The Right to Be Exclusionary

UnknownMuch has been written in the last few weeks about Abercrombie + Fitch, and their outspoken and elitist CEO Mike Jeffries. The backlash stems from a story posted on several years ago, which somehow resurfaced.

In a nutshell. Mr. Jeffries feels his brand targets “cool kids” and states that he has no interest in selling to larger sizes, and unattractive people.

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he told the site. “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.”

Whoa. That’s harsh. Or is it?
It cannot be debated that Mr. Jeffries comments are offensive, or that the average population cannot fit into Abercrombie’s clothing. What is debatable is whether or not a brand has the right to be elitist.

As designers, we have a vision for our product. For some, it’s a definable style, for others, a muse we dream of dressing. Losing sight of that esthetic can be dangerous, and trying to be all things to all people rarely works.  So while I have read and appreciate all of the comments from over weight women who do not wish to be excluded from shopping at Abercrombie + Fitch, I question if they really have a right to expect a brand built on the premise of dressing the slim, fit “cool kids” to alter it’s concept to dress them?  Do they even want to support a company whose doesn’t value them as a customer? Many designer brands do not cater to a larger size clientele, but because they are at an elusive price point, nobody talks about it. Are high prices any less exclusionary than limited sizes? Mr. Jeffries may have just made the unfortunate faux pas of verbalizing his exclusionary point of view publicly.

I am not defending those comments, nor am I suggesting that being elitist and exclusionary is a positive marketing concept. In fact, I think the essays written in rebuttal such as this one, from Amy Taylor are eloquent and bring about great points. I do not doubt that a size 14 can be sexy. I am however, defending the company’s right to cater to whomever they wish to cater to. There are plenty of niches out there…perhaps the stereotypical “mean girl”in the school cafeteria is one of them.

As one recent article states, the average waist size of a 19 year old American woman is 33.5”. Therefore, there is an expectation that Abercrombie’s median size should accommodate them. For every article I read about larger sizes not being acknowledged, I read another one bashing brands for putting a too skinny model in their advertisements. The premise is that too skinny is unhealthy, and unnatural. There is a movement pushing towards using “real women” with more realistic proportions in advertising. The questions that beg to be asked: Is being over weight healthier than under weight, because more people fall into that category? Isn’t there an aspirational aspect to advertising, and would an average, less beautiful model inspire you to buy their clothes? If Abercrombie was a store without  a certain cache, would you care what size they went up to? As someone on the smaller side of the spectrum, should I be offended that some brands don’t carry clothes to fit me?

Catering to a niche is a merchant’s prerogative. Diversity in the marketplace is what creates excitement.  While I might go out on a limb and say that Mike Jeffries appears to be a jerk, I also need to defend his decision to create a brand that is targeted and focused and stays true to that image, bad press be damned.

What do you think? Does Abercrombie have the right to target a rarified demographic? Should their CEO be less overt about it? Is this about Abercrombie, or their CEO saying out loud what many people in the business say behind closed doors? Am I about to get attacked for being a size 2? Weigh in and leave us a comment.

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