The former CEO of fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) and his partner face a potential sex trafficking investigation after they were accused of exploiting young men for sex at lavish events the couple hosted in America and around the world.
Mike Jeffries, boss of the company during its heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s and Matthew Smith, used a network of middlemen to organise events in London, Paris, Venice, and Marrakesh between 2009 and 2015, BBC Panorama has reported.
Eight men told the corporation they attended the events, some of whom claimed they were exploited or abused, with one saying he felt forced to let another man perform oral sex on him.
Mr Jeffries, 79 and Mr Smith, 60, did not respond to the BBC’s requests for comment and the couple’s middleman denied any wrongdoing, saying the alleged victims went in to the events with their eyes “wide open”.
Two former US prosecutors who reviewed evidence gathered by the BBC and first-hand accounts of the events called on authorities to investigate whether the couple should face sex trafficking charges. In the US, the law states that sex trafficking can include getting an adult to travel to another state or country to have sex for money by using force, fraud or coercion.
Mr Jeffries transformed A&F from a loss-making heritage outfitter to a multibillion-dollar teen fashion retailer, using sex appeal, provocative advertising and shirtless male store models to ramp up sales.
In a now infamous interview from 2006, Mr Jeffries described A&F as a brand that goes after the “cool kids”. “We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” he added. “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” He stepped down in 2014 after sales declined.
The eight men who attended the events said they were recruited by a middleman, who they described as having a missing nose covered with a snakeskin patch. The BBC investigation identified him as James Jacobson.
One of the accusers is David Bradberry, who chose to go public with his allegations. He said he was introduced to Mr Jacobson by an agent - who described himself as the gatekeeper to the “owners” of A&F - in 2010 when he was 23, but that there was no mention of sex.
Following their meeting, he said Mr Jacobson suggested Bruce Weber - then A&F’s official photographer - should take his picture. Then, Mr Bradberry said, "Jim 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." “I was paralysed,” he told the BBC. "It was like he was selling fame. And the price was compliance.”
Mr Jacobson, now aged 70, told the BBC in a statement issued through his lawyer that he took offence at the suggestion of "any coercive, deceptive or forceful behaviour on my part" and had "no knowledge of any such conduct by others".
Brad Edwards, a civil lawyer who examined the BBC’s evidence, said US prosecutors should investigate whether what these "brave men" describe could be sex trafficking.
"There may have been evidence of coercion for some of the men, whereas others might not have felt the coercive tactics,” he said.
"Remember, coercion is the reasonable belief that serious harm will be inflicted - and serious harm could be reputational harm, financial harm, physical harm."
Mr Jeffries and Mr Smith were contacted by the BBC several times by letter, email and phone over several weeks for comment on a “detailed list” of the allegations against them but did not respond. The couple could not immediately be reached by The Independent.
A&F said it was “appalled and disgusted” by the allegations and has instructed a law firm to conduct an independent investigation.
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