January 24, 2006
Wanna Be Like Mike?
In case you haven’t seen it, make sure to catch this Salon article that’s making the rounds about Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries, 61 (pictured at right, photo by Tom Tavee / Salon). It’s the best article I’ve read about A&F since reading this one in college.
I have always hated A&F. During high school, on trips to the mall with my best friend, he always wanted to go in, and I’d usually oblige him. I remember the layout of the store, the lighting. I’d wait for my friend to be helped by one of the employees so he could make his purchase and we could leave. I’d watch the employee stand lamely by a pile of t-shirts, unfolding and refolding them to look busy, until someone else walked into the store. And if that someone was a decent facsimile of the models grinning in the store windows, the employee would spring into action, asking if he could be of any assistance, pointing out the items on sale.
I got the message, even if my friend ignored it or didn’t care, always buying something anyway. The employees were there to help A&F Boys, and we were clearly not a pair of those. A&F Boys were athletic. They were outdoorsy. They were young. They were maybe a little gay. But they were definitely, definitely white. My blackness (and the half-Asianness of my best friend) was rarely as palpable as it was in Abercrombie & Fitch.
I think what A&F offered — belonging, assimilation — was a dear enticement to my friend. The girls were all swooning over Abercrombie’s “Woods” cologne. And the clothes definitely drew compliments for him. Why I ever followed him in, I can’t tell you.
But after high school, I don’t believe I ever set foot in one again, even though the A&F Boy aesthetic gradually became less racially coded. (Partly due to lawsuits, although the store in uber-liberal Cambridge, MA, employed at least a few people of color.)
The tragic insight at the core of the Salon article is how the man who created and enforced this ideal — Mike Jeffries — cannot attain it himself, no matter how much he wants to. The article suggests that Mike Jeffries feels every bit as excluded as I did when standing in an Abercrombie store. He created a heaven so perfect even he could not gain entrance. And who knows if this is true? But it’s a sad, powerful story.