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FilmMagic for Paul Wilmot Commun
FilmMagic for Paul Wilmot Commun

During his nearly two-decade run as CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, Mike Jeffries peddled what he described as an aspirational, all-American lifestyle.

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In reality, Abercrombie's idea of what its ideal customer looked like was extremely narrow.

"Jeffries was particularly interested in his brand representing a very specific kind of person," said Heather Arnet, the head of the Women and Girls Foundation. "That person tended to be Caucasian, and thin, and blonde, and blue eyed, and preppy."

For a while, many teens across America nevertheless bought into Abercrombie's exclusive image.

But over the years, the company's products became ever more tasteless, at best, and offensive at worst. In 2005, Arnet and two-dozen young women led a "girlcott" of the company to protest its unrealistic standards of beauty.

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The foundation's stance eventually grew to be reflected not just in America's cultural dialogue, but also in the company's bottom line, as sales continued to slump even as the Great Recession ended.

On Tuesday, Abercrombie & Fitch finally came to terms with its own fading relevance, as it announced Jeffries' retirement, effective immediately.

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While the company's statement praised his tenure, Abercrombie has now seen four-straight years of slowing or negative sales growth. Its share price has dropped by more than half since its post-recession high.

"Millennials and even younger teens are much more interested in celebrating diversity than celebrating an Aryan world view," Arnet said. "Our views are much more sophisticated and not just respectful of cultural difference but really embrace it.

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"And Abercrombie doesn't represent any of that."

Below, we offer a brief history of how slowly offending the entire country finally ground the company into irrelevancy.

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The first major incident occurred in 2002, when the company came under fire for producing a racist T-Shirt that read, "Wong Brothers: Two Wongs Can Make It White."

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"This is really blatant. It is just like the 1800s," Reverend Norman Fong, program director at San Francisco's Chinatown Community Development Center, said at the time, as a group of 100 Asian-Americans protested a local outlet.

Also that year, parents blasted the company for marketing thongs with the words "wink wink" and "eye candy" to middle schoolers

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cnn abercrombie

“People said we were cynical, that we were sexualizing little girls," Jeffries later said. "But you know what? I still think those are cute underwear for little girls. And I think anybody who gets on a bandwagon about thongs for little girls is crazy."

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Two years later, the company settled a class-action discrimination suit, filed on behalf of workers like Brenda Hawk (below) for $40 million.

Discrimination Lawsuit Filed Against Clothing Retail Chain Abercrombie & Fitch
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"Abercrombie had a back-of-the-bus mentality," Kimberly West-Faulcon, Western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the New York Times. "Now instead of hiring them in the back of the store, they will have diversity recruiters. It sends a message to young people that we're moving past this kind of thing."

Meanwhile, Jeffries' remain undeterred on the companies' style choices. Later shirts featured slogans like “Who needs a brain when you have these?” “I had a nightmare I was a brunette,” and one reading “The Freshman 15″ above a list of boys’ names penned in a feminine hand.

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There were more, many of which can now be found on eBay:

"Good Girls Don't Get Caught"

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"Don't Be Jealous"

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"I Could Be Your Worst Mistake"

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"If Lost, Return To Either Justin" (We're not even sure what this one means.)

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In a 2006 interview with Benoit Denizet-Lewis for Salon, Jeffries acknowledged what everyone knew: That being offensive was part of the plan.

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” Jeffries said. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends."

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He continued: "A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

Here's Jeffries, left, with investment banker Gilbert Harrison, in 2005 photo. Jeffries turned 70 this year.

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Abercrombie & Fitch Store Opening on 5th Avenue in New York City

This did seem to work for awhile. But then the recession hit, and the value of A&F shares tanked. And after a brief surge in 2012, the shares never recovered as sales foundered.

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Nor did the company's press ever improve. Last year, the Abercrombie faced a discrimination suit from a Muslim employee who said she was fired for refusing to remove her headscarf.

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In 2013, the company finally began offering clothes to plus-sized women as the company once again came under heavy criticism for its exclusionary branding.

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Finally, the company's brand became so toxic that it announced it would remove it from its clothes:

abercrombie logo
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Arnet says that Abercrombie can still turn itself around — after all, the company was a virtual unknown in the retail world until Jeffries took it over.

"The board of directors of Abercrombie and Fitch now has an opportunity to change the culture again with a new CEO, and perhaps create a brand that's more appropriate for the world we live in now," she said.

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Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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