PROFILE: Tom Lennox -- Sex, scandal and selling clothes

It is hard to believe that Tom Lennox, vice president of corporate communications at Abercrombie & Fitch, was once a member of the suit-encased investment banking fraternity.

Tom Lennox
Tom Lennox

Today he sits swinging on his chair in an office above Abercrombie & Fitch's startling London flagship store, flip flops proudly displayed despite the chill of the British spring and dressed every bit the preppy teenager. Except that he's unnervingly tall, sculpted and radiates calm. Let's talk about sex, I say. ‘Sure,' he grins.

Before customers step into the store just off Savile Row, they are greeted by two Adonis-like models who open the doors with pearly-white smiles. As the doors part, a scantily-clad male model comes into view with such perfect proportions that even Michelangelo would have wept with envy. The model is surrounded by Bruce Weber images that verge on the hom­oerotic. This is before you see any clothes.

Tom Lennox‘There's no question that sex is an imp­ortant part of what we do. When you think of Abercrombie & Fitch you should think of sex and sexiness,' says Lennox. ‘The brand will always have an edge to it. For some it is a big deal, for others it isn't. It is just fun to see how people react to it,' he adds.

The brand has never been one to shy away from controversy. On Saturday, one of its most provocative products will go on sale, exclusive to its London store. The A&F Quarterly, a publication that ran for several years in the US but was axed in 2003, created public outrage over its risqué tone and visuals. Content inclu­ded cocktail recipes for ‘back to school' fun, int­erviews with porn stars and advice on threesomes.

The most controversial issue prompted the then governor of Illinois, Corinne Wood, to call for a consumer boycott of the brand and saw four states threaten legal action against it.
When asked whether he considers it irr­esponsible to expose teenagers to such overtly sexual imagery, Lennox shrugs his shoulders and says: ‘It's beautiful. People need to relax.'

It is difficult, however, to forget research that links idealised images to low self-
est­eem, particularly among girls. But des­pite being questioned on the brand's ethics several times, Lennox does not betray any signs of irritation. Colleague Josh Burris, regional manager for Abercrombie & Fitch, concurs.

‘You cannot stress Tom out. He is in control and always prepared. He wouldn't walk into a room with ten media heads and be scared because he will have done his research and will know how to respond to their questions,' he says.

‘Professionally he is totally in tune with the brand and what [CEO] Mike Jeffries wants. He is good for advice if you want to hear where Mike's head is at.

‘He embodies a lot of what Abercrombie & Fitch is. He is athletic, active, positive, optimistic and sounds like someone you could expect to be hanging out in the
store,' he adds.

And 41-year-old Lennox really does live the brand. His friendly drawl trips with sup­erlatives. Everything is ‘cool' or ‘a lotta fun'. The blaring in-store music helps customers ‘feel the party'. He works on ‘campus' at the Abe­rcrombie & Fitch building in Ohio. This optimism and ent­husiasm is infectious and his knowledge of the company is clear.

He joined Abercrombie & Fitch in 2000 after a career in the financial sector and has built the comms strat­egy from scratch.

Lennox admits he created ripples when, just after joining the company, he wore shorts and a T-shirt to a business meeting with JP Morgan, who ‘had a stake in the company worth several hundred million dollars'.

‘It's interesting. You can look at us and say "well these guys look like a bunch of goofballs in their shorts and T-shirts", but we understand that there is huge and great passion for this business,' he says.

And the business is doing undeniably well. Lennox says the company has just achieved its ‘63rd consecutive quarter growth' in profits and it has plans to exp­and in Europe and the Far East.

Joshua M Schwartz, a long-term owner of the company, praises Lennox's knowledge, kindness and patience. ‘We have had difficult conversations over time. Never once did I feel rushed or hurried. I have always known Tom to take his job very ser­iously. But he executes his responsibilities in a very congenial, friendly way.

Whenever I have desired some bit of information or answer from Tom, it has come nearly immediately.'

Lennox denies that the brand deliberately provokes controversy to gain publicity. Instead he insists that the media pursue the brand. ‘It is not as if we are ever look-ing for attention. That is really not the goal at all.'

A recent example of this attention was when a policeman confiscated images from a store in Virginia because they were considered indecent. Lennox put out a statement defending the images that said they showed less skin than most people would see on the average day at the beach, and less than ‘a plumber working on the kitchen sink.'

‘I had a blast,' Lennox grins. ‘The images are tame. The whole scenario is completely humorous. We like to poke fun and have fun. We never intend to hurt anyone,' he says.
It is clear that Lennox enjoys - and is good at - his job and that he faces the controversy head on, with a smile. ‘I have learned over the years not to take it personally,' he says. ‘Some would say it is a nightmare, but we are in the business of PR, that is what we enjoy,' he says. ‘Bring it on.'

2000 Abercrombie & Fitch, vice president of corporate comms
1998 ABN Amro Asset Management, vice president
1992 Marsh & McLennan, assistant vice president

What was your biggest career beak?
I met Abercrombie & Fitch's COO while trying to make it a banking client. Although the deal didn't work, Abercrombie was looking for somebody to lead its comms practice, and I got that opportunity.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
Be selective when choosing an organisation; strong companies position associates to drive success through advancement. Understand expectations, be passionate about your role, and invite additional responsibility. It doesn't hurt to be scared either, but if you are not having fun, do something else.

Who was your most notable mentor?
I have learned more about running a successful operation from our CEO Mike Jeffries than anybody else. Although Abercrombie & Fitch was started in 1892, many view Mike as the company's founder. He reinvented the business in 1992, repositioning a confused and unprofitable company, which sold shot guns, fly rods and neck ties, to a casual luxury apparel lifestyle brand.

What do you prize in new recruits?
Abercrombie & Fitch is a DFZ (Diva Free Zone). We recruit intelligent, ethical and passionate people who work well on a team, put the brand first, and can thrive in our culture.

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