Some comments from a 2006 Salon.com interview with Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries (I won’t link to their site, but you know the clothing brand – fitted polo shirts, carefully weathered jeans, flip flops) resurfaced this week and have been rubbing a lot of people the wrong way.
In the interview, the 68 year-old CEO (he was 61 at the time) talked about how, under his leadership, the clothing line doesn’t carry larger sizes, for fear that overweight people will be seen in AF jeans, thereby sullying the “cool kid” brand that he’s built. Other brand stewardship tactics include launching a thong underwear line for middle school girls and only hiring “all-American” “attractive” people to work at his stores.
Here’s one particularly insightful gem directly from the horse’s mouth:
“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “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.”
On a personal level, this guy gives me “the yucks.” He’s icky and gross. As a marketer, can I put my personal feelings aside and judge him purely as a business person and brand manager? Sure. But, guess what? He’s still way, way off.
Now, for all accounts and purposes, I am “old.” At 32, I’m less than half of Jeffries’s age, but in the eyes of a 16 year-old I may as well be eating strained prunes while I talk on my landline and listen to my CD collection. Luckily, I have the privilege of volunteering with middle schoolers from time to time and have a background in the youth-serving, non-profit sector. I currently work for an organization that encourages constant dialogue with youth. Through social media and more formally constructed advisory councils, we do our best to listen to what they have to say and what values resonate with them. I’m not an expert on all youth everywhere, but I’ll stand firmly behind on major point.
This idea of the “cool kids” – that they’re exclusionary, superficial, that they value homogeny – is old-fashioned and inaccurate. Jeffries’s idea of teenagers seems stuck in John Hughes’s version of high school where kids were oblivious to the world beyond home room, house parties and the mall’s food court. That’s not a knock against John Hughes, who was an incredibly relevant storyteller. It’s just that if John Hughes were still making movies about teenagers in 2013, he would know that even the ones who were born into small towns are connected to the bigger world around them, and his films would reflect that.
That’s one of the benefits of social media and online content in general. Kids know there’s a bigger world out there, and that’s given them perspective on what’s important. And the “cool kids” who, as Jeffries defines them, have “great attitudes and a lot of friends” understand that successful, progressive, forward-thinking people value inclusion and diversity. They understand better than most adults that beauty needn’t be “classic” or “all-American.” I’ve read first-hand comments from kids (“cool kids” who are leaders in their communities. Kids who have been elected prom queen by their high school class) telling me that diversity – in skin color, body type, gender expression, economic background, sexual orientation – is important to them. They want to see diversity and inclusion in their leaders. They want to see it in the entertainment they consume. And, I’d argue, they want to see it in the brands selling them their clothing.
This isn’t to say that high school is now this welcoming space where all people are respected and valued, because it isn’t. There are the kids who are mean and snobby and tease others. There are kids who gain popularity at the expense of others. And, even if most youth are like this (I’m optimistic that they are not), Jeffries says he isn’t trying to appeal to the “vanilla” majority. He’s trying to appeal to the “cool kids” that stand out. The kids with “great attitudes.” The confident ones that are two steps ahead of their peers.
I nearly added “the kid that every other kid wants to be” to that last paragraph but stopped myself, as that idea is sort of contrary to my whole point here. Yes, the “cool kids” are still the ones that have their peers’ attention. But, unlike Jeffries’ “cool kids,” they’re telling the people around them that it’s ok – “cool” even – to be themselves.