Last fall, Samantha Elauf, a young Muslim who was denied employment at Abercrombie and Fitch because her headscarf violated the company’s dress code, took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. On Monday, SCOTUS ruled against Abercrombie, 8–1, declaring that A&F;’s refusal to accommodate a hijab-wearing applicant was a violation of civil rights law.
Elauf didn’t know about Abercrombie’s policy against headscarves; the Supreme Court needed to determine if it was Elauf’s responsibility to inquire for an accommodation or if the burden was on Abercrombie to provide an accommodation without waiting for Elauf to ask. The final call: it was on Abercrombie to provide for Elauf, not the other way around, and failing to do so constituted religious discrimination.
In a statement, Abercrombie said the case will go on and pointed out that the justices did not specifically say discrimination had occured: “We will determine our next steps in the litigation.”
So Abercrombie lost a battle. But could this loss help the chain win a retail war? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time Abercrombie rebounded from irrelevance.
As we noted on this site last year, the “cool” look once exemplified by Abercrombie’s preppy offerings and its blonde, white and athletic aesthetic is no longer cool among young shoppers. At its modern peak (which is to say, the second era of Abercrombie, after then-CEO Mike Jeffries revived the long-dormant brand in 1992), Abercrombie was raking in almost $2 billion in annual sales, with 22,000 conventionally hot employees populating 700 stores. Abercrombie thrived on a narrow definition of beauty.
As Jeffries put it in a now-infamous interview with Salon in 2006, “We hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that… In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends… Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
Repulsive as this modus operandi may be, there was a time, not too long ago, when it was smart marketing: when everyone was watching The O.C., when Mean Girls in their nearly-identical pink-on-Wednesdays attire reigned supreme, when sameness was the order of the day.
But 2006, in fashion years, is ancient history. Today’s teenagers are drawn to the cheap, trendy stuff on the shelves of H&M;, Forever 21, and Zara (though the human cost of such inexpensive, wear-it-then-toss-it clothes is devastatingly high). Looking like everyone else is so five years ago. And Abercrombie’s idea of utopia as, basically, an Aryan, Logan’s Run-like game of touch football that never ends doesn’t jive with the taste of the most racially diverse generation in history.
Sales at A&F; have been on the decline for years; stores have been shuttering across the nation. So before Elauf’s case was decided, Abercrombie was in the midst of some soul-searching. (Assuming corporations are people, why can’t brands have souls?) They killed the logo. They brought light into the stores and black clothing to the shelves. The nausea-inducing amounts of perfume amid the racks was taken down by a quarter. A&F; even tried to go in a hipster direction; this did not sit well with the preppy populace, Abercrombie’s core demographic. Besides, these are not the kind of seismic changes that rescue a dying brand.
Maybe, just maybe, this SCOTUS case will be a watershed moment for Abercrombie. Not only is their old mode of cool no longer cool; it is so uncool that it’s literally unconstitutional. Imagine a brave new Abercrombie where the employees — ahem, “brand representatives” — actually represent a huge swath of America’s teenage population. Imagine it being totally ordinary to stroll into an A&F; at the mall and be greeted by a girl in a hijab and a guy in a yarmulke.
Or maybe Abercrombie will continue its speedy, steady fall from power. But if you happen to be personally invested in the resurgence of Abercrombie as a cultural force, consider this SCOTUS ruling cause for cautious optimism.