To Be Cool, or To Be Great

by David King on May 11, 2013

michael jeffries

In case you missed it, the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, Michael Jeffries, is a jerk. He was recently quoted as saying, “A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”

Not surprisingly, this has left people outraged. And rightly so. It’s pretty shocking that we even need to have a conversation about such dated use of the phrase cool kids. Seriously, Mr. Jeffries, we live in a world that’s trying its damnedest to be accepting, and to expand its definition of cool to include such acceptance.

But all is not lost. This guy has revealed himself as anything but cool.

Last night, I watched Baz Luhrmann’s awe-inspiring and truly remarkable rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And it struck me: We are all responsible for Michael Jeffries’ unattractive sentiment about attractiveness. Perhaps, underneath it all, that’s why we’re so outraged.

Let’s be clear up front – I don’t like what this guy said. But I am of the opinion that it needed to be said.

The Great Gatsby is a story about the cool kids. It’s about pretty things, and nice clothes. It’s about being part of the crowd, and living a lifestyle. And it’s about so much more than this, of course. There are depths and layers to this timeless work of fiction that transcend any conversations to be had about clothing companies and their CEOs. But if Jay Gatsby were of the 21st century, one would not be surprised to find the man in an Abercrombie & Fitch polo on a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps I’m pushing it a bit, but nevertheless, Gatsby was a character defined by extravagance, and he was one of the cool kids.

The problem is, we’ve all bought into the same system (or most of us have). There is a great hypocrisy afoot. The same women who are outraged by Jeffries’ ugly words read Cosmo and Vogue. They watch movies about pretty people who have nice things, and they enjoy these movies. It’s all airbrushed. Everything is made skinnier, smoother, tighter, and more perfect, and we all keep buying it, despite the obvious manipulation. By reading those magazines, by endorsing that music, by buying this or by shopping there, we’re supporting Jeffries’ interpretation of the world – no, we’re creating it. When was the last time you saw an overweight woman on the cover of a fashion magazine?  When was the last time you listened to a song performed by an unattractive singer? When was the last time you saw a clothing ad that lay outside of Jeffries’ vision of the world? Consumerism is a powerful force, and we’re all consuming the stuff of cool kids and pretty people and jerks like Jeffries. We’re buying in, and every time we buy in, we’re voting for more Abercrombie & Fitch and the like. We’re voting for more exclusivity.

Some real honesty is needed in all of this. Jerks aside, we support a world where the pretty people reign and the cool kids still have a better shot. Abercrombie & Fitch is one company in a sea of thousands that does just what Jeffries described, no matter how convincing their public image campaigns may be. The only difference is that this jerk has been honest. Are we all beautiful in our own ways? Sure. Do we all feel alone at the end of the day, after we strip away our individual attempts at coolness, after we wipe away the makeup and wash our hands clean of the pretenses? Maybe…but let’s not carry on as if we’re innocent in all of this; as if we don’t really get it, or as if we don’t look at ourselves in the mirror every day and want to be part of it all. At its core, being one of the cool kids is about belonging. Who can blame us?

Sometimes seeing beauty in the world is hard. But it doesn’t have to be. Jeffries is a man who has lost sight of true beauty. We have similarly turned our backs to it, supporting all that is contrary to acceptance and inclusion, despite the sudden emergence of our morals and ethics once challenged. Indeed, there is something great about morals and ethics that hold true without opposition – the kind of thoughts that keep us progressing even after we think we have it right. In this case, however, we have clearly missed the mark. Greatness, of the Gatsby persuasion or otherwise, requires an awareness of intent and a recognition of responsibility. Greatness requires honesty.

For his honesty, I applaud Jeffries, and ask us all to be a little more honest with ourselves. This is an issue that extends well beyond the shelves of Abercrombie & Fitch, into all persuasions of coolness and status quo. If F. Scott Fitzgerald taught us anything, it was that greatness also requires a little character, no matter the extent of the extravagance.

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