Following nearly a month of attacks from anti-bullying activists, Reddit, and Ellen, Abercrombie & Fitch met with a group of critics this week to discuss some incredibly incendiary remarks from CEO Mike Jeffries.
It all started when Robin Lewis, co-author of The New Rules of Retail, told Business Insider that Jeffries doesn't carry XL and XXL in women's clothing because he "doesn't want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people." Business Insider presented supporting quotes Jeffries made to Salon in 2006: "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." He went on:
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. [Salon]
The remarks may be years old, but when they resurfaced, it was a bombshell: College students organized boycotts, an activist started a Change.org campaign, Reddit ridiculed Jeffries on the "Abercrombie" subreddit, Ellen made "Fitch, pleeeaase" jokes.
Finally, on May 15 — nearly two weeks after the initial Business Insider story — Jeffries took to his company's Facebook page to say that the quotes were taken out of context and that he is "completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics."
But is the damage already done? The Washington Post's Jena McGregor suggests the apology was too little, too late.
What's surprising about all this isn't that Abercrombie & Fitch wants thin, cool teens wearing its clothes… while Jeffries may have been the only one who actually admitted it — in language that was absolutely insensitive and inappropriate for a CEO — A&F is far from the only fashion brand to limit sizes.
What is surprising is that the company took 12 days (an eternity in the world of social media) to publicly respond to the viral backlash and nearly three weeks to meet with critics. The best thing for Jeffries to do would have been to speak up the day the story was posted, apologizing immediately for any offense the comments may have caused. It's unlikely this would have stopped the criticism, but it could have slowed the story down enough to allow the company to announce some corrective steps before things got out of hand. [Washington Post]
This week, when representatives from Abercrombie met with activists, including the CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association, the critics urged the retailer to "redefine cool." (Jeffries himself did not attend the meeting.) Benjamin O'Keefe, the 18-year-old activist who started the Change.org petition, told Abercrombie, "Your company will falter and fail of you don't start making changes," said Forbes.
Ultimately though, it's shoppers who will decide if Abercrombie will survive the internet's takedown. Forbes suggests O'Keefe might have a point: "Save for the most recent quarter, sales have been declining at the retail chain as it loses market share to retailers like H&M and American Eagle." And for what it's worth, H&M and American Eagle both offer women's clothing in XL and XXL.