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The Colors of Perfection

More than most retailers, Abercrombie & Fitch has relied on the look of its models, as much as its clothes, to push its trendy merchandise. Store walls bear larger-than-life posters of gorgeous models with tousled blond hair and flawless bodies. Its sales catalogs are crammed with sexy young things cavorting nearly naked. The brand name has even become a shorthand reference among the young -- immortalized in pop music and celebrity interviews -- for a certain type of physical perfection. That sort of image manipulation has helped make Abercrombie & Fitch, with $1.7 billion in sales last year, a big fish in a very crowded pond.

Now, while the fashions might stay the same, the chain’s retail game is about to change. The company built its recent success on the appeal of its so-called classic American look to a white-bread, suburban, collegiate crowd. But Abercrombie & Fitch settled an employment discrimination suit last week by agreeing to add more blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans to its sales staff, advertisements and catalogs.

Its niche-specific appeals might be savvy marketing, but carrying that strategy to the sales floor looks a lot like discrimination. That’s why the company has promised to spend $50 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by former and prospective minority employees who claim that its branding campaign led to an “appearance policy” that relegated minority applicants to the back of the store, unpacking boxes and vacuuming floors while whites were solicited for sales jobs at fraternity parties on college campuses and in suburban shopping malls.

Abercrombie & Fitch has admitted no wrongdoing; its chairman says the company has “no tolerance for discrimination.” But the firm has agreed to create an office of diversity, monitor hiring and promotions, and hire “diversity recruiters” to help attract black, Latino and Asian American employees. This is the same company that, two years ago, was forced by public protests to yank from shelves a series of shirts mocking Asians. It has stayed oblivious to the growing diversity of youth culture, all the while touting its “natural classic American style.”

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The expensive legal compromise might turn out to be a stroke of business genius for the century-old company, with its WASP-y roots and preppy profile. The teen market is notoriously fickle and evolving. Abercrombie’s suburban demographic is not beyond the reach of Snoop Dogg and J.Lo, or blind to the multiethnic melange of BET’s music videos and MTV’s popular “Real World” show. Welcome, Abercrombie & Fitch, to a different century where “all American” no longer signifies blue-eyed and blond.


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