Yesterday many Facebook feeds lit up with filmmaker Greg Farber’s campaign against clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. Karber’s contention against A&F begins with his problem with CEO Mike Jeffries who intentionally doesn’t sell plus size clothing because he doesn’t want people who wear plus-sized clothing to wear his clothes. Jeffries says, “We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” he told Salon.com in 2006. “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” This landed Jeffries on Farber’s shit list, but the impetus behind his campaign is the fact that combined with not wanting to sell clothes to a particular type of person of a particular size, A&F burns all damaged and unsold clothes instead of donating them. So Farber has set out to find A&F clothes by any means necessary–save for going into a store to buy it–and give those clothes to people who are homeless. At once this seems like an admirable task because people who are homeless are getting clothes which equals them getting help in some people’s minds, but there is something else here, issues that only appear if people stop cheering for homeless people getting “shitty clothes”–as one of my friends put it.
#1: The Exploitation Issue: Karber’s primary interest in this campaign is to rebrand A&F by giving their clothes to people who are homeless, thus the people who are homeless become a means to an end and not an end in themselves. It is rather hard to tell if Karber would have started a campaign to provide people who are homeless with clothes if it wasn’t for his labor of love to shame Jeffries and A&F at large. And, what does it mean that he filmed these people who are homeless for his benefit and not theirs? It’s difficult to praise this because after the cameras stop rolling those people are still homeless just with different clothing and Farber goes back to his house and gets to edit their lives and get us all in on his campaign.
#2: The “Does this Mean Homeless People are Uncool?” Issue
Jeffries believes that certain people aren’t cool enough to wear his clothes, namely people who are plus-sized, but Karber ventures to guess there are other people who aren’t cool enough to wear his clothes. People who are poor or homeless are the other target audience because they aren’t popular nor do they have shiny, happy faces like your average A&F model. So Farber goes to find
uncool people who are homeless to give A&F clothing to. In a way, Karber’s video can be interpreted as his subscribing to the very notion he is trying to reject. Is his giving clothing to people who are homeless playing a part in the ascription of the label “uncool”? Or is he saying that homeless people are cool enough to wear Abercrombie because of their intrinsic value as people? Furthermore, why spend so much time trying to get people who are homeless into clothing from A&F when you can just get them clothes, period? Or, better yet, get them into opportunities.
#3 The Bigger Picture Issue
What struck me about this entire situation is not what Karber is doing but what Jeffries and many other clothing retailers are probably doing in burning damaged or unsold clothes. I thought to myself, “Shouldn’t there be a law against this or some legislation passed that requires retailers to donate unsold or damaged clothes?” It makes no sense to me that clothes–including the damaged clothing–are burned when millions are going without. Resolving this issue might put clothes on the back of many people who are poor or homeless. But “might” is the operative word because the reality of the situation is, people who are poor or homeless don’t need more clothes, they need opportunities. So what about fighting for them to get jobs at places like A&F–notice I said “like” and not “such as”. There are bigger battles to wage in the fight against poverty and homelessness.
Finding all the A&F clothing that isn’t already on the backs of attractive, All-American kids and giving them away to people who are homeless is nice and admirable, but it is just a drop in the bucket of the homelessness issue. And what I’m offering here are some of the issues I saw with Karber’s concept. I think it’s close but no cigar, but maybe I am being too critical. What do you think?