A lot of my friends wanted to know my opinion about it. I'd like to think they are just asking my opinion because I'm wise and always know what to say about ethically blurry situations. But actually they are asking me because I work with the homeless* as both a nurse for the past six years and also now as an artistic collaborator.
Here's the thing. Even after six years, I can NOT speak for the population of people I have committed my time to serving. But I CAN talk to you about my reaction to the video.
First of all, I'd like to have thought Greg Karber had his heart in the right place. He wanted to do something to harm the A&F brand because he is unhappy with A&F CEO Mike Jeffries' vision of said brand.
But his heart was not in the right place. It was in a sociocentric place.
Many people are outraged that Jeffries only wants "cool kids," and "attractive" people in his clothes. Jeffries openly admits to not offering XL or larger sizes for women because it would be contrary to this "cool" and "attractive" brand. The inverse of this can lead us to conclude that Mike Jeffries believes that the opposite of cool and attractive is overweight. So, now we know that Jeffries is superficial or whatever. Great.**
Then Karber comes along and - stay with me on this one- he actually does the same thing Jeffries did.
Jeffries thinks the opposite of attractive is overweight.
Karber decided that the opposite of attractive is disenfranchised.
So right from the beginning this entire project's center focus is demeaning and awful.
Everyone is upset about Jeffries pointing out that there are people who are cool and people who are not cool. Simply identifying the uncool kids doesn't close the gap between the two. It doesn't eliminate the binary thought process. It's just one more way to enforce the superficial categories we've created.
Next, in the video Karber is seen dropping clothes off to people on Skid Row. He doesn't ASK if they wanted to be a part of his campaign. He doesn't PARTNER with them. He uses them as props, not even paying attention to whether the size of the item was correct for the person, if the video is any indication! He doesn't ask if they need a shirt or pants or whatever. He just throws clothes around.
At the end of his video he says the goal of his project is to make Abercrombie and Fitch "The World's Number One Brand of Homeless Apparel."
Right there. STOP IT.
If the project itself wasn't already enough of a dead give-away this phrasing tells me how Karber feels about the lump of people he has decided to call "the homeless." They are a group, not individuals, and they are less than him and less than everyone he knows. That's why it would be such a great farce to make A&F their official brand. Because they are the bottom of the bottom. And they are a "them," the whole lot of them.
His heart was NOT in the right place. It was in a privileged place. He didn't take a minute to ask how his actions would made other people feel. Except for other people who are just like him.
Interestingly enough, because I spend most of my time with groups of people in Boston who don't have permanent housing I decided to check their reactions. I brought up the Fitch The Homeless video today in my Creative Writing Group that I run for Stories Without Roofs.
Not surprisingly, most of the men in my group who are all formerly or currently without homes thought that the people in the video had been "used," and "exploited." None of them thought that it was fair game to use people as canvases for a campaign without informing them they were part of it. One of them pointed out that Karber doesn't know anything about their lives, "if he had the money to go buy up all those clothes."
For the people saying "well at least the homeless got clothes," or whatever you are saying - that's not a consolation. If you spend any amount of time with people in need you will learn quickly that what YOU think are their needs might not be what they think their needs are. This is actually true of all people. What if someone walked up to you and just handed you a shirt you didn't like or pants that didn't fit? That you now have to carry around? Or gave you a sandwich you didn't ask for without asking if you are allergic to tomatoes? Giving out blankets to rough sleepers in the winter is awesome. They want and need them. Giving someone a long sleeved shirt in the summertime isn't useful or nice. It's condescending and weird.
I WILL say that the idea of ruining A&F's brand vision is a fun concept. So for the record if
people who SELF identified as being uncool or anti-brand wanted to wear A&F in order to make a statement I would be 100% on board. Like if Karber had been like, "Yo, I'm a big nerd and I'm going to wear A&F" and then he got a bunch of other people who self-identified as not skinny or uncool to wear it too - that would be great.
But what happened was that someone in a position of privilege decided something about a group of people he had never met. Which, to me, is just as wrong as the original offense.
* For the record saying "The Homeless" and trying to discuss some homogenous group of people without homes makes less and less sense to me every single day that I work with the people I work with. Like most labels it can be useful in small doses, so I'll go ahead and say, sure, I work with "the homeless."
** I actually don't see anything wrong with Jeffries' statement. It's horrible and signifies what a superficial person he is. But it wasn't a shock to me, and I think it's fine. He created a line of clothing and he's allowed to do whatever he wants with it. That's what creating your own ANYTHING means. I'm 4'9". I ALSO don't fit into his clothing. I have a VERY hard time buying clothes and shoes because most brands are not expanded to include outliers on the physicality scale. I don't protest about it. I largely ignore the world of retail because it's full of people just like him who don't care about people like me. Then I seek out the people who DO care about making outlying sizes available and I give THEM my money. Win- win.