In 2008, fashion blogger Samantha Elauf was denied a job at an Abercrombie and Fitch retail store because she wore a hijab as a part of her Muslim identity. Elauf filed a lawsuit against the company for religious discrimination and won.
When Samantha interviewed for a sales position at Abercrombie and Fitch, she was told by the interviewer that her headscarf was in violation of Abercrombie and Fitch’s “look policy”. It didn’t adhere to the “East Coast collegiate style” the company obsessively upholds. It was purely on the grounds of her headscarf that she was denied the job. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up her case and sued Abercrombie for religious discrimination for failing to accommodate Samantha’s religious practice, even if she hadn’t explicitly asked to be accommodated.
Abercrombie is infamous for the way it has excluded different types of people from wearing its brand. Former-CEO Mike Jeffries proudly admitted in a 2006 interview for Salon that the company is exclusionary: “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.”
Who isn’t considered “cool” enough to represent the brand? Basically anyone who doesn’t fit Jeffries’ mythical model of thin, beautiful, collegiate, wealthy, all-American (what does that even mean?), cool-kid with a ton of friends and a great attitude. Headscarf-wearing Muslim women and women who wear sizes above L (because Jeffries reportedly didn’t want “larger people shopping in his store”) are not “cool” enough by his standards.
But there’s only so far Abercrombie can be exclusionary. Under U.S. Law, employers cannot refuse employment to a job applicant on the basis of the applicant’s religious beliefs. Employers must try to accommodate the applicant’s religious beliefs and practices, unless it causes undue hardship.
There are many cases of Abercrombie discriminating against people who don’t fit the company’s strict (and just downright ridiculous) look policy. In 2010, Umme-Hani Khan, an employee of Abercrombie was asked to take off her hijab because it conflicted with the company’s dress code, despite it being a part of her religious beliefs. Khan refused and was fired from her job. Another Abercrombie employee, Anna Zakhlyebayeva, was forced to take off her cross pendant which was an expression of her faith.
The company’s offensive branding policies have been steadily backfiring. Last year, Mike Jeffries resigned as CEO due to the bad press the company received and its financial decline. And while Abercrombie has reportedly made changes to its dress code and is striving to be more inclusive, it might just be too little and too late. Company sales continue to plummet. Shareholders are losing trust in the company. Most significant of all: Fitch just isn’t cool anymore. The public’s tolerance for discrimination has reached a limit. Other brands that are doing well in the teen-young adult demographic, such as H&M and Forever 21, have expanded to be more inclusive, introducing plus-sized models, larger sizes, as well as more affordable fashion. In a trend toward inclusivity and body-positivity, Abercrombie has fallen far behind, with shoppers going elsewhere for fashion.
So how did things turn out for Samantha Elauf? This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favour and against Abercrombie and Fitch, setting a precedent for religious discrimination cases: employers cannot discriminate based on an applicant’s religious belief or practice even if an applicant does not explicitly ask to be accommodated. She currently works at Urban Outfitters as a store manager, is a Simon Style Setter, and has a pretty rad fashion blog.