What It Do: Rotten To The Core

Let’s first dispense with the obvious: Abercrombie & Fitch, a major component of the pop culture zeitgeist that began in the mid-‘90s, has been revealed to be the brainchild (in its modern incarnation) of a cultural sociopath. CEO Mike Jeffries, who looks like the lovechild of Gary Busey and Sloth from The Goonies, became the internet’s latest villain of the week when a Salon interview from 2006 resurfaced and went viral.

Specifically, people were upset with Jeffries’ moment of perhaps unintentional honesty, wherein he revealed that the A&F corporate strategy includes specifically targeting the “cool kids” (i.e. popular kids who have money and aren’t overweight), which he defined as “the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends.” This may seem obvious to anybody who’s been paying attention to the cultural space occupied by A&F since the mid-‘90’s, but the nail in Jeffries’ coffin came when he followed up with the tone-deaf statement: “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong.”

The outrage machine went into full gear, condemnations ringing in from the farthest reaches of the blogosphere and all across the media landscape. Teen activist Benjamin O’Keefe successfully parlayed a 70,000-signature petition into a meeting with and public apology from the A&F brass. Some kid even had a viral semi-hit with his video promoting the idea of giving A&F clothing to homeless shelters, as a way undermining Jeffries’ “cool kids” strategy. It remains to be seen how many people actually follow through on this plan.

Regardless, the damage to A&F as a brand is extensive, though it remains to be seen how permanent, exactly. Either way, it doesn’t really matter, because—freakish douchebag though he may be—Jeffries isn’t the problem, and neither is Abercrombie & Fitch, when you get right down to it. He didn’t invent the exclusionary culture of high school (and after) or the human predilection for status symbols.

Jeffries, in his shallow and repugnant moral understanding of the universe, was simply more successful at tapping into the target market’s pathology than his competitors. The impulse and energy he took advantage of was there long before he took over the A&F helm, and it will still be there after we’ve moved on to the next cultural outrage du jour.

Much like Gina Rinehart, the Australian heiress who drew international condemnation last year for calling $2/day a fair wage, Jeffries represents an easy target, a bogeyman for us to pillory and feel better about ourselves without having to deal with any of the nastiness that comes along with honest self-examination.

Why was A&F so successful? Because Jeffries and company were able to successfully portray the brand as representing access to social success (and, by implication, material wealth), and in America, we place those things at the top of the list when determining a person’s worth. For anyone who can’t afford the price of admission—or who wears above a size 10, in the case of A&F—the implication is clear: you are not worthwhile.

It’s not Jeffries’ fault that—collectively speaking—we buy into such rubbish. And by focusing on him as the villain in this episode, we absolve ourselves from having to confront the value system that allows creatures like him and his shallow little brand to thrive. Until we start chipping away at the idea that someone’s worth as a human being is derived from their material worth and social success, all this hoopla about Jeffries’ comments will amount to exactly zilch.

Even some of the backlash against Jeffries and A&F feeds into the unhealthy attitudes that built the brand. For instance, while I always support donating clothes to homeless shelters, the plan to sock it to Jeffries by associating A&F with homelessness only works if you buy into the assumption that homeless people are less worthwhile (and maybe a little icky).

Like most controversies of this nature, the offending party is furiously deploying damage control, vehemently proclaiming their anti-bullying and inclusive attitudes, and promising to do… something. Everybody with any sort of platform—including your humble columnist—is weighing in with their opinions. And the real issue is being buried beneath the maelstrom.

Ultimately, it’s not about Mike Jeffries, or Abercrombie & Fitch, or even the opinions of those who opine. It’s about what we value as a culture, and where we place our priorities. It’s about whether we are teaching the next generations to value genuine relationships or shallow popularity. Creativity and individualism or submission and assimilation. Life or clothing.

It’s not exactly a big secret that American culture has a serious problem with how much importance we place on material wealth and social success. The fact that a pile of self-loathing like Jeffries was able to become a major driver of the cultural zeitgeist for better than a decade is merely a symptom of this condition. Crucifying the symptom will not heal the disease.