Perhaps it’s because I’m from Columbus and always found the words on The Limited’s shopping bags silly (New York Paris London) or perhaps it’s because I once interviewed the company’s CEO without a single PR person in the room, but I always will read stories about its business empire.
And while I believe Abercrombie & Fitch was formally spun off a while ago, it found its contemporary life as an arm of The Limited. Also, its CEO is a crackpot plastic-surgery addict control freak whose business life virtually sprouts good stories. So I read this one in New York magazine this week, pegged to the fact the thrill is gone. Sales are down, and the mojo that used to work doesn’t work anymore. Alas, Mike Jeffries, aforementioned CEO:
Above all, Jeffries, who was once married but is now openly gay, sought to sell an image of American beefcake sexuality as he saw it: a world of hairless, amply muscled men tussling in a pastoral Eden. That this world was so highly homoeroticized—the roughhousing in the catalogues seemed perpetually on the point of turning into a full-on orgy—is one of the most poignant ironies of his success. He was persuading straight jock teenagers to buy into a gay man’s fantasy of a jock utopia.
The story isn’t vicious. While frank about Jeffries’ many eccentricities and jerkishness, you’re left more with a picture of Puff the magic dragon after Jackie Paper stopped coming around, as rendered in American boardrooms. He’s been stripped of much of his power and, at 69, appears to be waiting for the ax to fall on his blonde-dyed head. But it was such fun (for him) while it lasted!
In many ways, Jeffries’s most impressive accomplishment was not the signature Abercrombie style but the signature Abercrombie attitude, with its bluntly brash appeal. As one former employee put it, “The only bad news was no news. Controversy was what you wanted.” Consequently, the list of PR disasters past and present is too lengthy to fully detail, but the more notable flare-ups include the following: the quickly recalled line of Asian-themed T-shirts, which featured men in rice-paddy hats and cartoonishly slanted eyes; a line of thongs, marketed to girls as young as 10, with the words wink-wink on the crotch; an issue of A&F Quarterly that included a user’s guide to having oral sex in a movie theater; and the disingenuous joke-apology to critics that appeared in the same periodical in 2003: “If you’d be so kind, please offer our apologies to the following: the Catholic League, former Lt. Governor Corrine Wood of Illinois, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Stanford University Asian-American Association, N.O.W.”
Ha ha ha. Come back, Jackie Paper:
But sensibilities have since evolved; casual prejudice is not as readily tolerated. Today’s teens are no longer interested in “the elite, cool-kid thing” to the extent that they once were, says Gordon, the Michigan professor. “This generation is about inclusiveness and valuing diversity. It’s about not looking down on people.”
I’m sure he has a nice retirement to look forward to, and plenty of money for botox.
My sister did some business with the Limited, back when she was selling phone systems. The headquarters were in an enormous building, with cafeterias scattered throughout, each one decorated with advertising images from a particular brand under the corporate umbrella. The guys she worked with always wanted to eat in the Victoria’s Secret canteen.
So, how are you spending the week? Olympics, yes of course, but is anyone watching Westminster? I am. I could watch those dogs trot up and back all day. And who is the winner in this house? Wendy with the crooked leg, Jack Russell Terrier No. 1.
Not much other bloggage today, although this story about a heroin overdose in Wisconsin broke my heart.
Supposed to be close to zero tonight. Keep those fleece jeans out, I guess.