Greg Karber is a funny man. He has a website full of funny things. Also clever things. He seems to know what a Kōan is, so I’ll give him some props there (it’s like a parable, but more Buddhist.) He’s also the fellow that posted the viral video Abercrombie & Fitch Gets a Brand Readjustment. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch it here:
As you can see, he’s responding to the Salon interview with Mike Jeffries that happened 7 years ago. Like John Lennon’s “Bigger than Jesus” comment, it took a while to percolate into the public consciousness. Now that it’s there, folks are not amused. One of the more noted quotes has Jeffries declaring that “…we go after the cool kids. 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.”
Another tidbit brought up in the video is that rather than donate damaged or unsell-able clothing, A&F burns them. God, I can imagine the smell of the rayon and polybenzimidazole fibers as they fry. Why burn them? Because those in need are certainly not the cool kids. I mean, who has time to do your hair when your running from an abusive spouse? And those who are down on their luck rarely visit the gym!
So, yeah, Jeffries is a snob. He’s a snob and the brand is snobby and we’re probably both cool with the fact that there are no A&F clothes in my closet. They wouldn’t want my chubby, middle-aged butt in their skinny jeans. As for me, I try to buy fair trade or second hand, if I can, and A&F employs the Ha-Meem sweatshop network for some of its manufacturing. I’m pretty sure the teenagers working in their factories are not considered cool kids either.
Clearly Karber agrees that A&F need to be called out on their odd, consumer-unfriendly snobbery. Why hate on the fat kids? The weirdos? Why burn perfectly good clothes rather than help out a human being? Because the brand is king, and this king is really picky about who is allowed in their court.
Which brings us to Karber’s suggestion. Raid your closet, he insists. Raid your neighbour’s closet. Raid the second hand shop. Then donate all those A&F clothes to a homeless shelter.
I have a lot of big hearted friends. I love them for their big old hearts. They spotted a problem with this. The implication here is that homeless people are as un-cool as it gets. The gag only works if the contrast is drastic, if the people he hands the clothing off to are the kind of folks who would be not-so-nicely escorted out of any A&F shop they might enter. Homeless folks are the anti-Abercrombie.
Should I be insulted?
You see, I was homeless for over a year, all told. In that time, I was the cool kid. I was the freaking cold kid. I was the so cold my teeth chattered and my body shook and my tears were welcomed warmth. Canada is not a good place to be homeless. Sometimes people gave me shelter, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes I had enough to eat, often, I didn’t. Things I never worried about while I was homeless: If my clothes were cool. Clean, yes. Cool, not so much. Though I did love my kicking, hand-me-down Doc Martin boots.
So as a former homeless person (who in no way speaks for all homeless people, ’cause that would be stupid) what do I think of this video?
I think it’s cool that homeless people are getting clothes, though it didn’t really look like he was checking to make sure they’d fit the people he was giving them to. I hope he washed them first. Most second hand stores don’t. A clean change of clothes is a good thing when you’re homeless, so I like the idea of handing out clothes.
As for the recording part, I hope he asked the people first. When I was homeless, I was also avoiding contact with folks who had hurt and abused me. Those people did not know where I was and that was a conscious choice. I was homeless partly because I did not want to be found and nowhere was a safe place to hide.
Outside of just asking permission, I hope he stopped to talk to the people and explain what he was doing. If he had talked to me while I was homeless, I probably would have thought what he was doing was pretty funny. Homeless people are not beyond humour or beyond random acts of anti-consumerism. Hell, many of us were intelligent, politically engaged, well-versed human beings. Also hungry.
So am I offended by the potential implication that homeless people are too ugly, uncool, fringe or poor to wear A&F? Maybe a little. Not so I’d go knock on the fellow’s door and shake my tiny fist at him. I mean, there’s a big bad company that exploits workers, burns rather than donates clothes and pretty much calls me a fat-ass (I’m paraphrasing.) I think I’d rather be pissed at them.
And as to Karber, he seems smart enough to see this as part of a conversation. Was his video tactless? Yes. Being homeless sucks! It’s really, really horrible. It’s devastating and soul-destroying and no matter how comfortable your life gets after being homeless, you will never feel safe again, because you know what the world is like outside of the safety bubble of home. This video means people are talking about it. Maybe they’re even donating clothes. Is it a perfect message? No. But it’s part of a conversation we need to have about big corporations, billion dollar CEOs and homeless kids who are happy to have another layer, because, damn, it’s cold out there.