Walk into any upscale boutique and you'll see salespeople who look like they walked off the fashion pages. Retailers seek out workers whose look they feel will sell clothes. But can maintaining that look become a form of racial discrimination?
That's what the firm of Abercrombie & Fitch is being accused of. Abercrombie & Fitch, which once reeked of old money and Waspy pretension, is now the clothier of choice for the hip 25 and under crowd.
Its salespeople are young, attractive and -- it's been charged -- overwhelmingly white. Hiring only attractive people is not necessarily illegal, but choosing a pretty face based on race clearly is. Just how far can a company go in maintaining a certain look? Correspondent Morley Safer reports.
For a start, this venerable outfitter to the elite is no longer your grandfather's Abercrombie & Fitch -- where Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway prepared for safaris, and JFK bought his weekend look. After bankruptcy and buyouts a few years ago, Abercrombie decided on a major face and body lift. Out went the camping gear — and off came the clothes.
Abercrombie's image is now party-loving jocks and bare-naked ladies living fantasy lives. Nubile young store "greeters" stripped down during the holidays to boost up sales. Flipping through their catalogs, you now might wonder what Abercrombie is selling. Could it be clothes?
"Sex sells with any age group, and that's what they're trying to do," says Elizabeth Nill, a sophomore at Northwestern University. Elizabeth and her friends feel that Abercrombie & Fitch has a certain something.
"I would describe it as the all-American look. I know it's very cliché," says Elizabeth. "But I don't think there's really any other way to describe it."
In fact, she enjoyed shopping there so much that she is often asked if she wants a job. She says it's happened to her about five times, in three different stores.
And it's not by accident. Abercrombie & Fitch wants a sales force that reflects what's up on its walls -- cool yet seductive.
"The skirts are getting shorter. The tops are getting smaller," says Elizabeth. "That seems to be the trend and Abercrombie is going with that."
But Abercrombie & Fitch, the reputation that it once had was a very classical, classy look. That's long gone. Now, the provocative strategy aimed at teens and twenties has done wonders for Abercrombie's bottom line. And of course, the more parents are outraged, the bigger the sales. And now with more than 600 stores and annual revenues well over $1 billion, Abercrombie & Fitch has become just about the largest teen retailer on the block -- and a mainstay of "Generation Y" couture, and even its music.
But all that fair hair and skin has made them a juicy target. They're being taken to court, accused of racial discrimination in their hiring.
Does Abercrombie's all-American look exclude some Americans?
"All-American doesn't mean all-white," says Jennifer Lu, a student at University of California, Irvine and a former salesperson at a Costa Mesa store. Lu and several other young people say they couldn't get a job or were fired because their "look" was not consistent with the Abercrombie "look."
"It's dominated by Caucasian, football looking, blond hair, blue eyed males. Skinny, tall," says Lu. "You don't see any African American, Asian Americans And that's the image that they're portraying and that they're looking for."
Lu says she was fired after corporate officials visited the store, and according to her, didn't like what they saw: "A corporate official had pointed to an Abercrombie poster and told our management at our store, 'You need to have more staff that looks like this.' And it was a white Caucasian male on that poster."
She says shortly thereafter that several Asian-American salespeople were fired and replaced with white males.
Anthony Ocampo says blacks, Asians and Latinos were sometimes hired by Abercrombie, but he says "the greeters and the people that worked in the in-season clothing, most of them were white, if not all of them were white. The people that worked in the stockroom, where nobody sees them, were mostly Asian American, Filipino, Mexican, Latino."
Ocampo worked four years ago as a sales rep at an Abercrombie store during his Christmas break from Stanford University. He says he assumed his job would still be available when he returned home that summer, but when he turned up for work he found out he lost his job.
"'We're sorry. We can't rehire you because we already have too many Filipinos working at this store,'" recalls Ocampo. "Too many Filipinos. That was her exact words … I was speechless. I didn't really know what to say. I've never seen racism that explicit prior to that."
Cal State student Carla Grubb also says she was increasingly uncomfortable in the Abercrombie store she worked in: "When I did get scheduled, I would have to come in at closing time and wash the front windows and vacuum and wipe off mannequins. While I was washing windows and vacuuming and dusting, my coworkers, my white coworkers, were folding the clothes, which I wanted to do, selling the clothes, which I wanted to do."
There's a huge turnover of Abercrombie sales representatives. Most are college students, and the pay - just above minimum wage - certainly isn't the attraction. The attraction is they get to buy clothes at cut-rate prices.
