"No fatties." That's the underlying concept of the latest outrage about fashion brand Abercrombie & Fitch.
But what's the bigger threat for the brand? Some controversial comments the CEO made seven years ago, or cultural irrelevance? The fact that Abercrombie has to go back more than a half decade to gin up some outrage about its brand may demonstrate that the brand's most significant days are in the past.
Abercrombie & Fitch's latest "scandal" is some years-old quotes from the company's CEO about only wanting attractive, "cool" young customers combined with the revelation that the brand does not make size XL or above for women. Many have grabbed the news and turned it into a public campaign against the brand, dredging up all kinds of tangential complaints about Abercrombie & Fitch (such as the above one about homeless people). Yes, of course there is a Change.org petition.
"On the one hand, I'm surprised that people are now up-in-arms about a fairly pedestrian and undeniably ancient quote," Jenna Sauers, a former model who covers fashion regularly for Bookforum, the Village Voice, the New York Observer, and Jezebel.com told brandchannel. "On the other hand," Sauers added, "there are plenty of reasons to criticize Abercrombie & Fitch."
Indeed, really, who hasn't Abercrombie & Fitch offended? In 2002, the brand was the focus of outrage about Asian stereotyping. A decade later, the passages from an employee manual for CEO Mike Jeffries' corporate jet leaked (stewards must "spritz" themselves with Abercrombie & Fitch #41 cologne) and a model sued for sexual harassment. In 2011, the brand even managed to insult the Jersey Shore cast after offering—in what now seems like a good move—to pay the cast not to wear Abercrombie clothing. That same year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations took up the case of an employee fired for wearing her hijab. "Controversy and Criticism" is one of the longest sections of the brand's Wikipedia entry. As a man with body hair, I've felt slighted by the brand for years, and as Sauers noted, the quote itself actually dates back to an earlier controversy about body-type discrimination.
"Jeffries' comments aren't surprising to anyone familiar with the company history or values, and nor would the sentiment behind them be beyond the ken of anyone who's ever so much as glanced at an Abercrombie ad," said Sauers, describing A&F's target market as for "'cool' kids and 'cool' kids only."
This kind of criticism has worked wonders for the brand, making it a signifier of rebellion against everything youths hate from political correctness to societal norms. In 2000, the brand scored an incredible PR coup when its racy catalog got it banned at conservative Bob Jones University. Parents—because they understand branding even less than they understand teenagers—have, over the years, publicly made Abercrombie & Fitch one of the biggest targets of their outrage. It's a favor that really deserves some dividend payments.
And those dividend payments prove, in anything, that investors see A&F scandals as reasons to buy the brand's stock. Since the latest uproar over the old remarks became social media fodder, Abercrombie & Fitch's stock price has climbed almost four percent. Such a reaction even has precedent. In the two months after the brand lost a $40 million class-action racial discrimination lawsuit in April 2005, its stock price climbed nearly 28 percent.
But there is reason to believe that A&F's latest trafficking in controversy may not be all good for the brand.
Even with a recent climb over the $50 a share threshold, A&F is way off its peaks of 2007, when the brand traded above $80 a share. Moreover, as Forbes recently pointed out, the faded, low-rise-jeaned, flannel-shirted sector that Abercrombie practically invented is now littered with (often cheaper) competitors like American Eagle Outfitters. Even Abercrombie's messaging has been diluted. Over a decade ago, its A&F Quarterly catalog was including content such as drinking advice and porn star interviews, content now regularly covered by publications such as Vice magazine.
Ironically, if anything will do in the Abercrombie brand it will be the strength of the brand itself.
Like the Hummer and Von Dutch, Abercrombie & Fitch represents an American era that many Americans might rather put behind them. The rise of "hipster" fashion—the kind now popular from Urban Outfitters and H&M—has also presented a direct challenge to A&F's pre-economic meltdown "bro" positioning. Instead of attempting to absorb some elements of the bearded, artisanal, multiculturalist hipster trends, Abercrombie has doubled down, becoming a kind of parodic version of itself. This brand positioning is thrown into no better relief than by the recent Chippendales-inspired Abercrombie video for the hit song "Call Me Maybe." Addressing this change, Sauers thinks a new class of young customers might be very turned off by this perfect, "snooty cool-kids-only vibe." Sauers points to the source of the latest outrage as the biggest reason Abercrombie might want to worry:
"It's interesting that, unlike previous waves of outrage directed at Abercrombie—for instance the "thongs for kids" kerfuffle of 2002—this one seems to be led not by concerned parents, but by teenagers on social media. In the first instance, it's easy to paint the first kind of critic as old, conservative, and out of touch—Abercrombie dealt with the thongs controversy by pulling the product, yes, but also by dog-whistling to its customer base that hey, Abercrombie sold sexy clothes that made your parents mad. In the second instance, it's a lot harder to find a way to profit from outrage if the outrage is being generated by the people who are your customer base in the form of Change.org petitions and incessant critical Tweets. Maybe Abercrombie's vision of the high school caste system is getting a little dated. Teens seem to think so."
In the 2012 hit film based on the show 21 Jump Street, two young policemen go undercover in a high school years after graduating in the early 2000s. Basing their ideas of how to be cool from their own era, the pair are confused to find environmentalism, earnestness, compassion and "two-strapping" have suddenly become cool while their own, early 2000s posturing is offensive. Abercrombie could suddenly be learning the same lesson.