In Defense of Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries

It's the apology heard 'round the world: Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries recently issued a global mea culpa addressing controversial statements he made in 2006 regarding his company's policy toward plus-size shoppers.

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Jeffries posted on A&F's Facebook page: "I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7-year-old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics."

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The note, written on Wednesday, has garnered 3,500 likes, 1,000 shares, more than 2,000 comments. It has also triggered a fiery debate. "People are only sorry when they're caught," wrote one commenter. Another: "You are back peddling and nothing more." But Jeffries' supporters were adamant that his apology was unnecessary. "There's other options, shop at other stores, workout and diet if it's really hurting you that much that you can't wear the clothes." And "No apology needed; is this a serious problem in America? There aren't enough stores for overweight people to buy clothing? Really?"

The statements in question date back to 2006 when Jeffries told Salon, “[Sex appeal is] almost everything. 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.... 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. 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." His comments were resurrected in a recent Business Insider article in which Robin Lewis, founder and CEO of retail industry newsletter The Robin Report and co-author of The New Rules in Retail, said that the company wants only "thin and beautiful" consumers. 

Whether an apology is necessary is hardly the point. His apology added insult to injury for many. For starters, clarifying seven years after the fact in the wake of a media firestorm sounds more like a desperate PR move than an attempt at making true amends. And Jeffries avoids responsibility by insisting that his words were "taken out of context" and "interpreted in a manner that caused offense." Instead he blames reporters for mincing his words and the public for misunderstanding him. He further offends by making pat statements about the company's commitment to diversity but doesn't offer any evidence or explain how the brand will move forward in regard to a more inclusive audience. People have been aware of (and have likely railed against) Jeffries' policies since 2006 but the company hasn't done much to expand their "cool, sexy, thin" image by employing more diverse models or including plus-sizes. During a recent ABC investigation, undercover reporters were told that the store didn't carry XL or XXL for women.

All that said, is it time to cut some Jeffries some slack? Selecting a target audience is just Marketing 101. In order for a business to succeed, it needs to identify a demographic audience; everything from its gender, ethnicity, and educational level, down to the particulars of its personality. This not only creates brand familiarity but helps companies carve out their niche in a crowded market. And catering to a young, hip, attractive audience is hardly a crime—A&F competitors Urban Outfitters, Aeropostale, and Hollister follow suit, as do luxury brands Chanel, YSL, and Gucci (which in addition to ignoring the plus-size market sell clothes only to the wealthy elite). For that matter, curvy retailer Lane Bryant also has its niche. As one Facebook commenter put it: "Plus size stores don't sell tiny clothes. No one seems to be bothered by that."

Adding fuel to the flame: Weight is an inflammatory, politically incorrect topic and people go to great lengths to avoid the word "overweight" or be perceived as sizeists. Jeffries biggest offense may be less his prejudices and more his unfiltered honesty; he broke the social contract: You're not supposed to say these things out loud. As Lewis told Yahoo! Shine: “This has always been their business model and lots of companies do it. You need a target audience but Jeffries doesn’t have to be so blatant about it."

The best way for the offended to deal with a man who Salon described as wanting "desperately to look like his target customer (the casually flawless college kid), [who] has aggressively transformed himself from a classically handsome man into a cartoonish physical specimen: dyed hair, perfectly white teeth, golden tan, bulging biceps, wrinkle-free face, and big, Angelina Jolie lips" is to ignore him. Don't shop at his stores, don't engage in online debates, and don't let him define your self-worth.

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