Popular clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch is making headlines, not for their return to popularity among young people’s fashion choices, but rather for some very serious allegations of sex trafficking. Former A&F CEO, Michael Jeffries, and his British partner, Matthew Smith, are accused of sexually exploiting young men through a highly organized scheme. The company was widely known for its provocative marketing images featuring shirtless male models in the early 2000s and 2010s.
Jeffries, who was CEO of the clothing brand from 1992 to 2014, is accused of forcing male models to take drugs and engage in sexual acts with him and others for the chance to be featured in Abercrombie’s catalogs. According to the lawsuit, the models were informed this was a typical part of the casting process and were paid thousands of dollars after performing sexual acts against their will.
The BBC first reported on the allegations earlier this month after a two-year investigation. The BBC spoke to 12 men who described attending or organizing events involving sex acts for Jeffries, 79, and Smith, 60, between 2009 and 2015. The BBC conducted extensive fact-checking of the men’s testimonies, interviewed dozens of sources along with former household staff, and obtained documents—including emails, flight tickets, and detailed travel itineraries—supporting key points of the men’s accounts.
Below is a summary of the investigation.
Former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO’s Recruitment and Operations
According to the BBC investigation, Jeffries and Smith ran a “well-oiled machine” that sexually exploited models. This often took place at “sex events” held by the two men at Jeffries’ Mansion.
The lawsuit claims Jeffries used his position as the CEO of Abercrombie to recruit men seeking to model for A&F’s iconic catalogs and invite them to castings at his homes in New York City, the Hamptons, and other locations. Many of the victims traveled to New York, London, Morocco, and France to meet with Jeffries for these so-called “castings.”
Upon arrival, models were told that engaging in sexual acts was a typical part of the Abercrombie casting process. Half the victims said 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.
Eight of the 12 men who attended the events said they were recruited by James Jacobson, described by the men as the “middleman” or “casting agent.”Jacobson, now 70, would pay recruiters between $500 and $1,000 for every man they got to attend these events. He would then forward photos of recruits to Jeffries and Smith. Several of the men told investigators Jacobson and his other recruiters insinuated that these events would open up the possibility of modeling opportunities with A&F.
Most of the men allege Jacobson propositioned or sexually “auditioned” them, by requesting or offering to perform oral sex before being introduced to Jeffries and Smith. A personal “groomer” was hired to intimately shave body hair from some of the men attending the events, an experience some described as “dehumanizing.” All the men said they were required to sign non-disclosure agreements. They said they had little time to read it and were not allowed to keep copies, but understood they would be sued and their careers ruined if they spoke out.
When confronted with the allegations, Jacobson released a statement through his lawyer stating that he took offense at the suggestion of “any coercive, deceptive or forceful behavior on my part” and had “no knowledge of any such conduct by others. Any encounter I had was fully consensual, not coercive. Everyone I came into contact with who attended these events went in with their eyes wide open.”
The victims say they were forced to take drugs and participate in sexual acts with Jeffries, his business partner Matthew Smith, others connected to Abercrombie, and with each other.
A small group of Mr. Jeffries’ personal staff, who wore A&F uniforms, supervised the men—even during the sex acts—and handed them envelopes filled with thousands of dollars in cash. It is alleged that Jeffries funded the entire operation, including the money for referral fees, while Smith organized the cash payments to the men after sexual acts were performed.
Domestic staff who worked in Mr. Jeffries’ former Hamptons home told the BBC that events were held there regularly on the weekends. Some said that, for several years, they were instructed to leave the premises every Saturday afternoon. One former staffer said he understood it was because his boss was having “playtime.”
According to the lawsuit, Abercrombie company officers knew about the conduct and the company paid settlements to people who accused Jeffries of sexual abuse or harassment. The lawsuit alleges Abercrombie facilitated the “sex-trafficking conspiracy” as Jeffries continued to reap massive profits.
Victim Testimony: David Bradberry
David Bradberry, then 23, said he was introduced in 2010 to 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 Jacobson suggested Bruce Weber—then A&F’s official photographer—should take his picture.
Bradberry said, “[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.”
“I was paralyzed. It was like he was selling fame. And the price was compliance.” Bradberry said he had been made to believe “this is where everybody gets their start.” He remembers Jacobson gave him $500 “for his time.”
Looking back, he said this incident should have been “a red flag” but he thought Jacobson “was just a creepy old dude that I wouldn’t have to see again.”
Bradberry later accepted an invitation to a daytime event at Jeffries’ former home in the Hamptons. He said he understood Mike Jeffries was a “powerful man” who could “make his career.” Ahead of the event, he said Jacobson told him to buy an outfit with some Abercrombie & Fitch gift cards, which he said made it feel “legitimate” and “official.”
