Abercrombie & Fitch does it again

The clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch recently forked out $71,000 to settle a lawsuit over a hijab, according to The Guardian. Two respective judges determined that the retailer fired a Muslim from a California store and refused to hire another California woman because neither would remove their hijabs during work.

I have to admit to a certain smug satisfaction at the news. Any time this company has to pay for its snobbiness, I’m happy. Abercrombie & Fitch is notorious for its exclusionary practices, but they don’t seem to be learning. Or perhaps the more accurate evaluation would be that they just don’t care.

$71,000 is chump change for the brand. They paid out $40 million in a much larger 2004 lawsuit to settle a federal discrimination complaint by employees and applicants of color. That doesn’t seem to have changed anything when it comes to the company’s core values.

With a CEO like Mike Jeffries, you kind of understand why. In a 2006 interview with Salon, the then-61-year-old made it clear where his company’s priorities lie: “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he said. “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.”

He doesn’t have any qualms about admitting his clothes are only for that wholesome “all-American” kid—which, from their advertising, basically means a chiseled, pouty white one—so, it shouldn’t be surprising that his company keeps trying to exclude the less-desirables until a court makes them stop. He’s willing to put his money where his mouth is, and you get the distinct impression that paying a fine for the right to be exclusionary is far less trouble for the man than changing his philosophy and making clothes for everyone. Now that would just be unthinkable.

The problem is, it seems to work. Abercrombie & Fitch has weathered the storms of controversy, and though its sales have lagged in this tough economy, it still commands an eager, faithful following. That’s probably because its marketing strategy lines up with a philosophy that millions of high schoolers learn early on—to fit in, you’ve got to be popular, and to be popular, you have to look perfect. The company unsubtly taps into that need and persuades its marketplace that a little moose makes a huge difference.

Hijabs do not fall into Jeffries’ realm of perfection by any stretch of the imagination. The lawsuit claimed that employee Hani Khan was fired “…when the company determined hijabs violated the company’s ‘look policy’ and detracted from its brand.” I mean, what could detract from that all-American “look” more than a Muslim headscarf? A bleached-blonde surfer dude with a leather cross necklace peeking through his tight-fitting polo shirt, on the other hand—now, that’s perfection.

The company put out a statement saying, “Abercrombie & Fitch does not discriminate based on religion…” You can almost see Jeffries rolling his eyes as his publicist delivered the official company line. If he’d had his way, no doubt he would have added, “except when it’s a religion that we don’t like.”

Let’s face it. Abercrombie & Fitch isn’t going to change anytime soon. Its ethos is such that money covers a multitude of sins, and it spreads this message through its image and its business practices. We should probably just get used to headlines like “Abercrombie & Fitch settles lawsuit.” People will call for boycotts. The company will apologize, and once the dust—or headache-inducing cologne that seeps out of its storefronts—settles, the clothes will sell, and so will what they stand for.

We can only hope that at some point the lawsuits will suck the retailer dry and it will finally have to admit that, in the end, the low waistbands of its jeans and the disappearing hemlines of its skirts do not an all-American make. The size of one’s heart and the breadth of one’s character decide the type of person you’ll become, and the sooner we all learn that, the better we will make this world.

Hopefully, its 68-year-old CEO will learn it one day too.