Branding the Homeless
KATIE ZINSER dislikes Abercrombie as much as the next person, but argues that ‘Fitching’ the homeless is both patronising and unhelpful.
I don’t think I even need to provide an argument for why the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, Mike Jeffries, has disgraced himself and disappointed fans of the brand all over the world.
It’s patronising to even explain why what he said is so wrong and damaging for body image and self-perspective of young people. Some have said that we shouldn’t be shocked, as he’s merely confirmed what we all knew was inherent in so many popular fashion brands; others seem genuinely surprised by his candid exclusivism.
Either way, to so openly discriminate based on such purely superficial criteria has made many – including myself – give a sad sigh at the values our society puts on a pedestal. And also made me do this when I realised what Jeffries actually looks like.
I am fully in favour of boycotting the brand, and the internet is almost certainly the best tool for the job. The Kony 2012 campaign, for all its serious flaws, had 12 year-olds manically hash-tagging about an African political dictator who, the day beforehand, they had neither heard of nor cared about. I think, with the right publicity, the internet could destroy the empire Mike Jeffries has managed to build, despite resembling a melting candle. It is a powerful tool.
And in the same way I was drawn in by the dulcet tones of Jason Russell, I was also taken in by a recent viral attempt of one man to trash Abercrombie’s status once and for all. Greg Karber’s genuine concern for the body image of millions of youths, and his plucky attempt to singlehandedly make the brand uncool were admirable.
Karber’s plan was to take Abercrombie clothes, from what he calls “the douchebag section” of charity shops, and hand them out to cold, hungry homeless people. Everybody wins, right? Homeless people get clothing, and Abercrombie undergoes an unforeseen bout of brand remodelling. I even reposted the video myself.
After I watched it again, however, something made me uncomfortable, and I took down my post. It was the bemused faces of the homeless people as Karber thrust these “douchebag” clothes into their arms.
Despite what he insisted, they didn’t seem to be “embracing it wholeheartedly”, and it didn’t seem like charity. Charity doesn’t have an agenda, and charity doesn’t assume that those in need only deserve those things we no longer approve of. Of course, Karber’s intentions are thoroughly decent, and he is right to be horrified by the fact that Abercrombie burn faulty clothing, instead of donating it to the needy and homeless, in order to maintain their brand image. I understand fully that his actions are intended to invert that attitude.
However, to say, “Let’s destroy a brand by handing it out to homeless people” implicitly delivers two messages: firstly, that the homeless are the antithesis of the supposed ‘social elite’ that Abercrombie want to wear their clothes; and secondly, that they have the power to stigmatise any brand with their inherent lowliness.
Those messages are both implicit and unintentional, but they make me deeply uncomfortable. The homeless do not deserve to be patronised in that way, and you could even go as far to say that Karber is inadvertently propagating the very ideology Abercrombie stands for: the idea that it only takes uncool people wearing a brand to make it uncool.
I’m not entirely sure how one might go about destroying the reputation of a brand that has held such a large stake in teenage fashion. I’m not actually sure if it’s possible for adults to ‘un-cool’ what teenagers have convinced themselves is cool. I’m hopeful that people will hear Jeffries’ comments and associate the brand with unpleasantness. I’m worried that tweens will see it as the official brand of the cool and skinny and manipulate its exclusivism to their advantage.
Either way, let’s not implicate other social groups who may not want to be implicated, and let’s not insult homeless people by suggesting they have the power to destroy a brand. I know if somebody suggested that I could ruin a brand by wearing it, I would be offended and mortified. It’s not enough to destroy one brand by drawing from the same superficial discourses used by the corporations themselves: we need to challenge those discourses directly. Abercrombie isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom.