By Zac Bissonnette
The latest company to face the outrage of the social media political correctness police is Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF), after a Business Insider piece with the headline “Abercrombie & Fitch Refuses To Make Clothes For Large Women” went viral.
As can happen in our connected world, the pitchforks were out before there was much examination of what exactly Abercrombie had said or done. Kirstie Alley called for a boycott of the company on Entertainment Tonight, and she called CEO Mike Jeffries a “douche frog” on Twitter. On her daytime talk show, Ellen DeGeneres ripped into Abercrombie, explaining that, "the CEO of the company announced that his stores will stop selling clothing for women larger than a size ten.” The Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit hate stacked up, and a YouTube video aimed at making A&F the most popular brand among the homeless garnered close to seven million views.
A retail trend
DeGeneres’ summary—and many of the other takes on the controversy that have come out in the last week—couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact that Abercrombie does not carry larger sizes isn’t a recent development. And the retailer is in good company: It wasn't until 2010 that Saks Fifth Avenue became one of the few New York department stores to carry designer brands like Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana in plus sizes. Until then, it had only carried those brands up to size 10—just as Abercrombie does. In 2009, Crain's reported on labels and retailers cutting back on plus-size offerings, and Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan didn't begin selling plus sizes until the late 1990s. Old Navy experienced a much more limited scandal when it stopped selling plus-sizes in-store in 2007, and American Eagle Outfitters carries size 16-18 online only.
So to recap: Abercrombie has made no sizing changes in recent years, and has never publicly commented on its sizing—which is similar to the approach taken by many other big-name retailers. The central focus of the Business Insider piece is an interview with an industry consultant who speculated that Jeffries, "doesn't want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people."
But what about the truth?
The hardest PR problem for Abercrombie with this story is explaining the comments Jeffries made to Salon.com’s Benoit Denizet-Lewis back in 2006:
“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.”
But, reached by phone this week, Denizet-Lewis said that he and Jeffries never discussed the company’s sizing and that those comments had been part of a broad discussion about niche marketing, not body image. What should—but probably won’t—deflate this scandal is the actual reason most retailers carry a limited selection of sizes. Abercrombie & Fitch declined to comment on the record beyond the statement from Jeffries posted on Facebook. But Robin Lewis, CEO of The Robin Report and the analyst whose comments initially sparked the furor, says that the real reason Abercrombie doesn’t stock sizes over 10 may be more pragmatic than elitist.
“There are extra costs, extra time, and extra complexity in making for large sizes,” he says. “One could say ‘Well look, if they don't really fit into my core consumer group, why go to the expense of making it?’”
Abercrombie’s financial performance has rebounded over the past few years but during the recession, its stock plunged to less than $15 per share as the company refused to lower its prices and consumers flocked to Aeropostale (ARO) and American Eagle Outfitters (AEO). If there had been money to be made bringing its jeans up a couple sizes, it seems likely that Abercrombie would have taken it.
Even before this controversy, I asked Lewis, would Abecrombie’s image ever have lent itself to selling larger sizes?
“My opinion is no,” he said. And the man whose comments (when wedded with Jeffries' own from seven years ago) whipped up controversy has a few words of advice for the company that probably hates his guts right now.
“I would say don’t change your brand positioning one iota.”
Zac Bissonnette graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2011 and is the author of "Debt-Free U," the "best and most troubling book ever about the college admissions process," according to The Washington Post.