American Beauty: A Brief History Of Abercrombie's Hiring Practices

An Abercrombie & Fitch employee in northern California is alleging she was fired for refusing to remove her hijab, or headscarf marking her Muslim observance. Abercrombie's pursuit of a homogeneous army of "perfect" employees appears to have snared it again!

According to the AP, "the Council on American-Islamic Relations said Wednesday it filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint on behalf of Hani Khan." Khan says she was told she would be allowed to wear a hijab, but a visiting district manager disputed that. She says she was fired when she refused to take it off.

In 2008, an Oklahoma accused Abercrombie of refusing to hire her because her head scarf "didn't fit the chain's image." That lawsuit, filed last year, is still in progress.

Previously in the company's serious on-the-ground sensitivity issues: refusing to let a woman help her autistic sister try on clothes, for which they were fined $115,264, and banishing an employee with a prosthetic arm from the store floor. That employee, Riam Dean, was awarded £8,000 for unlawful harassment, although the tribunal ruled that she hadn't suffered disability discrimination.

Abercrombie & Fitch has a well-documented mission of selling its idea of youthful physical perfection, from the Bruce Weber ad campaigns to the employees that fit its ideal of American beauty. The company conceded that that ideal didn't include black, Hispanic, and Asian employees in 2004 when it paid $40 million to employees and job applicants of those demographics to settle a class-action federal discrimination lawsuit. They had been accused of "engaging in recruiting and hiring practices that exclude minorities and adopting a virtually all-white marketing campaign."

But the nominal inclusion of people of color doesn't seem to have improved things much at Abercrombie. An ex-employee told us last year,

There is a "style guide" that hiring managers get to see. It contains almost no text - just a few dozen pages, each with a full-sized color photograph of different ethnicities - a male and a female for each. They are supposed to serve as examples of the kind of people you should hire. Presumably so the managers will know what good-looking minorities look like. They're amongst the confidential files that are never meant to leave the office, but I'm surprised none have ever surfaced. (And all of the minorities, by the way, are as white looking as a person can be without actually being Caucasian).

And of course, our own Hortense saw the company's well-known obsession with thin women (as opposed to muscled men) in action:

When I was in the hospital for anorexia 5 years ago, I shared a room with a young woman who was so sick that she needed to be tube-fed 24 hours a day. She was at least 40 pounds underweight and looked like she was going to break. The week before she was hospitalized, she told me, she went to buy clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch, and the manager pestered her the entire time, begging her to apply for a job there, because she had "the look they wanted."

American Beauty: A Brief History Of Abercrombie's Hiring Practices

At Abercrombie & Fitch, this fixation goes all the way to the top, to its chief executive Mike Jeffries, whom after a visit to the company headquarters in Ohio, Benoit Denizet-Lewis described as follows:

His biggest obsession, though, is realizing his singular vision of idealized all-American youth. He wants desperately to look like his target customer (the casually flawless college kid), and in that pursuit he has aggressively transformed himself from a classically handsome man into a cartoonish physical specimen: dyed hair, perfectly white teeth, golden tan, bulging biceps, wrinkle-free face, and big, Angelina Jolie lips. But while he can't turn back the clock, he can — and has — done the next best thing, creating a parallel universe of beauty and exclusivity where his attractions and obsessions have made him millions, shaped modern culture's concepts of gender, masculinity and physical beauty, and made over himself and the world in his image, leaving them both just a little more bizarre than he found them.

Denizet-Lewis's visit to the A&F campus in Ohio in 2006 was a rare inside glimpse, but his access was hastily pulled after Jeffries was a little too honest:

When I ask him how important sex and sexual attraction are in what he calls the "emotional experience" he creates for his customers, he says, "It's almost everything. That's why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that."

Jeffries said he didn't care who he alienated in his pursuit of marketing to good looking people:

"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."

Points for honesty?

Woman Says Abercrombie Fired Her Over Headscarf [AP]

Related: Abercrombie & Fitch To Pay $40M To Settle Bias Case [USAT]
The Man Behind Abercrombie & Fitch [Salon]

Earlier: Abercrombie Loses Another Discrimination Suit
Banished Employee, Others Speak Out Against Abercrombie's Awfulness
Clothes Call
Abercrombie Banishes Girl With Prosthetic Arm To Storeroom Because She Doesn't Fit The "Look Policy"
Finally, Teens Don't Like, Or Don't Want To Be, Girls Who Wear Abercrombie & Fitch