Are Abercrombie & Fitch wrong in being exclusionary?

Abercrombie & Fitch has the news buzzing about the off color comments by its CEO Mike Jeffries regarding their corporate exclusionary tactics. He said “He doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people. He doesn’t want his core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing his clothing,people who wear his clothing should feel like they’re one of the cool kids.’’

Is Abercrombie an elitist brand? Yes. Is Mike Jeffries a douchebag asshole? Pretty sure he is the definition. As a business are they wrong in being exclusionary? Absolutely not. If you know my stance on body image that answer may surprise you, but the simple truth is this is one of those fringe cases that walks the line.

Although I disagree with Abercrombie’s stance on what is “cool” or “beautiful” their strategy doesn’t surprise me. I have always got this impression from the Abercrombie & Hollister brands, and they don’t say they are one thing and do another. They project skinny, rich, elitist, so-cal kids; and they own the market. If you are a loyal Abercrombie customer and the self-professed leader of the “cools kids” Mike Jeffries has you rethinking where you shop, it may also be time for you to rethink your social circle.

In the pursuit of the almighty dollar, (whether you agree with them or not) there are a few valid reasons why these tactics make business sense.

Clothing is and always will be an exclusionary market.

It is one thing we all need, and there is no shortage of competition. So how does a brand create value in a saturated market? This is one of those social equations that defies conventional logic whereas in your value proposition, exclusion = inclusion & loyalty.

You can find evidence of exclusion by race, gender, body type, lifestyle, and financial means in most clothing brands; the difference is few are as vocal as Abercrombie. The most notable is FUBU a clothing brand targeted at urban African Americans, it is rumored the original acronym stood for “Four Urban Brothers United” but as the clothing brand grew it came to stand for “For Us, By Us” an exclusionary mantra that helped the brand grow exponentially. We want our style to represent us, to say something about who we are, or better who we want to be. As humans this exclusion of others leads us to feel included, like this brand was built exclusively for us, that this is where we belong.

Conversely the same tactic is used to market stores for “Plus Sized” women. Come here and shop in a comfortable environment, built exclusively for you. We seem to have no issue with plus sized stores carrying sizes limited size ranges, Victoria Secret carrying female centric products, and we can argue that these are specialty stores, but so is Abercrombie.

Limiting sizes, increases profits.

As a designer I have been involved in a lot of clothing projects for bands and small apparel companies, and I will be the first to admit I am guilty of this myself. When looking at where and how to spend your money as a clothing brand, you need to examine your demographic and make purchases that best fit your market.

When a band has a larger following of teenage girls it’s not a smart move to print XL men’s t-shirts. You create what you know will sell, and lots of it. When you have a limited budget, sometimes hard decisions need to be made and I have seen brand owners decide to print sizes they couldn’t wear themselves. There are a number of mathematical formulas used to calculate how much of each size you should order. The problem is when you’re faced with minimum quantity orders is if you don’t stick to what you can sell, you won’t have the revenue to print your next order, and you may be stuck sitting on a pile of expensive inventory.

In the case of Abercrombie who obviously has the operational revenue, it’s logical to make clothing for the demographic you spend millions of dollars marketing to.

Abercrombie’s designs don’t scale.

Abercrombie’s line consists of tightly fitted clothing and the hard truth is there is no elegant way to scale the designs. They could go through the process of designing an exclusive line for larger sizes but that would mean the brand deviating from its signature style. At that point you might as well break it off into its own brand, with its own stores, and its own marketing budget.

Businesses can’t be everything to everyone, nor should they be.

I feel Abercrombie & Fitch is way off base with where they stand, what they believe, and how they approach delicate social issues; but I will give them one thing, they are brutally honest.

“When you don’t know what you believe, everything becomes an argument. Everything is debatable. But when you stand for something, decisions are obvious.” – Jason Fried of 37Signals

From what I can gather CEO Mike Jeffries is the worst kind of person and could use a wake up call to the realities of life. Definitely not the kind of person I would have in my social circle. The wonderful thing is we get to choose. Whether you agree with what they stand for or not, they have every right to be exclusionary.

If you don’t like the club, don’t apply for membership.