed their brand description to increase accessibility, replacing phrases like “the essence of privilege and casual luxury” and “rooted in the East Coast traditions and Ivy League heritage” with less exclusionary phrases like “classic campus experiences” and “moments while traveling.” Even so, the company still pigeon-holes their customer as the “next generation of all-American style.” A&F has yet to discover the interests and concerns of the progressive teen.
The collective American teenage mind recently to loathe conventional beauty. As advertisements depicting impossibly flawless women grace computer screens and magazine pages, advocates of body positivity have stepped up. Dove worked to reveal the true beauty of heavier-set and older women in their “Campaign for Real Beauty,” along with several other corporations. Twitter feeds from the Arab Spring showed those of different ethnicities and religions, living almost half-way across the world, still have the same desire for freedom. The widespread support of same-sex marriage legalization shows the ideal man need not be conventionally masculine. In short, we have widened the boundaries of “cool” to embrace differences, rather than exploit them.
This backlash has trickled into the fashion world, as teenage shoppers choose stores like H&M and Forever 21 that emphasize individuality in fashion choices at a more affordable cost. And, despite A&F’s attempts to create a culture of conformist exclusivity, its view of beauty has shown too narrow for today’s mindsets.
“Abercrombie & Fitch pays out $71,000 to settle lawsuits over hijab.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 16 June 2014.
Chang, Charlotte. “Abercrombie indicates market change.” Daily Trojan. University of Southern California, 10 June 2014. Web. 15 June 2014.
Denizet-Lewis, Benoit. “The man behind Abercrombie & Fitch.” Salon. Salon Media Group, n.d. Web. 16 June 2014.
Hoenig, Chris. “Abercrombie Discriminated Against Female Muslim Employee, Says Judge.” DiversityInc. DiversityInc, n.d. Web. 15 June 2014.
Murray, Rheana. “Abercrombie & Fitch targets skinny shoppers, won’t sell larger sizes for plus-sized women.” New York Daily News. NYDailyNews.com, 9 May 2013. Web. 16 June 2014.
Pous, Terri. “We, the Underdressed: A Brief History of Discrimination and Indifference in Fashion Retail.” Time. Time, 22 May 2013. Web. 16 June 2014.