Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries has managed to tick off actress Kirstie Alley and the entire Over-size-10 population his employee “look” policy. Yet Wall Street isn't complaining. The brand’s profits remain steady, and the stock is trading at the top of its 52-week range.
But Wall Street doesn't represent Kirstie Alley, or most moms, I suspect.
Alley, who is a mom, denounced Jeffries comments in an interview with Entertainment Tonight (see video): "He said Abercrombie clothes are for people who are cool and look a certain way and are beautiful and are thin' and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah," Alley said. "That would make me never buy anything from Abercrombie."
"I’ve got two kids in that bracket," said Alley (who's sons are 18 and 20). "But they will never walk in those doors because of his view of people -- forget women, his view of just people.”
While Mr. Jeffries has caught flak for his comments for now, he may have the last laugh if parents and other consumers continue to shop there.
For the moment, Jeffries is getting the opportunity to see how the other 67 percent lives — that’s how many shoppers are plus-size, according to ABC News.
He’s also experiencing something close to the bullying suffered by those who don’t fit his company’s “look.”
There’s a petition on Change.org demanding the store stock larger sizes (only 75 people have signed it). Teenage critics protested outside a Chicago Abercrombie and Fitch store earlier this week. And in a viral video campaign, "#FitchTheHomeless," filmmaker Greg Karber is trying to "re-brand" the company by giving its clothes to homeless people. I really like the "Karberizing" of the brand as a form of punishment.
By now Jeffries’ 2006 Salon interview, resurfacing since ABC News ran a piece showing the company sells mainly size 00, is cemented in the annals of marketing history; a monument to how long a bad remark can remain potent thanks to the computer and online memory.
He told Salon in 2006: “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…. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
As a result of his remarks Jeffries is being momentarily schooled on how it feels to be unpopular. I hope he’s also learning that size only matters when it comes to mistakes.
However, I wonder if this lesson will stick. While under his direction, the brand has been a constant source of courtroom and news fodder for its discriminatory in-store “look” policy, but it has also won praise from the LGBT community for “inclusion hiring policies.”
The Human Rights Campaign lists Abercrombie & Fitch at the top of its 2012 Corporate Equality Index.
In response to the ranking, the company's senior vice president of diversity and inclusion is quoted by HRC saying:
“Through A&F's corporate values and sound diversity strategy, we remain committed to a focused and funded initiative that supports all of our associates including the LGBT community."
Of course it is always much easier to be “tolerant” of your own reflection than that of others, so I’m not entirely sure how big a pat on the back Jeffries, who himself has a male live-in partner, gets for his championing of LGBT rights in his company’s stores.
Maybe the LGBT community isn't factoring in more general discrimination against those who don’t fit the company’s visual standard. I suspect that if they were more aware they might just rescind the honor.
For example, according to The Associated Press, in 2004, “Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) agreed to pay $40 million to black, Hispanic and Asian employees and job applicants to settle a class-action federal discrimination lawsuit that accused the clothing retailer of promoting whites at the expense of minorities.”
“The settlement required the company to adhere to a consent decree that calls for the implementation of new policies and programs to promote diversity and prevent discrimination in its workforce. It also must pay about $10 million to monitor compliance and cover attorneys' fees,” according to the AP.
Also, according to the BBC, Abercrombie & Fitch was taken to court in 2009 for banishing an employee with a prosthetic arm from a store in London. The employee, Riam Dean, was awarded £8,000 for unlawful harassment, though the tribunal ruled that she hadn't suffered disability discrimination.
More recently, the Employee Relations Law Journal, Spring 2013 issue cites the case where a court ruled the company violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by refusing to hire a Muslim applicant, Samantha Elauf, for a store model job because she wore a headscarf, which was deemed inconsistent with the chain's "Look" policy.
The court held that making an exception for Ms. Elauf to wear the scarf would not have caused Abercrombie undue hardship.
But checking the stock market this week there is little “hardship” on the company’s bottom line.
We, the over size 10 and female set, have the power to stop this behavior, and Forbes Magazine has our backs on this one.
From its March blog “The Real Reason Women Shop More Than Men”:
“The real reason is sobering. In virtually every society in the world, women have primary care-giving responsibilities for both children and the elderly (and often, just about everybody else in-between). In this primary caregiving role, women find themselves buying on behalf of everyone else in their lives,” Forbes writes. “The list is long: in addition to buying for themselves, women buy on behalf of husbands, partners, kids, colleagues, adult children, friends, relatives, elderly parents, in-laws, their businesses and even their kids’ friends, to name just a few. If somebody, somewhere needs a gift, chances are there’s a woman thinking about it; tracking it down; wrapping it; making sure it’s accompanied by a personal message and then arriving to the person on the appointed day.”
That’s one hefty footprint on the ledger, especially if we change the color from black to red.
So let me just take this opportunity to remind Jeffries of the classic Momism, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”