Abercrombie Angst

The recent uproar over Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries comments about the brand’s target market is kind of fascinating.  His comments are from an interview he did in 2006, and yet the entire social media universe is acting as though these were incendiary statements made last week.  You can read the entire original piece on Salon here.

It’s hard to tell whether the explosive reaction is to the blunt honesty of the statements or to the irony of a man who looks like a bizarro-Picasso perversion of the Abercrombie ideal.  Let’s be honest, the statements Jeffries made are extremely offense in a society where we are working to combat bullying among adolescents, celebrate diversity in beauty and promote healthy self-perception.  For Jeffries to state openly and unashamedly that his brand is only interested in the “cool kids” and specifically thin girls is insulting.  The fact that he had no qualms about stating those facts is likely the most galling element of the story.

But let’s be real.  Why is this shocking?  This is a company and brand that has made a name for itself marketing a very specific ideal.  Ad campaigns featuring scantily clad models, that seem to imply that you can actually buy a barely legal model in the stores rather than clothes, have long been the norm.  The boy in low-slung jeans with a washboard 8-pack is a fixture at the entrance to their stores at malls across America.  There has never been any doubt who Abercrombie wants to buy their clothes – and that target audience continues to do so.

Jeffries may be in the hot seat for saying it out loud, but Abercrombie is far from the only brand to set an exclusive vision of a customer as a part of creating an aspirational brand.  It starts with the great fashion houses of Europe and trickles most of the way down.  At nearly every fashion price point there is a brand targeting a particular ideal customer.  Yes, some of them sell clothes in sizes that would allow customers that don’t fit their brand ideal, but that’s not about being inclusive, it’s about maximizing profit.  Target sells clothes from size “zero” to “tent” because they want to make as much money as possible, not because they care about ensuring all shapes and sizes feel comfortable being associated with their brand and in their clothes.  Is it any better to sell the image of the perfect model with the perfect body and the seemingly-perfect existence, knowing a customer will be drawn in because they associate the clothing with attaining that lifestyle – even though they have nothing in common with it?  Victoria’s Secret anyone?

Marketing teams for every brand across the country sit in meetings crafting idealized ad campaigns to target the trend setters that are their ideal customers where they say the exact same thing Jeffries said, specific to their audience, and then craft campaigns and strategies to support it.  They just don’t say it outright.  They are all looking for the “cool kids” – the only difference is the demographic.  The cool young professionals.  The cool African-Americans.  The cool young parents.  The cool athletes.  The cool gays.  Every demographic has its version of the high school “cool kids” because after all, the only difference between high school and adult life is one happens before graduation, the other after.  There are still cliques, there are still mean girls and there are still the kids that the rest of the kids want to be.

Fashion and marketing are simply a reflection of how we view ourselves and each other and the things we choose to idealize.  If we taught our children that the All-American frat boy and sorority girl look were not, in fact, the ideal, then Abercrombie’s influence would be far less profound.

The basis for this uproar is coming from adults and those outside of Abercrombie’s demographic anyway, it’s highly unlikely the target market teens who can afford to shop there, and fit into their clothes, care one way or another about how the rest of us feel about the situation.  The cool kids like being the cool kids.  It’s the rest of us that give them that power.  If we stopped doing that, and taught our kids to stop doing that, they wouldn’t be the cool kids anymore.  That’s the greatest damage we could do to sad people like Mike Jeffries.  Though giving his clothes to the homeless is rather genius as well.  Well done, Greg Karber.

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