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Abercrombie & Fitch grows a heart — and its sizes

| Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. seems to have learned a valuable lesson, but not until its profits suffered.

The brand has cashed in on controversy for decades, and the company's chief executive, Mike Jeffries, infamously courted detractors in 2006 by saying that he only wanted attractive kids to wear his clothes. Plenty of brands court an image of youth, beauty and country-club athletics, but Jeffries felt comfortable enough to say “fat” kids weren't cool, and he didn't want them as customers.

The brand doesn't offer XL or XXL women's clothing or pants over a size 10 for women. However, the brand does offer XL and XXL clothing for men because Abercrombie & Fitch has said that it wanted to provide sizes for jocks but assumed that female athletes wouldn't be larger than a standard large. For years, people grumbled but nothing changed.

Marketing expert and author Roger Dooley, who writes for, didn't think the brand would ever have to change. “Every time a critic trumpets, ‘Mike Jeffries is terrible for not wanting overweight or unattractive people in his stores,' they are propagating the exact branding message he's trying to promote. Will A&F lose a few customers because of their obnoxious CEO and corporate ethos? Probably. But it will be no surprise if they end up adding new customers and increasing sales even as the controversy rages,” Dooley wrote in an article titled, “The Perverse Brilliance of Abercrombie & Fitch's CEO.” This was published in May.

In previous years, Abercrombie & Fitch's hiring practices were called into question, staff diversity was criticized, complaints of sexism were issued, advertisements were labeled offensive and yet the brand rebounded. The simple preppy clothing styles that focused largely on new ways to display the company's brand name remained popular. Then something changed.

For a number of cultural reasons, being inclusive is more fashionable than ever. Anti-bullying campaigns and memes abound, and people are keenly aware that it's not OK to put other people down in order to build yourself up.

It was seven years ago when Jeffries told Salon: “In every school, there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, 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 (in our clothes), and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Jeffries was 61 years old then and the company remained wildly profitable. Times changed. Earlier this year, the comments resurfaced, and people finally objected in earnest.

Jeffries, now 69, issued a backhanded I'm-sorry-if-anyone-found-that-offensive apology. The company later issued a stronger apology and has decided to actually make some changes.

Starting in spring it will carry extended women's sizes.

Not for nothing, but H&M, one of the coolest retail kids on the block, offers extended sizes for women and even has a maternity line. A recent wildly popular H&M swimwear campaign featured a plus-size model (Jennie Runk of Chesterfield, Mo.)

The change at Abercrombie & Fitch seems to have taken a long time because it has. The company is currently being described as “struggling,” “troubled” and “desperate.”

Reuters reported that “the company's shares closed down 14 percent at $33.13 last week after the company reported its seventh quarterly fall in same-store sales in a row and warned of a tough holiday season.” Shares in the company's stock lost about 30 percent of its value this year. Abercrombie & Fitch is perhaps finally being viewed by the “uncool” label it used to exclude others.

Benjamin O'Keefe of Orlando, Fla., a survivor of a teenage eating disorder, took a group from the National Eating Disorder Association to Abercrombie & Fitch's headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year. He started a petition on that now has more than 80,700 supporters.

Abercrombie responded with a statement, “We look forward to continuing this dialogue and taking concrete steps to demonstrate our commitment to anti-bullying in addition to our ongoing support of diversity and inclusion. We want to reiterate that we sincerely regret and apologize for any offense caused by comments we have made in the past, which are contrary to these values.”

Debra D. Bass is a writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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