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Fashion's Dirty Laundry: Abercrombie & Fitch


The company that's suited up for lawsuits.

A recent ad for "Male Greeters" at a Gilly Hicks store, an Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) brand, stated that applicants "must have that great Abercrombie look!"

But what exactly is that "great Abercrombie look?" Good question.

Abercrombie & Fitch doesn't hire sales associates. They hire "store models."

The company's home page features a photograph of a shirtless young man, and the "gallery" of photographs is likewise filled with minimally clad young things. The uninitiated might not guess that Abercrombie & Fitch is an apparel company at all, clothes are so little in evidence.

The Abercrombie "look" is very young, very sexual, and, some say, discriminatory.

Not surprisingly, the company has had to deal with more than its share of lawsuits related to unfair hiring and management practices. In each case, the defendant has had to prove that the company violated Federal Equal Opportunity Employment laws that protect employees against discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, disabilities, age, and national origin. Hiring based on looks or beauty is, in fact, not illegal.

The retailer's most famous courthouse battle was the federal discrimination case, Gonzalez v. Abercrombie, which ended in a 2005 settlement awarding $40 million to defendants. The class-action suit was initiated on behalf of a group of nine individuals who charged that the company refused to hire Latino, Asian American, and African American applicants. The award applied to anyone of color who either tried to get a job or was employed by the company between February 1999 and November 2004. The company was also required to overhaul their hiring and employee management practices.

But the lawsuits haven't stopped. In September 2009, a federal suit was filed by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing Abercrombie & Fitch of discrimination based on religion. This time the suit was sparked by the claims of a Muslim teenager, Samantha Elauf, who was allegedly turned down for a sales position because of her head scarf. As reported in Time magazine, the case argues that Abercrombie "refused to hire Ms. Elauf because she wears a hijab, claiming that the wearing of the headgear was prohibited by its Look Policy." (The company purportedly gives its staffers a 40-plus-page manual describing acceptable employee presentation.)

  • Brandy Hawk, alledgedly was told she didn't fit the Abercrombie & Fitch "profile."

    Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Last year, a young African-American woman who worked for an Abercrombie outlet in New York sued the company for racial discrimination. According to the claimant, the company took exception to some blond highlights she had added to her dark hair. The former Abercrombie employee reported to the New York Daily News that she was told by a store manager: "I can't have you working like that. Either you can find a way to take the blond highlights out or don't come back to work."

And Abercrombie's legal problems aren't only state-side, either. In August 2009, just two years after the company opened its first London store, part-time employee Riam Dean was awarded GBS9,000 by the Central London Employment Tribunal after charging that her shop manager banished her to the stockroom because she wore a prosthetic arm. The Wall Street Journal reported that "according to Dean, she was asked by a company employee if it would be possible 'to keep you in the stockroom until the winter uniform arrives.' Dean then received a letter saying she had been 'erroneously placed on the shop floor.' "

An Ohio-based public company, Abercrombie & Fitch was founded in 1892 and started trading in 1996. The retailer has a total of 1,109 stores across all its brands -- Abercrombie & Fitch, abercrombie, Hollister, Gilly Hicks, and RUEHL No. 925, which the company announced will be closed by January 2010 -- in the US, 12 in Canada, and seven in the UK, with several new stores planned in Europe. It reported sales of $1.8 billion through September 2009, down from $2.3 billion at the same time last year. Its stock traded at just over $37 per share in mid-October.

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