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Abercrombie & Fitch investigates claims that its ex-CEO exploited men at sex events

Abercrombie & Fitch's former CEO is facing accusations he sexually exploited young men.
Michael M. Santiago
Getty Images
Abercrombie & Fitch's former CEO is facing accusations he sexually exploited young men.

Updated October 4, 2023 at 10:42 AM ET

Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Co. has launched an investigation into claims that its former CEO Mike Jeffries sexually exploited men at lavish parties hosted around the world.

The accusations, which were first reported by the BBC, place Jeffries at the helm of several sex events, for which he hired a middleman to recruit participants with the prospect of becoming a model for what was once one of America's top teen outfitters.

Here's an overview of what we know.

What are the accusations against Jeffries?

The BBC saysit spoke with eight men who engaged in or witnessed sex acts at parties hosted by Jeffries and his partner, Matthew Smith, from the years 2009 to 2015. Each of the men was paid thousands of dollars in cash after the parties, the BBC reported.

The recruitment for the events was handled by the middleman, identified by the BBC as James Jacobson.

One of the recruits told the BBC that Jacobson "made it clear to me that unless I let him perform oral sex on me, that I would not be meeting with Abercrombie & Fitch or Mike Jeffries."

The man performed the act, receiving first $500 in payment from Jacobson, and, later, an invitation to Jeffries' then-home in the Hamptons. There, the man was given poppers — a type of drug commonly used to enhance sexual experiences — and eventually had sex with the then-CEO.

Another man, a former model, told the BBC he had oral sex performed on him by another recruited man as Jeffries and Smith watched.

"This experience, I think it broke me," the former model told the BBC. "I think that this stole any ounce of innocence that I had left. It mentally messed me up. But with the language I now have today, I can sit here and tell you that I was taken advantage of."

An attorney for Jeffries told NPR that the former CEO had no comment on the accusations.

"Michael is 79 years old and retired. In years past, he has chosen not to comment on media reports, documentaries, and stories of any kind as they relate to his personal life — and does not plan on doing so now," Brian Bieber wrote in an email to NPR.

Is Jeffries the reason A&F fell from popularity?

Jeffries headed A&F from 1992 and 2014 and is credited with transforming the store from a flailing heritage brand known for safari wear to a top-selling teen outfitter synonymous with preppy cuts, pungent cologne and provocative ads with semi-nude models.

From the start, Jeffries had a clear, if elitist, vision for what the store could be.

"In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive, all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends," he said in a 2006 interview with Salon.

"A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes] and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

That attitude struck success as a business strategy. By 2006, earnings had increased for 52 straight quarters, with annual profits topping $2 billion. The company had opened 800 brick-and-mortar stores and operated three additional labels, including Hollister, the wildly popular beach-inspired brand.

But the marketing approach that made A&F into a financial success also made it an HR and PR nightmare.

A man uses his mobile phone to take photographs of topless male models waving to a crowd of onlookers from the soon to open Abercrombie & Fitch flagship clothing store in Hong Kong in 2012.
Laurent Fievet / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A man uses his mobile phone to take photographs of topless male models waving to a crowd of onlookers from the soon to open Abercrombie & Fitch flagship clothing store in Hong Kong in 2012.

In 2003, Black, Latino and Asian American employees filed a class action lawsuit against the company claiming that minority applicants were discouraged from applying or kept out of the public eye in undesirable positions. The company denied wrongdoing and later settled for $40 million.

Around the same time, it discontinued A&F Quarterly, its magazine catalog that famously ran photos of (mostly white) models cavorting half-clothed or even completely naked, alongside articles with not-so-subtle headlines, like "Group Sex."

When asked in 2006 whether the quarterly was akin to soft-core pornography, Jeffries said he thought the A&F treatment of sex was healthy. "It's all depicting this wonderful camaraderie, friendship, and playfulness that exist in this generation and, candidly, does not exist in the older generation," he told Salon.

The American Decency Association called for a boycott of A&F, selling T-shirts reading "Ditch Fitch." A few years later, a group of Pennsylvania high schoolers called for a "girlcott" of the brand, arguing that its T-shirts reading "Who needs a brain when you have these?" and "Gentlemen prefer tig ol' bitties" were outright offensive. (The company eventually pulled the two shirts but kept others, including one that read "Do I make you look fat?")

Jeffries' reputation continued to sink after he was accused of elevating his romantic partner's role in the company, overspending on business trips and mandating the male models who worked aboard the company plane wear branded underwear.

But he managed to stick around until 2014, when faltering sales refused to bounce back post-recession. He received a retirement package of $25 million, according to the BBC.

As a sign of how far the brand was willing to go to protect the ideals he instilled, A&F lawyers appeared before the Supreme Court the following year, arguing the company was right to deny a Muslim woman a job because her headscarf violated its "look policy." The Supreme Court ruled against A&F 8-1.

How is A&F responding to the accusations?

A&F carried its exclusionary reputation into America's era of racial reckoning, prompting media takedowns like the 2022 Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch.

But somewhere alongside this reckoning — maybe even because of it — A&F started to remake its image. The brand has shed its iconic dark-shuttered storefronts, moose logos and sexualized ads. It expanded its size offerings and started marketing with a diverse cast of 20-something influencers, who praise its non-descript basics like bodysuits and trousers.

"We are a positive, inclusive brand, with a nice sensibility, very different from what they encountered in the past," said the company's chief merchandising officer, Fran Horowitz, in 2016. Horowitz would go on to become CEO of the company in 2017.

Media outlets have taken recent notice of the transformation, calling it a "rebound," a "rebrand" and a "major revival" moment. Now that nascent comeback is facing its first major test.

As the BBC's investigation aired on Monday, the company shared a statement on its social media channels saying it had hired an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation.

"The company's current executive leadership team and board of directors were not aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr. Jeffries," the statement adds. "We have zero tolerance for abuse, harassment or discrimination of any kind."

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Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.