Attorneys Bill Lann Lee and Tom Saenz are coordinating a class action suit on behalf of potentially hundreds of former Abercrombie workers and job applicants -- some of whom have charged that the company engages in institutionalized racism.
"We're not talking about a single individual who was denied a job. As terrible as that is, and as unlawful as that is. We're talking about practices going on across the country, at hundreds of stores, affecting thousands of students," says Saenz. "They want people who fit a look. An Abercrombie & Fitch look. And they've defined that look in many, many different ways based on race."
The lawsuit alleges that Abercrombie hires a disproportionately white sales force, favors white employees for the best positions and discourages minorities from even applying for jobs.
"If you're black and you apply for a job there, there's a great chance that your applications will be thrown in the trash bin," adds Lee. "You're not even gonna get to an interview."
The lawyers say that Abercrombie has a history of racial insensitivity. Just last year, they sold a T-shirt which depicted two Chinese laundrymen with the slogan "Two Wongs can make it White." Asian Americans were outraged and Abercrombie pulled the shirt from the racks.
A random sampling of their catalogs, quarterlies and Web site does reveal very few non-white faces. That in and of itself is not proof of discrimination, but it does raise the question: Do retailers have the right to maintain their own look in both advertising and sales force?
"There have been cases in which defendants have said, 'We wanna prefer whites. Because our customers are happier.' And the courts have said, 'Absolutely not,'" says Lee.
Have they heard anything from the company in terms of seeking some kind of settlement?
"We've heard that the company believes it is a diverse employer," says Lee.
Abercrombie would not talk to 60 Minutes, but in a written statement, they claim that the allegations in the lawsuit are false. They say Abercrombie has zero tolerance for discrimination, and that minorities represent approximately 13 percent of all store associates -- a number, which they say, exceeds national averages.
The EEOC, the federal watchdog of fair employment, says it cannot confirm the accuracy of those numbers. And Abercrombie says that because of the pending litigation, the company will not comment any further.
60 Minutes asked some former Abercrombie store managers what they thought. Andrea Mandrick was hired while she shopped at a Kansas City store. Dan Moon is a former model.
How does Moon think he got his job? "I think it [his look] was 90 percent of it. And your interaction with, you know, other people, was 10 percent," he says.
Mandrick and Moon say that when corporate reps would visit a store and spotted a sales rep that didn't meet their standards, they were told to reduce the offender's hours.
"I was sick of getting my schedule back every week with lines through names," says Mandrick. "I can't look the people that work for me, that wanna be there, in the eye and say, 'You know, lie to them and say, 'Oh, we don't have hours.' When really it's because they weren't pretty enough."
What happened when minorities came in looking for a job?
"We were told to say, 'We're always accepting applications And basically, then just file it away in either the yes pile -- you know, to call them back and get them in there for that group interview, or the no pile."
And she said they would end up in the no pile based on looks.
However, both Mandrick and Moon say they didn't feel that Abercrombie was engaging in institutionalized racism, but rather institutionalized "look-ism."
That may or may not be an important distinction legally, but lawyer and conservative talk show host Larry Elder says you don't have to be white to discriminate: "God forbid Dan Rather should decide to leave CBS and apply for an opening as an anchor for BET. He's experienced. He's telegenic. He's knowledgeable. But they say, 'Mr. Rather, look on the door. It says Black Entertainment Television.' Will he get a lawyer and file a lawsuit? Highly unlikely. There is a no-fly zone over certain people and certain industries that discriminate all the time."
Like ethnic restaurants, where the help is overwhelmingly of one race, or the modeling agencies where every model is undeniably beautiful, or even black-owned clothing companies like FUBU -- which stands for "For Us By Us." Elder says that FUBU probably employs very few white people.
That's not racism, says Elder, that's capitalism: "This is about a business deciding pursuant to its own best interests, rightly or wrongly, that a particular kind of salesperson is more likely to generate more dollars … It's all about the bottom line."
Elder says too often cases like these end up in court.
"A&F ought to have the right to set their own policies for good or for ill. Look, there's a restaurant called Hooters," says Elder. "Hooters requires you to have certain kinds of physical accoutrements. Is that -- will that do? And I think people understand that. Should they have a right to hire waitresses because they want to attract a certain kind of clientele who want to ogle at the waitresses? I think so."
But the young people who are suing say all that is irrelevant. They say companies like Abercrombie need to be reminded what being American is all about.
"All-American, their all-American image does not mean all white. That's not right. That's not legal," says Lu. "That's what we grew up learning all-American to be. All-American, a melting pot. Not all white."