Meet Michael Jeffries: Abercrombie's 'chief eccentric officer' who went from retail guru to megalomaniac


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The Independent Online

If there is a perfect exemplar of the oddball American boss, Howard Hughes must be it. Among the maverick aviator's directives at his company Hughes Aircraft, one stipulated the precise variety of seat covers for its fleet of Chevrolet cars, according to a former colleague tracked down by Fortune magazine in 2005.

On another occasion, Hughes is said to have considered building a missile-testing range on his Nevada ranch. But if new claims about Michael Jeffries, the 68-year-old head of fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch are accurate, future historians might reconsider their nominee for America's standout CEO – or chief eccentric officer.

According to a dossier of instructions disclosed as part of an age-discrimination case brought by a former pilot, flight crew aboard Mr Jeffries' private Gulfstream jet were required to employ white gloves when handling silverware and black ones to lay the table, and adhere to specific seating arrangements for his dogs – Ruby, Trouble and Sammy.

It didn't stop there. The manual, first revealed by the Bloomberg news agency, goes on to detail the uniform staff had to wear, including – in what must be a candidate for inclusion in the annals of corporate overreach – the brand of cologne (Abercrombie & Fitch 41) and kind of underwear for airborne men (boxer briefs).

And woe betide the steward who placed Business Week magazine on the left side of the credenza. The dossier clarifies that, along with copies of Fortune and other august journals, it had be stored on the right-hand side, without any inserts that might unceremoniously rain down on Mr Jeffries, according to partial copies that have appeared online.

The detail extends to the way crew had to address the Abercrombie boss, once labelled the Willy Wonka of the fashion industry by the online magazine Salon.

"When Michael, Matthew [Smith, Mr Jeffries's partner], or a guest make a request, respond by saying 'no problem.' This should be used in place of phrases like 'sure' or 'just a minute'," according to other excerpts from the document.

Flip-flops, meanwhile, were mandatory in-flight, and the crew had to check for fingerprints on ledges, cabinet doors and elsewhere around the aircraft. A music playlist was equally precise: the crew were reportedly required to broadcast Phil Collins' hit "Take Me Home" over the in-flight intercom as the plane headed home.

The manual was among the documents in a 2010 case filed in the US by Michael Bustin, who piloted Mr Jeffries's Gulfstream from February 2008 until he was let go in December 2009. Now 55, Mr Bustin claims he was fired so that he could be replaced with a younger pilot more in keeping with Abercrombie & Fitch's youthful image.

The fashion retailer has dismissed the claims in court documents, according to the Associated Press, while the company's general counsel told Bloomberg that Mr Bustin's case was without merit. Yesterday, when contacted about the allegations, Abercrombie declined to comment.

The business pays for four cabin crew provided by a management company, and does not itself employ pilots, according to an aircraft management agreement filed by Mr Bustin as part of the lawsuit.

The new disclosures come as Mr Jeffries, who is credited with turning Abercrombie from an outmoded manufacturer of outdoor apparel to a successful fashion brand for youngsters, now struggles to sustain its appeal in the face of changing fashion trends and its customers reining in their spending. Abercrombie & Fitch shares are hovering at about $32 – half their value a year ago.

This is not the first high-profile case featuring the company to hit the headlines. In 2004, Abercrombie, well known for its risqué advertising, paid out $40m to settle a series of cases that accused it of discriminating against minorities to maintain its all-white public image.