Mike Jeffries, chief executive of Abercrombie & Fitch leaves the store… (Bertrand Guay, AFP/Getty…)
Anyone who has ever walked past an Abercrombie & Fitch store at the local mall knows that it's a place for queen bees and cool jocks.
Hot, buff store employees greet customers at the front door. They don't say, "Fatties keep out." They don't have to. Abercrombie does not stock sizes for the average American young woman, who is roughly 5 feet 4 and weighs about 162 pounds.
Abercrombie does not want that person in its clothes.
And that is not news.
But thanks to the power of social media, the company's obnoxious marketing philosophy is making waves again.
Last week, the website Business Insider had a story about Abercrombie's refusal to make plus-sizes, unlike its competitors H&M and American Eagle. Abercrombie Chief Executive Mike Jeffries wants "thin and beautiful" people shopping in his store, explained retail analyst Robin Lewis. "He doesn't want his core customers to see people who aren't as hot as them wearing his clothing."
God, I know! I hate the feeling when I walk into Costco and someone who isn't as hot as me is wearing the same Kirkland sweat pants I have on.
The Business Insider story also linked to a 2006 profile of Jeffries that detailed the executive's rancid retail philosophy, which has touched a dormant nerve.
"In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids," Jeffries told reporter Benoit Denizet-Lewis of Salon. "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."
In the past, conservative religious leaders have taken the fight to Abercrombie — when it sold thong underwear or push-up bikini tops to little girls, or illustrated its catalog with orgy photos. But this time, the protests are neither organized nor ideological.
Andrea Neusner, 43, a mother of three in suburban Washington, D.C., boxed up three pairs of jeans, a couple of T-shirts and some tank tops and returned them to Abercrombie headquarters in Ohio on Friday. She enclosed a note to Jeffries, reprinted by the Huffington Post explaining that her daughters, ages 17, 13 and 10, are done with the brand.
"It was satisfying," Neusner said Monday. "I pictured somebody in the mail room opening the box of old clothes and having to figure out what to do with them. I think kids and parents, too, are not willing to be bullied."
In South Carolina, a quartet of teenagers at MindStream Academy, a boarding school for obese youngsters, posted their displeasure Saturday on YouTube. "None of these kids could fit into Abercrombie clothes eight months ago," the school's webmaster, Harry Plumer, told me.
Now that they can, they have a message for Jeffries: "We will never shop at Abercrombie & Fitch."
And in Florida, a young actor and gay activist who was bullied and struggled with his weight, launched a petition on the website Change.org calling on Abercrombie to stock larger sizes. "In my middle school years, especially into early high school, Abercrombie was the thing, and I couldn't be a part of it," said Benjamin O'Keefe, 18. "When you hear from an adult in a high position of power that you aren't worth it because of your size, it's horrible."
On Monday, O'Keefe's petition had nearly 8,000 signatures.
I doubt that Jeffries will be moved to apologize, or change. But you would think company stakeholders, who've seen the stock price drop 20% since 2006, might demand accountability.
"Where are the pension funds? Where are the people that should be protesting this? " asked Jeff Macke of the Yahoo investing show "Breakout."
He thinks Jeffries has failed as chief executive. "Not because he's offensive, not because he's super creepy and 70 years old and an aging hipster who has been CEO for way too long, but because the company has been underperforming," Macke said.
"The brand is probably ruined," he added. "Buh-bye, it's time to move along."
The funny thing is, from a fashion standpoint, Abercrombie was never very interesting. It makes relatively boring, overpriced casual wear tarted up for teens.
But the firm has displayed an absolute genius for stoking the anxiety and deepest social fears of youngsters at the developmental moment they are most vulnerable. And you have to wonder: Why?
Maybe because of this: Jeffries, according to Salon, "wants desperately to look like his target customer (the casually flawless college kid), and in that pursuit he 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."
Still trying to be one of the cool kids, I guess.