the audit

A CEO’s high-flying standards

Bloomberg reports on Abercrombie & Fitch's Michael Jeffries
October 19, 2012

We’ve seen $87,000 rugs and $6,000 shower curtains. But this fascinating Bloomberg story on Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO Michael Jeffries adds a more exacting chapter to the annals of corporate decadence:

The actors and models who worked on an Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (ANF) Gulfstream G550 jet had crystal-clear rules for serving Chief Executive Officer Michael Jeffries.

Clean-shaven males had to wear a uniform of Abercrombie polo shirts, boxer briefs, flip-flops and a “spritz” of the retailer’s cologne, according to an “Aircraft Standards” manual, disclosed in an age-discrimination lawsuit brought by a former pilot. Among the 40-plus pages of detailed instructions: black gloves had to be used when handling silverware and white gloves to lay the table, the song “Take Me Home” had to be played when passengers entered the cabin on return flights and Jeffries’s dogs — identified in the document as Ruby, Trouble and Sammy — had different seating arrangements based on which ones were traveling.

And, apparently, paid for by shareholders.

Bloomberg’s Sapna Maheshwari gets these hilarious details and more from a 40-page “aircraft standards” manual, written by the CEO’s partner Matthew Smith to include details such as the specifications for how he likes his tea:

Similar rules for staff, including “do not expose the toilet paper and do not fold the end square,” also apply to Jeffries’s homes, Smith said in the deposition…

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The manual includes directions for serving Smith throughout, such as notes on his tea service: Assam tea in the morning and Darjeeling after 2 p.m., “served on a small tray with a small tray liner.”

Smith, who is not an A&F employee, “also regularly received his own copies of non-public Abercrombie reports on the airplane, including daily sales overall and by brand and direct-to-consumer orders, according to the aircraft standards manual,” which was uncovered by Jeffries’ former pilot in his age-discrimination lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch.

This would mostly be CEO porn if it weren’t for the clear parallels with how Jeffries runs the company. That Jeffries has discriminating tastes and that the company he’s built up over twenty years has a long history of discrimination can hardly be a coincidence. Abercrombie, beloved by frat bros and sorority sisters across the land for its soft porn marketing and faux-collegiate casualwear, long maintained an Aryan-ideal image, and had to fork over $50 million in 2004 to minorities who were hired and shunted off to the stockrooms or outright fired because they weren’t white.

My friend Moe Tkacik wrote that Abercrombie was a “racist, frat-boy cult” in our pages two years ago, describing reporting she did when we were at The Wall Street Journal in the years before that lawsuit:

It alarmed me, for instance, to learn that one of the companies in my “youth” sector, the mall chain Abercrombie & Fitch, made a weekly practice of purging its stores of hourly sales associates it deemed to be less than, in corporate parlance, “brand positive.”

The purgees were identified, a former regional manager explained, every week at corporate headquarters in New Albany, Ohio, during a conference call held specifically to critique photographs taken that week by the chain’s hundred or so district managers of all the “brand representatives” they had encountered in visits to their stores. The photos were uploaded onto some sort of company intranet, but my source told me his boss preferred printing them out on paper, so he could circle flaws, draw mustaches, scrawl racist epithets, etc. The source said braces, minor breakouts, the faintest possibility of weight gain, showing up to work in a prior season’s ensemble, wearing shoes that had not appeared on the list of authorized footwear for that season, and/or belonging to an ethnic minority could all be grounds for immediate dismissal from the ranks of Abercrombie & Fitch’s minimum-wage cadre of demand creators.  

The company has veered between provocation and outright offensiveness. Half-naked teenage models are passé these days, but push-up bikini tops and thongs saying “eye candy” marketed to 7 year old girls are not, nor are T-shirts with Asian caricatures touting their imaginary laundry service above the tag line “TWO WONGS CAN MAKE IT WHITE.”

These have always seemed like strange mistakes for a company to make over and over again, but they’re easier to understand if you’ve read the reporting on Jeffries, including this from Salon in 2006:

As far as Jeffries is concerned, America’s unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “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.

Swell guy. Swell company.

Nice find by Bloomberg.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.