The Common Good

How Abercrombie & Fitch Became Uncool

I hate Abercrombie & Fitch.

 Photo by SimonQ錫濛譙 / Flickr.com
Photo by SimonQ錫濛譙 / Flickr.com

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It all started a few years ago. A member of my youth group worked at one of their stores in a Chicago suburb. I was minorly troubled that she was employed at the store. But what really flamed my loathing for Abercrombie was when they asked her to model their clothes for their catalogue. She told me about their offer and I responded in the only way an over-protective youth pastor could:

“NO! Absolutely not! No way in Hell are you doing that!!!”

I don’t think that Abercrombie is evil per se. I only hate them because they stand for everything that I’m against!

Over the weekend, BusinessInsider.com published an article titled “Abercrombie & Fitch Refuses to Make Clothes for Large Women.” The article included a comment made by Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries in 2006. He described his business strategy by stating:

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. 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.

Doesn’t that just get your blood boiling?

I’m trying not to blame Jeffries here. He would make an easy scapegoat. The truth is that he is part of the marketing and advertising industry. He doesn’t necessarily have to be noble and compassionate. His job is to motivate people to buy his product.

How does the marketing industry sell products? It’s all about desire. Desire for stuff is contagious. It spreads from one person to another. “Cool” is contagious too. Desire and cool are mediated to us through others, and in the case of advertising, through models. Companies spend millions of dollars on models who infuse their products with cool. This drives our desire for products. So, if you want an easy, albeit likely expensive, way to become cool, just wear the same clothes as the model.

Or, ironically in Abercrombie’s case, wear the clothes that their models don’t wear.

Advertising is about identity. It emphasizes membership status and labels people either “in” or “out,” “cool” or “uncool.” It’s not just Abercrombie & Fitch that does this. I’m a 34-year-old-slightly-overweight-but-don’t-tell-anyone-about-that-last-part man. My favorite retail store is Costco. Talk about membership! I have to pay $110 per year just so that some dude named Earl will let me through the front door.

As angry as I am at Abercrombie, their strategy is not much different than other companies. Abercrombie is a product of an American culture that idealizes certain standards of beauty. Those cultural standards are dangerous to everyone’s souls.

Many have already said that Jeffries’s comments are demeaning to the kids who are not “cool,” but what I’d like to point out is that they are just as cruel to the “cool” kids. The reason that I told my youth group member that there was no way in hell should she model for Abercrombie was because it would mess with her self-esteem. Abercrombie is part of an American culture that tells people their ultimate value is achieved through beauty. But this “achievement” is unattainable because it is always based on mediated desire that enthralls us to endless cycles of cutthroat competition, tearing our neighbors down so that we can feel superior to them. Because it’s not just about being beautiful or cool; it’s about being more beautiful and cool than your neighbor. We don’t want to just keep up with the Joneses; we want to surpass the Joneses. And then the Joneses want to surpass us. Once we delve into that competitive trap, we risk becoming enslaved to an insatiable rivalry with our neighbors that consumes our lives.

The good news is that Abercrombie’s advertising model isn’t working. According to Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times, the company is becoming uncool – its stock has dropped 20 percent since the time of Jeffries statement in 2006.

That, I hope, is a sign that it is becoming outdated in American culture to divide the world up into a cutthroat competition of “cool” and “uncool.” Maybe, just maybe, our culture is beginning to redefine our standards of human worth so that they aren’t based on the clothes we wear and our cultural ideals of beauty.

Maybe. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s important to remind ourselves that the only way out of Abercrombie’s trap is by a desire that is mediated through an entirely different model. This model would encourage us to give up our competition to be “cool;” this model would lead us away from basing our worth on the clothes we purchase; this model would lead us away from tearing down our neighbor so that we can feel good about ourselves. Instead, this model would encourage us to derive our worth from building up our neighbors and loving them as we love ourselves.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: Photo by SimonQ錫濛譙 / Flickr.com

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