When I was in 8th grade, the Esprit brand was all the rage, as was Benetton. The uniform of all who cared about conforming was a sweatshirt with “Esprit” emblazoned across the front, high-top sneakers, and an awkward-to-carry, wind-sock-shaped Benetton bag.
I would be proud to say that I, at the age of 14, was above all of this commercialism but that would be a lie. I wanted to fit in, too. Unfortunately (although in hind-sight I feel differently), my mother refused to pay for anything simply because it had a brand name screen-printed across the front.
So, I saved up my babysitting money and finally procured one knock-off Esprit sweatshirt at an outlet and a Benetton bag that may also have been of questionable origins. The first day I wore them to school, the number of “I love your sweatshirt!” comments I received was overwhelming and also eye-opening for me. Thanks to my parents, I knew deep down that I was selling out. Without the brand name, I was wearing a sloppy, faded blue sweatshirt. The only thing that separated me from the girl in class wearing the plain, blue, no-brand sweatshirt (who was often referred to as “scum” in our early 90’s prep lexicon) was six little red letters.
Anyone who is surprised by Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries’s recent comments about only marketing to attractive, “cool” people either grew up apart from this kind of marketing or is simply extremely naïve. It is also naïve to think that the CEOs of other companies that depend on teenage pressure to conform to brand-name purchasing (Aeropostale, Under Armour, Hollister, American Eagle) don’t have the exact same mind-set as Jeffries.
The success of these companies says more about us and our children than it does about those companies. Daily, I see 12 to 14-year-olds march through middle school hallways proudly wearing a shirt that says they belong, merely because of the brand-name emblazoned on the front. The desire to fit in (and for our children to fit in) is strong enough to convince people to purchase clothing, despite the fact that it looks old and worn-out and sometimes even dirty, simply because of the brand. What company wouldn’t want to perpetuate this mind-set when there’s so much money to be made?
I think Mike Jeffries is a total ass, but I don’t blame him and companies like his for this social condition. These companies exist because of us. They exist because we foster an idea in our children that you are what you own – that paying a lot for a ratty hoodie makes you more valuable than the kid whose parents bought his sweatshirt at Walmart. Shame on Mike Jeffries, but shame on us as well.
Fortunately, I was saved by my parents values and the grunge movement of the mid-90s. Thanks to Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, we could happily shop at thrift stores and borrow our boyfriend’s flannel shirts and still be accepted. Granted, we were following a trend, but one more focused on who we wanted to be and less on what we wanted to buy.
To this day, even though I do fit into the clothing in those name-brand stores, I will not buy them. I will not buy them because of what it says about me and who I want to be (and because anyone my age trying to rock an Aeropostale tiny-tee is just trying too hard).
In the interest of full disclosure: In college, I did work in the Gap for a while. I did own one Gap sweatshirt that I bought off the clearance rack for $5 and subsequently got grease on it shortly afterward. I hung onto it for another decade to wear around the house. It was one of my favorite comfy sweatshirts.