Like most of you, I’m sure, I was quite appalled by the recent press coverage that the popular clothing chain Abercrombie and Fitch only wants the “cool kids” wearing their clothing, and that to ensure that they don’t carry larger women’s sizes and only hire very attractive people to work in their stores. Even more surprising, most of the statements being covered in this week’s media bloodbath were made more than seven years ago in a January 2006 interview between A&F CEO Mike Jeffries and Salon Magazine.
Has it really taken us this long to become aware of what I could have probably pointed out as a slightly overweight uncool kid in high school?
We get it. Abercrombie and Fitch is built on an ego-inflated platform of popularity and shallow ideals. Mike Jeffries said it himself:
“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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.” (Source)
So, how do we respond? As a person who invests a significant amount of time investing in the lives of young people–both kids whom the world would classify as “popular” and those who Jeffries might think “uncool”–I am certainly outraged by these comments. I’m saddened by the fact that companies think it is okay to market like this, and that these are the messages that I spend so much time helping kids filter, break down, and understand.
This news has been everywhere this week. Twitter. Facebook. Lunch conversation in the church office. It’s blowing up. And, within the past day or so, there’s been this interesting movement breaking out.
A YouTube video created by a young writer, Greg Karber with almost 2 million views in two days, is calling for people to rise up and take action through what he is calling #FitchtheHomeless. Here’s the video:
Essentially, the premise of the video is that we should all go out, clean out our closets and buy up all of the used A&F clothing from thrift stores, and then give it away to homeless people so they can wear it proudly and “mess with” the A&F brand image. At the end of the video, Karber ends with a call to arms: “I can’t clothe the homeless or transform a brand without your help…” So, he invites all of those almost 2 million viewers to join him in destroying the A&F brand image by getting the “cool kid” swag on homeless people everywhere.
Sounds great at first, right? But what are we really doing if we jump on this bandwagon and #FitchtheHomeless?
It’s essentially like we’re saying, “let’s exploit the most marginalized people group in our society, and use them to take a stand against a company that considers itself too cool for the unpopular and overweight.” Yeah, that sounds good.
Or here, take it this way. If someone came up to me in middle school or high school, during a time when I was slightly overweight and unpopular and said, “Abercrombie and Fitch thinks only cool people should wear their clothing so I am going to give it to you for free to take a stand against their unfair business practices,” how do you think that would have made me feel?
Even more self-conscious of my body issues.
More sure that I would never fit in with the popular crowd.
Like a pawn in some silly popularity contest.
There’s not really any way to sugar coat that kind of statement: “Here, take this shirt because the company thinks you’re not cool or pretty enough to wear it, and we’re gonna show them who’s boss.”
Check out what Alex Iwashyna had to say about Karber’s video:
“…even more telling is the video doesn’t show Karber trying to explain to any homeless person why he is giving them Abercrombie clothing. Did they cut that part or did he just assume: Homeless people = HEY FREE SHIRT? Because #fitchthehomeless certainly isn’t touted as a movement where we stand arm and arm with the homeless against, as he puts it in the opening, “a terrible company.” Why would anyone want to wear clothing by a terrible, unethical, offensive company? Or do only people with homes have ethics?
The video implies that homeless people shouldn’t have opinions on Abercrombie or coolness or fitting in or being large or CEOs or corporations burning clothing or not being accepted. They aren’t intelligent enough to want to join the fight. They just want free stuff, and we can help them get it while feeling good about not ever wearing A&F again.
Kaber created another class of people within this Abercrombie controversy. It’s not based on looks or size. We (non-homeless) won’t wear Abercrombie anymore. We are purging our closets and our neighbors’ closets and our friends’ closets as the video encourages us to do. Now we have people who can afford to think or act on their ethics, and people who cannot.
And when we are left with a skid row full of homeless human beings wearing Abercrombie and Fitch clothing, we can finally ask ourselves: Are we sticking it to the CEO of a company or just illustrating how blind we really are?”
So, before we all jump on the bandwagon to #FitchtheHomeless and save the world from evil corporations like Abercrombie and Fitch, let’s step back and think about the message we’re really sending.
Question: How do we respond to the unethical business practices of companies like Abercrombie & Fitch without exploiting the already marginalized in our society? And, for those of us in regular contact with the target audience of the brand, how do we help young people filter the cultural messages being sent while maintaining faithfulness to justice and caring for the poor?