- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO

Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing chain that promotes a “casual classic American” look, has been hit with a discrimination lawsuit accusing it of cultivating an overwhelmingly white sales force.

When it does hire minorities, it channels them to stockroom and overnight jobs, says the lawsuit, which seeks certification as a class action.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by nine Hispanic and Asian plaintiffs, says that Abercrombie discriminates against blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

It says company policy requires all salespeople to exhibit an all-white “A&F; look.”

Catalogs and store promotional materials display models who are mostly white, according to the lawsuit.

“If you look at the material they put out, they are cultivating an all-white look,” said Thomas Saenz, vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He is one of the attorneys for the nine Hispanic and Asian plaintiffs.

“It is difficult to understand why, given that their target age demographic is even more heavily minority than the rest of the population.”

The company, based in New Albany, Ohio, targets college students with its upscale, casual clothing. Its Web site says it features clothing “that compliments the casual classic American lifestyle.” It has about 600 stores and 22,000 employees nationwide.

Spokesman Tom Lennox said yesterday that Abercrombie had not received a copy of the lawsuit, and he declined to comment on its specifics, but said the company does not discriminate.

“As a company that prides itself on diversity, we are dismayed by the lawsuit and take this matter very seriously,” he said. “Abercrombie & Fitch represents American style. America is diverse, and we want diversity in our stores.”

One of the plaintiffs, Johan Montoya, says a Canoga Park store refused to hire him because he is Hispanic, even though he had experience working at another store in the same mall.

“It’s one of those things I never thought would happen to me,” said Mr. Montoya, a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “We live in a day and age where discrimination is looked down upon so heavily, it was simply absurd.”

Abercrombie seems to court controversy. Its catalogs feature young models nearly naked in provocative poses, and cannot be sold to anyone younger than 18. Mothers Against Drunk Driving protested the detailed “Drinking 101” edition of the A&F; catalog in 1998. Illinois Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood started a boycott of the company for its 2002 summer catalog, “Wet, Hot Summer Fun XXX.”

Last year, the company was excoriated after it introduced thong underwear — emblazoned with sayings like “Eye Candy” — for preteen girls. After protests, A&F; announced it was canceling that product.

The company has been accused of racial insensitivity in the past. In the spring, it removed T-shirts from stores after complaints about depictions of two slant-eyed men in conical hats and the slogan “Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make it White.”

This week’s discrimination lawsuit was filed by the Mexican American fund with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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