While at the party, Bradberry said he spoke to Jeffries and Smith about his aspirations to be an A&F model. Later, he said, Jeffries held “poppers” under his nose—a drug which can cause a strong headrush and disorientation—and later had sex with him.
David Bradberry said the “secluded” location and presence of Jeffries’ staff, dressed in A&F uniforms, supervising events meant he “didn’t feel safe to say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable with this.’”
He told the BBC, “These events directly affected my self-esteem. My twenties were filled with anguish and struggle, anxiety, depression.”
Victim Testimony: Barrett Pall
Barrett Pall was a 22-year-old model at the time he attended an event in the Hamptons in 2011. 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 Jeffries and Smith.
He said he felt obliged to comply as the older man had been supporting him financially and he felt indebted. Like many of the other men, he initially attended a “test run” with Jacobson.
Pall said the older model told him that “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 significant pressure to “perform.” He said, “How was I going to leave? I didn’t have a car… I had a chaperone sitting and watching me.“
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Pall said one of the victims was asked to perform oral sex on him as Jeffries and Smith watched. He said the couple then encouraged him to come over to the bed and kiss Jeffries. Two other victims recruited for the event engaged in sex with Jeffries and Smith later on in the night.
Barrett Pall told the BBC: “This experience, I think it broke me. 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.”
Victim Testimony: Alex*
In 2011, Alex—who asked for his name to be changed to protect his identity—said he was a struggling model in his 20s supporting his family back home when he was recruited as a dancer for the event, where he expected he would have to strip.
Like the other victims, he was auditioned by Jacobson, who praised his dancing but demanded he “finish the job” by performing oral sex on him. Alex said, “I had debt, I wanted to support my family. I performed the job and I was, like, disgusted.”
A few weeks after his “audition,” dozens of men, including Alex, were flown to a private villa at a five-star hotel in Marrakesh. During his “dance,” Jeffries tried to kiss him. After being extremely uncomfortable, he went to hide in a backroom. 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.
Alex said, “Michael Jeffries took advantage of people in a very vulnerable point in their life, especially when they’re around these big cities, coming from small America.” Jeffries was the “kingpin.”
Abercrombie & Fitch Respond
Abercrombie told the BBC that the company was “appalled and disgusted” by the allegations and does not tolerate abuse or harassment. According to the report, an unidentified lawyer for Jeffries said the ex-CEO would not comment on his personal life.
Bradberry accused Abercrombie & Fitch and Jeffries of violating a federal law prohibiting sex trafficking, among other claims.
An Under-Reported Problem: Male Victims of Trafficking
The allegations surrounding Abercrombie & Fitch, former CEO Michael Jeffries, and his partner Matthew Smith have sent shockwaves through the fashion industry. The revelations in this investigation paint a grim picture of a highly organized and sinister operation that exploited men for sex under the guise of modeling opportunities. While we’re appalled by these allegations, it’s essential to acknowledge the broader issue at hand here: exploitation of vulnerability anywhere it is found.
Though far less common than with women and children, men can be trafficked too. And unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding this situation are all too familiar. Men in powerful positions used their influence and authority to coerce and manipulate people in positions of vulnerability in order to sexually exploit them. The case of Abercrombie & Fitch underscores the fact that anyone, regardless of gender, can fall prey to such heinous crimes.
More than ever, young people need to be educated about what trafficking looks like in practice and be given tools to fight back against predatory behavior. Whether it’s sexual abuse or outright sex trafficking, the same tactics are used by predators to exploit vulnerability and trick or coerce victims.
We as a society must understand that trafficking and prostitution rarely look like the scenarios portrayed in films like “Taken,” “Pretty Woman,” or “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” Sexual exploitation often occurs in such a way that victims aren’t even aware that what they are experiencing is, by legal definition, trafficking.
By acknowledging the experiences of these survivors, we can contribute to a more inclusive and empathetic society that protects the rights and dignity of all individuals, regardless of their gender. We applaud the bravery of these men to speak out against their abusers. We hope that their courage empowers others to do the same.
JOIN THE FIGHT – We’re an organization that fights trafficking and sexual exploitation, but we do things a bit differently than most. In addition to assisting victims, our goal is to uproot the whole system of exploitation and cut it off at the source.
That’s why we focus on creating films that expose the sexual injustices which pervade our world, launching campaigns that activate millions in fighting exploitation, and walking alongside survivors of exploitation on their journey to freedom. Check out our films at exoduscry.com/watch.
To hear more survivor stories, check out our podcast – with new episodes released every other week.