This past weekend, The New York Times reported that sales at teenage-geared clothing stores (Abercrombie, Aeropostale, American Eagle, etc.) are really struggling. In biz speak (a language I only understand peripherally) that translates to the reality that these stores fared worse than every other retail category in the fourth quarter of 2013. In reviewing this transformation, retail analysts have attributed it to everything from the high unemployment rate among teens, the triumph of tech goods over clothing, and greater competition via both fast-fashion chains (i.e. H&M) and online shopping. As one teen pointed out: “You can buy a plaid shirt at Abercrombie that’s like $70. Or I can go to Forever 21 and buy the same shirt for $20.”
The point I found to be most striking, and most important, however, was a Barclays analyst noting that, “Ten years ago, teens were dependent on going to Abercrombie & Fitch and buying from the select items that Mike Jeffries, the C.E.O., thought would be popular nine months ago.” Mike Jeffries, an older, white male, has been wrapped up in various controversies throughout his tenure running the show at Abercrombie. Since I was a teen shopping in his stores, the man has been harping on his strict preference for “good-looking people” when it comes to who he wants buying his clothes and working in his stores.
This reality was not lost on me back in my mall-frequenting days, which reached their peak in middle school. Though I always gravitated more towards trendier pieces or the downright strange, I still felt the allure of the white-washed world that was Abercrombie. Abercrombie was where the beautiful people shopped and where the beautiful people worked. I distinctly remember nervously spotting my friends’ attractive older siblings behind the counter as I worked my way through the store, trying to justify the purchase of some overpriced garment that would surely transform me into “one of them.” There were no models in their advertisements that looked even remotely like me – which is to say Jewish, Eastern European, or “exotic” if we want to be very broad (and make it sound infinitely cooler). Sure, there was the occasional black model, though they were consistently light-skinned and had (like all the other models) surreally perfect features that I was hard-pressed to find in my circle of friends. Not to mention the fact that, even as a girl who was a twig at the age of 12, I could barely fit into their small sizes, which appeared made for the limbs of a Barbie. As Jeffries himself once said, “A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong.”
The message was loud and clear: the Abercrombie lifestyle was an exclusive one. You either had it or you didn’t. But as an impressionable tween I was more concerned with fitting in than taking some controversial stance against the favored brand of my peers. So I continued to sell my soul to the devil, moonlighting as Jeffries, by racking up all the A&F clothing I could with the hopes that, eventually, the WASP-Y charm of it all would rub off. It was never really about great product (the designs and quality were nothing special), but, rather, an expert ability to tap into the widely held desire to become the All-American bombshell or bro that they were apparently selling to. Their garments doubled as a fast track to popularity, assuring immediate acceptance by your contemporaries with the simple swipe of your mom’s credit card.
Of course it wasn’t that easy, in a world filled with mini-Mike Jeffries. Abercrombie garb never inoculated me to the labyrinthine world of adolescence, with its cruel girls and boys, the co-mingling of immense immaturity and insecurity, and its endless supply of angst. And decking myself out in the moose-littered gear certainly didn’t make me any nicer in my own low moments, nor any more open-minded. It simply catered to the juvenile word-view that most of us were already seeped in, and convinced me, for a time at least, that only one type of people was worthy.
So am I sad that this company–helmed by a man who once said, “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny”–is struggling? Not in the least. Nostalgia is nowhere to be found, because the memories I have of the brand aren’t sweet. The feelings brought up are only those of inadequacy, and a yearning to hug my little twelve-year-old self and tell her that, one day, I won’t feel so out of place, and so suffocated by these ideals. I am beyond ecstatic to know that my younger siblings (aged 13, 15, and 16) are shopping in a market that has significantly more options, and presents numerous lifestyles. I am happy that more stores account for not just different body types, but different personalities and interests. Because the majority of today’s youth is not spending their days traipsing around beautiful beaches with a soccer ball, or cozying up with a significant other by the fire in their questionably-revealing (for a 10-12 year old) nightie. Today’s shopping environment is not perfect, there are many moves yet to make, and countless brands are still flawed. But Abercrombie—in the teen sphere, at least—has always struck me as the number one bad guy, helmed by a man who I genuinely wouldn’t be shocked to find out resonated with Mein Kampf. That may sound extreme, but if my article hasn’t convinced you, a quick Google search of his quotes will surely do the trick.