An intriguing movement is gathering steam online and in the streets of Los Angeles. Filmmaker Greg Karber was so incensed by Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries that he made a short film, part social-justice campaign and part sneaky trolling session. A&F has earned disapproving sneers for years now for its draconian "look policy": in 2009 one of their London employees sued them for disability discrimination after being relegated to the stockroom when it was noticed she had a prosthetic arm. There are reports that staff in some stores, having already gotten over the hurdle of being judged attractive enough to be allowed to work there, are given exercises to stay thin. They also do not and will not stock women's clothes in XL or XXL.
In 2006, Jeffries told Salon:
"We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong, and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."
(As many have pointed out, this is quite an ironic stance for Jeffries to take since he looks like a slightly melty waxwork of Ron Perlman.)
Obviously, being the tan, blonde Adonis that I am it never occurred to me that "the normals" might tend towards the loutish bent out of sheer jealousy of my garish lime-green T-shirt that stretches like lurid spandex over my rippling pectorals. (Actually that shirt is one of the most shameful pieces of clothing I own and also has a bizarre tendency to attract small black flies.) But Karber, sick of A&F's poisonous tripe, persistent habit of peddling insecurity and their reported habit of destroying damaged clothing instead of donating it, decided to give them a "brand readjustment", and began #fitchthehomeless, a project to collect as much of the company's clothing as possible and donate it to those sleeping rough. He wants to make A&F "the world's number one brand of homeless apparel" in an effort to do some good and stick it to the man.
A chance to help some people, a chance to give the finger to a drooling corporate hive of vanity, (a chance for Greg Karber to get his name out?) - a good idea all round then?
Unfortunately however, the campaign has some nasty side effects. Sara Luckey and Hitonbythehomeless.com have both pointed out in thoughtful pieces that the campaign is borderline exploitative and pretty disrespectful to the people who receive the clothes. The subtext of it, they argue, is that the campaign is bound to get up Jeffries' nose because homeless people are so rancid and vile and completely the opposite of cool and attractive; it devalues the brand by associating it with a certain type of person, and in so doing pretty effectively demeans the person as well, using them as "props to further an agenda" (Luckey).
Those are pretty powerful arguments, and deserve thinking about. I'd like to argue against #fitchthehomeless for a different reason however. So far the debate has assumed that Jeffries is a vituperative little toad who acts the way he does because he is just that sort of scumguzzler. But I'd like to submit that Jeffries, and all the higher-ups at A&F, know exactly what they're doing. This kind of callous marketing technique generates controversy, and controversy is good for business: it helps cement the "us and them" divide that A&F want to generate. Jeffries won't be tearing out his hair like Dick Dastardly because a hobo asks him for change in a pair of orange sweatpants, he'll be rubbing his hands in glee because he can use this opportunity to present campaign supporters as whiny, unattractive, jealous losers. If he has an ounce of sense he'll turn the whole thing to his advantage: now you can wear his clothes ironically because Karber, with his clever trolling, has made it funny, and that opens up a whole new avenue of marketing and sales.
This kind of protest, whilst original and thoughtful (there are still people getting free clothes, after all), has a pretty nasty undercurrent of exploitation, probably won't help to change the fashion juggernaut's policies, and might actually end up helping them. So don't play their game. If you want to help the homeless then do, start now; if you want to protest Abercrombie and Fitch then you can begin by not shopping there. If you want to take it to the next level, why not begin a letter-writing campaign, or (peacefully!) picket their flagship stores - these are just suggestions, if you can think of something more creative and less old-school than a sit-in then more power to you. But #fitchthehomeless is not the way, because is plays right into Jeffries' grubby little hands.