Update, Monday, 11:48 a.m.: See Abercrombie's response at the bottom.
Iconic clothing chain Abercrombie & Fitch built a multi-billion dollar brand on an extremely narrow vision of beauty -- white, affluent, rail-thin, fine-featured, decked in Ivy League sweaters and polo shirts. And now it's facing the consequences.
Following a spate of anti-discrimination lawsuits -- one of which launched in San Francisco District Court -- the company will have to change its "Look" policy to accommodate all forms of religious dress. Specifically, it can no longer penalize employees for wearing hijabs, which were long considered an affront to the company's "all American" ideal.
The court battles began in 2010, when a then 18 year-old Halla Banafa sued Abercrombie for denying her a stockroom job at the Abercrombie Kids store in Milpitas, on grounds that she wore a headscarf. Another Muslim woman named Hani Khan sued the company in 2011, alleging that she had been fired after a manager objected to her headscarf as well. Khan had stocked merchandise for four months in Abercrombie's Hollister store at the Hillsdale Shopping Center, matching her hijab with the store's gray-blue color palette at her employer's behest. But corporate brass in Ohio refused to compromise.
Now Abercrombie and its 68-year-old CEO may have to change from the inside out. Banafa and Khan amassed a hefty legal offense from the US Equal Opportunity Commission, Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, whose lawyers cited federal and state laws that require companies to adapt rules to fit their employees' religions. Khan's case was set to go to trial on Sept. 30, at which point Abercrombie would have to persuade the court that hijabs constitute a form of "undue hardship" for its business -- meaning look policies are so hopelessly tied up with the in-store experience that any deviation causes all hell to break loose.
Attorney Christopher Ho, who steered Khan's case on behalf of the Legal Aid Society, says he isn't buying it. "The law requires some kind of objective proof of hardship," he points out. "But they never did any kind of market research or studies to correlate the look policy with changes in sales or profitability." And that's where the defense foundered.
On Monday, Khan and Banafa's lawyers will hold a press conference at their Montgomery Street office to announce the details of the settlement. So far they've only disclosed that the look policy -- and the prepster look it's enshrined -- may have to change for good.
We're still awaiting comment from Abercrombie's lawyers.
Update: Here's Abercrombie's official statement on the lawsuits:
Abercrombie & Fitch does not discriminate based on religion, and we grant reasonable religious accommodations when they are requested. As part of our commitment to fair hiring practices and fostering a diverse workplace, we continually evaluate our existing policies. With respect to hijabs, in particular, we determined three years ago to institute policy changes that would allow such headwear. We are happy to have settled these cases and to have put these very old matters behind us. We are focused on A&F's positive initiatives, including our anti-bullying initiative, which are based on our guiding principles of embracing inclusion, diversity, value and respect for all people.