In 1992, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries took a staid, century-old sporting apparel store, injected it with teenage hormones, and grew the rejuvenated company into a multibillion-dollar retail chain. He has also personally discouraged unattractive, unpopular, and overweight customers from shopping at Abercrombie, and during Jeffries’ tenure as chief executive, the company has faced numerous discrimination lawsuits.
Abercrombie’s most recent stain came earlier this month when a federal judge ruled the company had unlawfully fired a 19-year-old Muslim worker for wearing an Islamic headscarf, or hijab. Umme-Hani Khan began as a stockroom worker at Hollister, an Abercrombie subsidiary, in October 2009. Khan would spend most of her time unpacking boxes and folding clothes in the stockroom, making occasional forays onto the sales floor to display merchandise. But before starting her job, Khan had to agree to abide by Abercrombie’s notorious “Look Policy,” a set of rigid grooming and fashion guidelines to help employees achieve the “all-American look” the company treasures as the spirit of its brand.
Though Khan had worn a headscarf to her interview, her employment was conditioned on an understanding that she wouldn’t wear it at work. She did anyway. Her supervisors at the store struck a compromise: Khan could wear the headscarf as long as it matched company colors. This arrangement continued without incident for four months until a district manager visited the store one day and reported Khan. When she refused to remove the religious headscarf, Khan was fired.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up her case in March 2010. After more than a year of failed efforts to reach a settlement agreement, the EEOC filed Khan’s suit against Abercrombie in June 2011. The plaintiffs claimed Abercrombie’s discrimination of Khan violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to accommodate a worker’s religious belief or practice unless doing so would be an “undue hardship.” Abercrombie argued Khan’s headscarf undermined its in-store marketing strategy and “negatively affected the brand” by deviating from the Look Policy. In other words, the $2.83 billion retail store couldn’t afford the undue hardship of letting Khan wear a hijab.
District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed Abercrombie’s argument, saying “Abercrombie failed to proffer any evidence from those four months showing a decline in sales in the Hillsdale [Calif.] store; customer complaints or confusion; or brand damage linked to Khan’s wearing of a hijab.” She also slapped down Abercrombie’s other argument—that its Look Policy is constitutionally protected free speech. Yes, you read that right: Abercrombie argued Khan and her co-workers were “living advertisements” and therefore their appearance is protected commercial speech. The judge politely called it a “novel argument”—with no legal authority whatsoever.
Khan’s case is just the latest example of Abercrombie and its CEO debasing employees and potential customers in the name of all-American branding. In 2005 the company agreed to pay $40 million in a class-action settlement to African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and women who Abercrombie either didn’t promote or didn’t hire in the first place because of their race or gender. “This agreement promises to transform this company, whose distinctiveness will no longer stem from an all-white image and workforce,” Thomas A. Saenz, vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said after the 2005 settlement was announced. Clearly his optimism was misplaced, as Khan’s and other subsequent cases show.
Hostility to those outside the company’s conventional definition of attractiveness is unlikely to change while Jeffries is at the helm. In a 2006 interview, Jeffries made clear that America’s unattractive, overweight, or otherwise undesirable teens should shop elsewhere. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”
Jeffries apologized for the quote in May after Business Insider dug it up for an article about Abercrombie’s refusal to stock XL- or XXL-sized women’s clothes, and celebrities kept up the pressure. A petition calling on Jeffries to “stop telling teens they aren’t beautiful” and make clothes for teens of all sizes has garnered more than 80,000 signatures. Has the marketing strategy that grew Abercrombie from its $16-per-share initial public offering in 1996 to a globally recognized brand begun to alienate customers?
Given that more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2010, that means only 70 percent of the potential teen market can fit into Abercrombie & Fitch clothes, writes retail analyst Barbara Farfan. Crunching data from Pew Research and market research from Dove, Farfan reasons that only 41 percent of the potential teen market that can fit into Abercrombie clothes fit Jeffries’ definition of “all-American,” and only 9 percent of that group considers themselves to be the "good-looking" customers Abercrombie actively seeks.
Maybe that’s why sales are flagging. “With every public statement, every hiring decision, every look book guideline, … every lawsuit, and every news commentary about every one of those things,” Farfan argues, “the identity of the Abercrombie & Fitch brand gets a little clearer and the size of the Abercrombie & Fitch target market gets a little smaller.” she writes. Jeffries’ contract is set to expire in February. It’s time the company finds a new top executive and restyles its brand.