abercrombie + fail

So, a nice person responding to this post on this issue made an argument I thought was worth exploring further, and I did so in the comments section:

“what if, instead of showing his honesty about how he feels about regular sized and larger people shopping at his stores/wearing A&F’s clothing, he was showing something as equally elitist by targeting non-caucasians… or something-other-than-straight people… or someone of a different religion than whatever he happens to be.”

The difference between WASP types (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) and all the groups you just described is the benefit that WASP types derive just from being WASP. That’s called privilege. Consider for a minute what would happen if, say, a major retailer catered only to people of color. How would white people react? Mass boycotts, I’d bet, and plenty of campaigns against that retailer. In other words, not too different from how a lot of non-WASPs are feeling. What IS different is the amount of power in society that non-WASPs have to throw at this. We tend not to make as much as white men. We have to think about very real discriminatory possibilities, such as job loss for making a stand or even being who we are. If we come out and blog that X retailer hates gays, framed as “I can’t shop there because apparently I’m subhuman to this guy”, that involves risk. There is no risk in admitting you are a WASP in the greater scheme of things. You will not lose your job. You will not lose your kids. You may look silly in something intended for a specific demographic, and depending on the demographic, people may call you out on wearing it because that belongs to their culture. This is why the recent American Indian trend is causing issues — you cannot commit genocide, then turn around and make that culture’s symbols into a fad.

Notice also that there are no major retailers known for catering to non-WASP groups. Take two shopping malls in my area, one of which is decidedly upscale. In the non-upscale mall, I find stores aimed at non-WASPs. I love these places. I think it is wonderful to see Chinese dresses on display, for instance, and a whole store full of brands associated with the rap scene. (Oh, God, I sound so square.) If I told you what these stores were called, chances are you’d have to Google them. I have actually forgotten the name of the second one I described. They are decidedly in the small business category, nowhere near as prominent as even a lower-end fast fashion shop like Deb or Rainbow. In the upscale mall, “diversity” is Hot Topic and Free People, neither of which are actually diverse in the slightest. Free People is priced well out of the range of actual hippies, and Hot Topic has been selling a specific subculture for over a decade — not selling TO that subculture, actually selling the subculture, to the point where people who loved that music first and dressed that way before it was cool find it absurd. The rest of the shops are, for serious, WASP-oriented stores. A&F is just the only one being blatant about it.

That I needed two longish paragraphs to get to “this is why the problem is a problem” says something about how big the problem actually is. You might do some reading around about social justice, privilege, and fashion. It’s interesting stuff. 🙂

Which to me it is — interesting, I mean. I love fashion and I love exploring social justice. Now they’ve come crashing together and I can’t believe I didn’t want to blog about this before I wrote that comment.

I am watching my nearest shopping mall get gentrified. I remember when Eastview was just any old place. We had a Deb. We had a Bon-Ton. We had a small, probably independently-owned coffee shop, and none of the salons were particularly posh. As we got higher-end shops like Pottery Barn and larger corporations like Forever 21, I noticed the Deb and the Bon-Ton leaving. (Now where the Bon-Ton was, they’ve torn it all down to make a Von Maur.) When we got a Starbucks, my little coffee shop closed. When the Aveda outlet, Euphoria, came to the mall, two other salons quietly went out of business.

But we have a Free People, and an Anthropologie! But we got a Pottery Barn! And that Forever 21 is freakin’ huge!

My mother would rather get her housewares at JC Penney or Kmart. Yeah, Kmart. Free People and Anthropologie sell overpriced schmattas that I can’t figure out how to work into my wardrobe for love or, well, money. As for Forever 21, it’s fast fashion poorly made, likely in the spiritual descendants of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and it pushed out my beloved H&M (which was also fast fashion, but decent quality).

To borrow from a certain political campaign, the rent is too damn high.

The mall changed management shortly before these changes began. It is absolutely not a coincidence that the shops that were closing suited a middle- to lower-middle-class demographic. Smaller shops couldn’t afford to do business there anymore, partly because the higher-end retailers were moving in, partly because rent on their spaces got jacked up to the ceiling.

What has thrived since then? Abercrombie and Fitch. It now has its sister shops, abercrombie and Hollister, open in different parts of the mall. Nobody who shops at Eastview is going to respond to this knowledge about CEO Mike Jeffries because the information has already been public for years. They did an ad featuring a shirtless guy with the caption “PRIVILEGED”. I took a picture of it.

Privileged

The last thing I am is shocked. It’s more a sense of disgust that a major retailer is getting away with this, and nobody seems to care. Nobody who shops there is going to turn around and decide it’s suddenly unethical, because they have been aware for years of who Jeffries counts as people. They know they count; they don’t seem to care that others don’t.

So that particular corporation, as I see it, is a lost cause, and you can add its clones to it (Dov wossname, are you listening?). I wonder, though: do we still have some power to change the grey areas?

Think about where you shop the next time you pull out your wallet. Why are you there? Why did I ever set foot in Forever 21? I was young and looking for cheap, fun clothing. I didn’t know, at that point, what was happening, nor did I care as much about quality as I do now.

What do you get from the stores you select? Do you shop there because you genuinely appreciate the brand, or could you be shopping there for the sake of being an Anthropologie person? A Free People person? Do you dig Banana Republic because their clothes last forever, or because that’s where all the bright young things go?

Is there a local alternative that’s doing the same thing for the same price? If the price is higher, is there a good reason to take your business there anyway? I’ll give you an example: lingerie shopping: I ditched big-box bras because I am a size that’s hard to fit, and over time I was spending more money on lots of ill-fitting bras than I will now that I own three brilliant ones. I got the brilliant ones from a local business, Embrasse-Moi, which also offers to tailor the fit of its products at no extra charge. I will return to Embrasse-Moi not only because of the above, but because the experience empowered me to love my body the way it is. I won’t hear “You’re too small!” at Embrasse-Moi, or be shoved in the direction of, essentially, a cup that is already running over with foam. (Not to mention the awkwardness of band sizing. A woman with a 28 underbust should not need a 36 anything.) I paid for more than bras; I paid for courtesy and kindness. I know where my money is going, too. Partly it is going into the pockets of the owner, who has her own lingerie line. Partly it is going into the paychecks of salesladies who bothered to understand and appreciate the customer — and the product. At a place like Aerie (American Eagle’s underwear store), all they seem to hire are bored adolescents and young adults (never anyone over 30!) who can project a certain image but don’t know the first thing about what they’re peddling. I should not have to define your industry’s terms for you. You should know what I mean and be able to tell me more.

I will scream this to the heavens because it is what we can actually do: vote with your wallet. Spend like it matters. Because it does. Explore smaller retailers. Figure out for yourself how different environments feel and decide where you’re comfortable. In the case of Abercrombie and Fitch, if you’re comfortable supporting a CEO who denigrates your neighbors of color, or your girlfriends over a size 12, that’s your right. We live in a capitalist country. But it’s my right to speak up for the (forgive me, I didn’t ask where she was from) Asian woman with the Chinese dresses on display right next to the clubwear and the awesome shoes. It’s my right to buy my bras in a truly woman-friendly store. I feel it’s my responsibility, as a person with a voice and a platform, to bring these issues to your attention.

Think before you buy. At the very least, your bank balance will thank you.

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