BUSINESS
06/04/2013 08:32 am ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

Abercrombie Protesters' Plight Highlights Brand's 'Exclusionary' Attitude

Heather Arnet was escorted into the Abercrombie & Fitch headquarters in New Albany, Ohio, flanked by her contingent of 16 teenage girls. It was late 2005, and they were there to voice their discontent about a series of shirts that the company had unleashed on the market with text celebrating skinny blonde teenage girls while deriding brunettes and less-slender figures.

The shirts in question: “I had a nightmare I was a brunette,” “Blondes are adored, brunettes are ignored,” “Do I make you look fat?” and more.

Once inside, the group of protesters walked through a sea of cubicles and past towering images of men and women locked in embraces. The girls looked around in awe, wondering how strange it would be to work each day permanently surrounded by such images. Then, they entered a windowless conference room to plead their case that the fashion brand not demean people who do not fit its version of cool.

Arnet left convinced that their mission was futile.

“What we witnessed in that room that was so tangible was how deep the culture really is at Abercrombie,” said Arnet, reflecting on the experience nearly eight years later. “The only person who seemed empowered in that building was white and male.”

In recent weeks, Abercrombie has been thrashed by consumers, activists and the media for refusing to stock larger sizes for female customers and for controversial remarks made by chief executive officer Mike Jeffries in a resurrected interview with Salon in 2006. Jeffries said at the time that his brand targets the “attractive all-American kid,” forcing the company to issue an apology.

“A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong,” he told Salon. “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

For Arnet, the chief executive officer of a Pennsylvania-based independent advocacy group called the Women and Girls Foundation, the current controversy feels familiar. In an interview with The Huffington Post this week, she described her own efforts to persuade Abercrombie executives to reexamine their values as a new set of activists are now heading to New Albany to discuss the retailer’s latest brush with protesters.

Abercrombie does have women in powerful positions at the top of its corporate hierarchy. Three of the four executive vice presidents at Abercrombie are women, along with two of the nine members of the company’s board of directors.

“Diversity and inclusion are key to our organization’s success,” reads a quote from Jeffries on the Abercrombie website. “We are determined to have a diverse culture, throughout our organization, that benefits from the perspectives of each individual.”

But the way Arnet recalls her experience, that official message is quickly undermined by the reality inside the company’s headquarters: At her meeting, the men in the room did nearly all the talking, while dismissing the protestors as people who couldn't take a joke. The two women present sat mostly silent, Arnet said. After the meeting, Arnet took away a clear message: Abercrombie was not interested in broadening its consumer base to those deemed uncool.

“The girls tried to push them to say whether they would move forward with this idea for a girl-empowering line,” said Arnet. “The A&F team declined to say anything specific or committal.”

Arnet's visit to Abercrombie was the outgrowth of a “girlcott” she and her teenage volunteers had organized against the company five weeks earlier to protest several shirt designs they viewed as offensive to women. Abercrombie decided to pull the shirts, and then said the company would meet in person with Arnet’s group to discuss what happened and hear a proposal for a new line of shirts that would empower girls.

Abercrombie declined to comment for this story. But sources inside the company, who spoke on condition they not be named, said executives justified the controversial shirts on the grounds that they sold very well, reflecting that they were merely satisfying the tastes of their customers. At the time, it was simply the trend, sources said.

Once inside the conference room, the girls readied a laptop connected to a projector and beamed a PowerPoint presentation on a screen. They were nervous, Arnet recalled. This was a real boardroom, and they were about to come face-to-face with a throng of executives from a massive, multinational retailer. Abercrombie’s chief financial officer was going to be there, they were told.

The girls and their chaperones had talked at length about proper business etiquette, and they had all dressed in professional attire -- suits and blazers -- seeking to be taken seriously, said Arnet.

But when the cohort of Abercrombie executives sauntered in and took their seats, the girls were taken aback. The men mostly wore T-shirts, and some had on flip-flops, including then-CFO Michael Kramer.

According to the Salon story, nearly everyone at the Abercrombie headquarters wears flip-flops, Abercrombie jeans and a polo shirt or sweater, as part of the company’s easygoing culture. Jeffries wears the outfit around “campus” -- which is what employees call the complex.

According to Arnet, the executives asserted that the designs at issue weren’t malicious, but merely humorous, effectively suggesting that the protestors should just lighten up. The shirts had gone through focus groups, and no one had a problem with them, they said.

Arnet stressed to HuffPost the lack of involvement by the two female executives in the room. Only one of them spoke, and all she did was “reiterate and confirm” what the men said, according to Arnet’s account. The fact that the women didn't add to the conversation struck Arnet as bizarre, she said, given that the discussion was focused on the empowerment of women.

“It was clear to all of us that the white men in the room in corporate director positions were ‘in charge’ and that they had the alpha dog status,” said Arnet.

Zoe Feinstein, one of the leaders of the girlcott, asked Vice President of Conceptual Design Meredith Laginess what she thought about the shirts. Laginess said she “agreed with Mike [Kramer],” who had defended the designs and had done most of the talking at the meeting. When pressed about her personal opinions, Laginess did not respond, according to Arnet.

The group presented their ideas for a new line that would empower girls -- not divide and degrade them. Arnet said one of the teens, Maya Savage, told the executives bluntly: “I have never seen anyone who looks like me in your stores, or in any of your ads.”

The man in charge of diversity at Abercrombie, Todd Corley, had remained silent in the meeting until that point. He was asked by a colleague to address Savage’s gripe, so he pointed the teen to the company’s website, which had a link to a page where she could read all about Abercrombie’s commitment to diversity.

“I’m sorry, but I should not have to dig to find a link on your website to find a person that looks like me,” answered Savage, according to Arnet.

At the end of the meeting, the executives thanked the girls for coming in and assured them that they were taking the issue seriously. But in follow-up conversations, Arnet said the movement was largely dismissed.

“They ended up saying that it didn’t fit with their brand to have a girl-empowering brand of T-shirts,” she said.

Several months later, Abercrombie released a shirt that said “Brunettes have brains.” It was a far cry from the systemic change the girls were hoping for, said Arnet. After all, Salon published Jeffries’ now-infamous quote about the exclusionary nature of the Abercrombie brand less than two months after the girls’ visit.

“Ultimately it was disappointing that there wasn’t a sort of long-term change that happened,” said Arnet, as evidenced by the current uproar over Abercrombie. Instead, they offered nothing more than “vague promises for change.”

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