"A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes],” Mike Jeffries told Salon in 2006 explaining the culture of the brand he was tasked with overseeing at the time. “That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. 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.”
That brand was Abercrombie & Fitch, of course, the traditional mall retailer known for its "clean and classic” apparel, its ad campaigns, complete with semi-nude models, and its explicitly exclusionary attitude. This is something Jeffries, who had been hired in 1992 to revamp the brand (following its bankruptcy and subsequent acquisition by Limited Brands in 1988), would freely admit. "Are we exclusionary?,” he asks himself aloud. “Absolutely.”
The rationale behind Jeffries' flippancy: "I don't want our core customers to see people who aren't as hot as them wearing our clothing."
Jeffries, himself, came of age in Los Angeles (hence, his bleach blonde hair and penchant for the word “dude”) before studying at the London School of Economics and Columbia Business School, from which he would earn him MBA. He joined Abercrombie from Paul Harris, a Midwestern women's chain at age 48. Despite his wildly controversial public dialogue about the Abercrombie's revamp, within just a few years as CEO, he had succeeded in crafting the retailer into one of the hottest brands of the 1990’s.
In its heyday, Abercrombie boasted a network of 700 dimly-lit and thoroughly fragranced stores, 22,000 strikingly attractive employees and nearly $2 billion in annual sales. The entrance ways of the individual stores were flanked with shirtless teenage boys, the walls covered with Bruce Weber-lensed ad campaign imagery of more toned and tanned teens. The music was loud and the offerings – A&F logo-ed tees, $90 distressed jeans and ripped denim skirts which went up to size Large (no XL for girls and certainly no XXL) – irresistible to teens that wanted to embody the lifestyle it was selling and could afford to do so.
The Look Policy
By the early-to-mid-2000’s, Jeffries had, irrefutably, taken the dusty 100+ year old casual wear brand and turned it into one of the most relevant destinations for the all-American collegiate types. In large part, Jeffries – who was bringing in $71.8 million in compensation as of 2007 – succeeded thanks to the wildly specific branding he put in place.
Abercrombie was an apparel business, with its relatively pricey mini-skirts and house-branded polos, but let us be clear, under the direction of Jeffries, the retailer was selling sex, first and foremost. And it was only selling it to " good-looking, cool kids.”
This is where the retailer’s now notorious “Look Policy” came in handy. Specific guidelines on everything from the color and length of employees’ hair to the specifics of girls’ makeup ("must be worn to enhance natural features and create a fresh, natural appearance”) to the length of fingernails helped to ensure that, as Forbes put it, “the sales clerks all looked like your biggest high school crushes.”
Treating hiring like model castings also worked to further this narrative: “Store managers would often approach attractive white customers who had the ‘look’ and urge them to apply for sales jobs,” according to Think Progress. It was imperative for Jeffries – who, according to Salon, made “every decision – from the hiring of the models to the placement of every item of clothing in every store” – that everyone from the greeters in the stores' entryways to the individuals behind the cash registers looked the part.
The "looking the part" requirement was observed so strictly that according to a lawsuit filed in 2003, any Asian-American, African-American, and Latino individuals who were hired by Abercrombie were relegated to stockrooms where those staffers could not be seen by customers. The retailer settled the suit a year later, agreeing to pay $40 million to put an end to the litigation.
That lawsuit was followed up by another headline-making case just over 5 years later when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Abercrombie after the retailer refused to hire a young Muslim woman, arguing that because she wore a hijab (in accordance with her religious views), she did not comply with the company’s strict dress code. Despite a ruling from the Supreme Court in June 2015 that Abercrombie’s “Look Policy” ran afoul of federal law, the company was undeterred.
Any doubts as to whether Abercrombie’s “Look Policy” – which was made clear via internal company documents and posters, such as its "Hairstyle Sketchbook” – was still being enforced to any meaningful extent after America’s highest court called foul were clarified when yet another lawsuit was filed against the retailer.
It was 2015 – one year after Jeffries retired from his CEO position in light of 11 straight quarters of same-store sales declines and after he was ousted as chairman of Abercrombie's board of directors due to investor pressure – when Abercrombie was hit with another damning lawsuit.
Former employees Alexander Brown and Arik Silva filed suit against the retailer in federal court in California, alleging that Abercrombie management required that its hourly workers purchase the brand's clothing to wear on the job. In doing so, Abercrombie was, according to the lawsuit, running afoul of various state labor codes, including those in California, Florida, New York and Massachusetts.
As Brown and Silva set forth in their suit, Abercrombie policy "forced" employees to buy new Abercrombie clothes “each time a new sales guide came out." The suit further alleged that the retailer failed to reimburse employees despite obligating them to wear a specific “uniform." In accordance with California, Florida, New York and Massachusetts labor law, employers are required to reimburse any employee that is required to purchase a work uniform as a condition of employment or business-related expenses. Abercrombie did no such thing, per Brown and Silva.
What started as a seemingly small-scale lawsuit filed by two individuals turned into a legal bombshell in July 2015 when a California federal judge held that the case could be extended to a much larger pool of former and then-current Abercrombie employees. Overnight, the lawsuit went from having two plaintiffs to potentially allowing some 250,000 different individuals to join the fight.
In order to avoid trial and further litigation costs, Abercrombie agreed last week to settle the case with a payment of $25 million into a class settlement fund, a portion of which will be distributed to plaintiff employees that were not reimbursed for Abercrombie apparel they purchased specifically to wear on the job. ($7.5 million will be used to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys' fees and an additional $1 million will be used to cover administrative costs and other legal costs).
According to a statement from an Abercrombie spokeswoman: "Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. has agreed to settle two putative class action lawsuits and a national collective action case, originally filed in 2013, alleging that the company required its employees to purchase its clothing dating back to 2009. At that time Abercrombie had, and continues to have, clear written policies and associate handbooks in place that stated its employees were not required to purchase or to wear company merchandise, nor were they obligated to make use of their employee discounts."
The spokesman further told TFL, "Abercrombie strongly contests the allegations, however, it believes it is in the best interest of the company and all its stakeholders, including its employees, to settle this matter."
As for Jeffries, he may have left Abercrombie in 2014, but his penchant for strict – and in some cases, downright illegal – branding techniques lives on. And as he put it during his tenure as CEO, "Do we go too far sometimes? Absolutely."
* The case is Alexander Brown et al v. Abercrombie & Fitch Co. et al,:14-cv-01242 (C.D.Cal)