Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Abercrombie & Fitch forced to add color

Old news, but I've recently learned that Abercrombie & Fitch settled an employment discrimination lawsuit with its workers for $40 million. Interesting case, this one: allegedly, minority Abercrombie employees were shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that Abercrombie liked the sales staff to have a certain image, and that they viewed minority employees as fit for the stock room.

From the bare facts, it certainly sounds like the plaintiffs have got a good discrimination case. The settlement called for Abercrombie to implement some diversity and outreach programs as well as payout to the litigants, but please excuse me for not waving my poms poms here. Equity for the victims aside, this seems to me another case of misplaced activism. I mean, think about it: this is Abercrombie & Fitch here, the store of choice of white frat boys and sorority chicks -- classic Orange County apparel. You know that bleach they use for Wonder Bread? That's the stuff A & F uses to clone the interchangeable walking mannequins that ask you if you need help. So what in the world are these colored folks thinking working at Abercrombie when the store has spent tens of millions to market and brand their lilywhite image? Not knowing is no excuse. What did they expect? The studied multiculti-chic of (the United Colors of) Bennetton? Please. And frankly, why can't Abercrombie have the right to brand themselves as the clothes of choice for suburban white tools? (Sorry if I offend any Abercrombie devotees reading this.)

Stepped into an Abercrombie store maybe once. Thought the designs were flat and unremarkable, and the qualitity of its merchandise inferior to a retailer like Banana Republic. Worse is the vibe: place felt as if I walked on the set of Starship Troopers, with aggressive Aryans flashing confident grins everywhere you turn. Very unpleasant, and frankly, you can pick up better threads at Macy's. Last couple of years I've gotten some e-mails asking for a boycott of the store (due to some mock-Chinese outfit they had stocked). Boycotts seem to me the right approach. If you offended by this store's marketing strategy of pandering exclusively to tanned spoiled bluebloods (and those aspiring to be such), don't shop there and kindly tell your pals to not do so as well.

My friend Joanne made a good point, though: folks trying to get hired by retail stores are likely teenagers, and minority teens (Asian teens especially) are prone to wishing they were white. So they might not have the common sense to go seek work at Express or wherever. But you know what? Abercrombie makes a perfect introduction to the world of hard knocks. They might learn that, in the real world: (1) they are not white; (2) there are (some) white people who like to be with only white people; and (3) whiteness sells. It's funny how often you meet Asian people who don't understand those three fundamental precepts.

To spin it another way. During college, my girlfriend-at-the-time Caro...I mean, Sally Yeh once saw a help wanted sign posted by an Indian restaurant and decided to inquire within. She was told there was no opening. But the sign remained out for some time until (presumably) the position filled. By a person of Indian descent. Sally was semi-outraged, but shouldn't the store have the perogative to protect their ethnic image, for their business? I know some of my relatives avoid Chinese restaurants that employ Mexican chefs.

Employment law distinguishes between small and large employers, meaning that little mom and pop restaurants may (implicitly) discriminate in hiring while large companies have to abide by more stringent requirements. Legally, it looks like the plaintiffs may have strong claims. I'm glad they were compensated for enduring this alleged discrimination. But as a matter of politics, I'd have devoted those precious energy and resources elsewhere, like putting up sites that relentlessly mock the lameness of the Abercrombie look.

(This whole thing also reminded me of an article idea I had while dining at used-to-be-trendy fusion spot Slanted Door in SF: trendy fusion restaurant's ethnic division of labor as metaphor for the California workforce: Latinos do the cleaning and dishwashing, Asian cooks behind the scenes, and white maitre d's and wait staff. Of course, I never wrote that article.)