You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Especially when he just wants to be a dog. Abercrombie & Fitch and its CEO Mike Jeffries are back in the news this month as offensive comments by Jeffries circulated across the internet, along with viral videos, online petitions, and several store protests. Culminating this week with a meeting between A&F and teen activists.
For me, this brought back memories of my own experiences with A&F. In 2005, I accompanied 16 teenage girls to a meeting with A&F executives at their corporate headquarters in Ohio. The teens were part of the Women and Girls Foundation's Girls as Grantmakers program, and they had launched a successful "Girlcott" against A&F for selling several sexist and racist t-shirts. Previously the company had been protested by parents groups and religious groups for a range of offensives, but the "Girlcott" was the first time that the company's core consumer group - teens - were protesting them.
Like our more recent counterparts, within days of national news coverage and after receiving tens of thousands of angry emails, the execs agreed to "apologize" for any offense caused and agreed to meet with representatives from our group to discuss how they could create more "empowering" products for girls moving forward.
This week's meeting between A&F execs and activists sounds eerily familiar. A public apology, a private meeting, and vague promises for the future. My advice to this new generation of activists is stay diligent. Like all abusers, A&F can be charming and contrite in the moment, but its ability to - or interest in - achieving long-term culture change has yet to be shown.
When we met with the A&F execs in 2005, several things became immediately apparent. While the company's "values" chart lists "embracing our diversity" as a goal, the building reeked of conformity. Rows of homogenous steel cubicles sat in the shadows of black & white billboard size A&F ads on each wall presenting a homogenous blonde, blue eyed, chiseled-ab view of the world.
Our teens who ranged in age from 13 to 16, represented several different races, ethnicities, body types, sexualities, and religions. They entered the room poised & confident in suits and blazers. While the executives from A&F entered in t-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops. During the meeting, the girls stood and professionally presented a power point they had painstakingly created. The execs slumped or leaned back in their chairs.
At the meeting, the girls spoke eloquently about the impact the negative stereotyping that A&F was fostering had on girls' self esteem and presented their ideas for a "girl empowering" t-shirt line that A&F could launch. These were slogans the girls had come up with themselves, including "Your Future Boss" and "All this and Brains to Match" (in response to A&F's "Who Needs Brains When You Have These?" t-shirt which had launched the Girlcott). The teens asked the company to use at least one of these empowering slogans and then donate a small percentage of the proceeds to girl-empowering organizations. Unfortunately, the company chose to pass on these ideas saying that they did not "represent their brand."
In the meeting, I fiercely recall two moments that crystallized that "brand" for me. One of those was when Zoe Feinstein, one of the Girlcott leaders, asked Meredith Hickman, one of the only female execs in the room what she thought about the t-shirts and the Girlcott. Meredith's response was that she "agreed with Mike" - Mike being Mike Kramer, A&F's then SVP & CFO, who had done most of the talking up until that point. "No really," Zoe continued, "What do you think?" Meredith did not respond.
Then Maya Savage, another of the Girlcott teens, said that she had to be honest and share that she had never shopped at A&F because, "I have never seen anyone that looks like me in your stores, or in any of your ads." To which Tom Lennox (the Director of Corporate Communications) responded that "Todd could answer that." Todd, being A&F's VP of Diversity who up until that point also had remained silent. Todd then went on to tell Maya how she could go on to the A&F website and click on the diversity link and read about the company's commitment to diversity on the diversity page of their website. "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," was Maya's response.
You see, what became clear to the teens and me was that A&F was actually working really hard to build a brand of exclusivity. Selling sexist or racist t-shirts was not accidental. It was intentional. It was in service to "the brand." The truth was that outspoken "brunettes" like Zoe and Maya were not part of that brand.
Abercrombie didn't turn down the girls' ideas because they were not clever enough. They turned them down because to do business with a diverse group of smart teenage girls would be a "good guy" move and as Tom Lennox himself said to me, our brand is being "the bad guy."
I am so proud of this new crop of teen activists. But I want to encourage them not to be consoled by A&F's most recent round of apologies and promises. To me, they just sound like another round of "Please baby, forgive me, I'll never do it again." In our relationship with A&F perhaps it is time to consider that "they" will never change. But we can. We can decide that enough is enough and walk out...for good. As their most recent quarterly reports disclosed, A&F sales are plummeting and several stores have closed. Perhaps they might not be ready to change. But we are.