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By Rianna Croxford, investigations correspondent
BBC News and BBC Panorama
Clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) says it is investigating allegations against its former CEO.
Mike Jeffries has been accused of exploiting men at sex events he hosted around the world.
A BBC investigation found an organised network used a middleman to recruit young adult men for the events with Mr Jeffries and his partner Matthew Smith, with some alleging they were abused.
Mr Jeffries and Mr Smith did not respond to requests for comment.
A&F – which runs about 850 stores worldwide, including its Hollister brand – said that since being contacted by the BBC it had engaged an “outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation” into the claims. It said it was “appalled and disgusted” by the alleged behaviour.
There is no evidence that the company was aware of the allegations of exploitation at sex events uncovered by the BBC.
It has previously described Mr Jeffries as the modern-day founder of the company, after he transformed the brand from a failing heritage outfitter in the 1990s to a multi-billion-dollar teen retailer. He stepped down in 2014 following declining sales and left with a retirement package valued at around $25m (£20.5m), according to company filings at the time.
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BBC Panorama reported that in the months before Mike Jeffries’ exit, a pension fund invested in A&F brought legal proceedings in which it claimed the company had paid out settlements after allegations of “misconduct” by its then-CEO.
A source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had seen internal documents describing payoffs for staff and agency workers who had complained about Mr Jeffries’ behaviour. The source said he did not know the nature of the complaints.
BBC Panorama asked A&F if the complaints were of a sexual nature, but the company refused to answer.
After the BBC’s published its investigation into claims of exploitation at sex events on Monday, A&F said it was “not aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct”, and that its new leadership had transformed the company into “the values-driven organisation we are today”.
The two-year BBC investigation uncovered allegations that Mr Jeffries exploited men for sex at events he hosted in his New York residences and luxurious hotels around the world, including in London, Paris, Venice, and Marrakesh.
Twelve men described attending or organising events involving sex acts run for the fashion mogul, 79, and his British partner Mr Smith, 60, between 2009 and 2015.
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 has identified him as James Jacobson.
IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
Rarely photographed, Matthew Smith (left) faced complaints about his unofficial influence on A&F, led by his partner Mike Jeffries
Half the men who told the BBC about their recruitment alleged they had been initially misled about the nature of the events or not told sex was involved. Others said they understood the events would be sexual, but not exactly what was expected of them. All were paid.
Mr Jacobson denied any wrongdoing and said men went into the events “with their eyes wide open”.
Warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual acts
Men who attended these events told the BBC Mr Jeffries and Mr Smith would engage in sexual activity with about four men – or “direct” them to have sex with each other. Afterwards, the men said staff at the event handed them envelopes filled with thousands of dollars in cash.
David Bradberry, then 23, said he was introduced in 2010 to Mr Jacobson by an agent who described him as the gatekeeper to “the owners” of A&F, but said there was no mention of sex. At 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.” He said he felt as though he was “paralysed”.
Looking back, he said this incident should have been “a red flag” but he thought Mr Jacobson “was just a creepy old dude that I wouldn’t have to see again”.
Mr Bradberry later accepted an invitation to a daytime event at Mr Jeffries’ former home in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island – recently sold for $29m. While there, he said he spoke to Mr Jeffries and Mr Smith about his aspirations to be an A&F model. Then, he said, Mr Jeffries held “poppers” under his nose – a drug which can cause a strong head-rush and disorientation – and later had sex with him.
Watch: Signing an NDA “felt like intimidation” – David Bradberry
Another man, Barrett Pall said he felt pressured into attending an event in the Hamptons in 2011. Then 22, he said he was recruited by an older model, who received a referral fee, to be his “replacement” for “some sort of sexual experience” with the couple. He said he agreed because the older model had financially supported him and he felt indebted to him.
Mr Pall said the older model told him “you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do” but suggested that “the further you go, the better”, and alluded to career opportunities. When he arrived at the event, he said he felt under pressure to “perform”. At one point, Mr Pall said Mr Jeffries was behind him, groping him.
“This experience, I think it broke me,” he said. “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.”
Barrett Pall said his experience left him feeling broken
The largest event described to the BBC was hosted in a private villa at a five-star hotel in 2011, for which dozens of men were flown to Marrakesh. The BBC understands Mr Jeffries and Mr Smith had also invited friends. Alex – who asked for his name to be changed to protect his identity – said he was a struggling model supporting his family back home when he was recruited as a dancer for the event, where he expected he would have to strip.
Alex, a straight man then in his 20s, said he was auditioned by Mr Jacobson, who praised his dancing but demanded he “finish the job” by performing oral sex on him. “I had debt, I wanted to support my family,” said Alex. “I performed the job and I was, like, disgusted.”
Thinking “the hardest part was out of the way”, Alex flew to Marrakesh for the event a few weeks later. But moments into his dance, he said, Mr Jeffries tried to kiss him. “I was trying to be in it without offending him. I was extremely uncomfortable,” Alex said.
Eventually, he said he went to hide in a back room where he fell asleep. Alex said he woke up with a condom inside him and feared that the champagne he had been given earlier had been spiked.
“When I put things together, I believe there is a very good possibility I was drugged and raped. I’ll probably never, never know for sure the answer of what happened,” he said.
Listen to the podcast series, World of Secrets: Season 1 – The Abercrombie Guys, available on BBC Sounds.
The Abercrombie Guys: the Dark Side of Cool will be released in the US on October 6 on BBC Select, available to audiences via Amazon Prime Video Channels, the Apple TV app and The Roku Channel.
A civil lawyer, who examined the BBC’s evidence, said US prosecutors should investigate whether what these “brave men” describe could be sex trafficking. Under US law, sex trafficking includes getting an adult to travel to another state or country to have sex for money by using force, fraud or coercion.
“There may have been evidence of coercion for some of the men, whereas others might not have felt the coercive tactics,” Brad Edwards said.
IMAGE SOURCE,BBC/GETTY IMAGES/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Events were held at Mr Jeffries’ Hamptons home, La Mamounia in Morocco, Claridge’s in London and the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in the south of France
He also said Mr Jeffries and Mr Smith might argue the men were consenting adults and the fact that some had engaged in commercial sex in the past was “a factor”, although he said past actions were “really irrelevant” to whether a particular commercial sex act was because of force, fraud or coercion.
“Given the stories of these brave men that have come forward, I think it’s very important that federal prosecutors look into this case,” Mr Edwards said, adding there was a “very high” burden of proof for prosecutors, however.
The BBC made repeated attempts by letter, email and phone, over several weeks, to contact Mr Jeffries and Mr Smith, inviting them to respond to a detailed list of allegations to ensure they were fully aware of the claims against them. They have not responded.
Mr Jacobson – the middleman, now aged 70 – said in a statement 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”.
He said he did not recall making promises of modelling opportunities. “Any encounter I had was fully consensual, not coercive,” he said. “Everyone I came into contact with who attended these events went in with their eyes wide open.”
- For details of organisations offering advice and support for issues relating to sexuality or gender, or with sexual abuse, visit BBC Action Line.