Abercrombie: The never-ending, exclusive frat party?

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Story highlights

  • 62,000 employees are suing Abercrombie over its controversial "look policy"
  • Sally Kohn: Despite claims of rebranding, the company's elite, exclusive image lingers

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)I have to admit I haven't shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch since I was a freshman in college. Even then, when I fell squarely within the brand's numerical demographic, I felt fully outside of it. I prefer not to dress like a frat party might spontaneously materialize in front of me at any moment. And I like keeping my midriff to myself.

So in order to write about why 62,000 Abercrombie & Fitch employees are suing the company, I first had to do some research. I went to abercrombie.com, and there I found everything I needed to explain everything: An excruciatingly handsome, white male model with a five o'clock shadow and an unbuttoned henley shirt advertising, "All Jeans $39."
    Sally Kohn
    This captures it all.
    The employees suing Abercrombie & Fitch in a California class-action suit claim that the company's strict "look policy" violated their rights. First, the company allegedly forced the employees to buy new Abercrombie clothes every time new sales guides were released, which the plaintiffs' attorney says violated California state labor codes.
    And second, the employees say the company didn't reimburse them for this expense, which basically means these workers paid for their own mandatory uniform. This also violated state law. (Currently, the company has provided no comment on these allegations).
    And about a week ago, the company also settled a different lawsuit after the Supreme Court ruled in June that the company discriminated against a female employee for wearing a Muslim hijab. Abercrombie defended its actions with its previous "look policy," but then claimed it has replaced its dress code with one that is more "individualistic" and is apparently in the process of rebranding.
    The company has said, "We have made significant enhancements to our store associate policies, including the replacement of the 'look policy' with a new dress code that allows associates to be more individualistic; changed our hiring practices to not consider attractiveness; and changed store associates' titles from 'Model' to 'Brand Representative' to align with their new customer focus."
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    I'm not convinced. The lawsuit comes on the heels of too many repeated legal and publicity challenges for Abercrombie. In 2013, as other retail lines were expanding their plus-size offerings, it became known that Abercrombie would not stock XL and XXL women's clothing -- allegedly because the company didn't want larger women wearing its clothes.
    "We want to market to cool, good-looking people," former CEO Mike Jeffries said in a 2006 interview. "We don't market to anyone other than that."
    Jeffries may no longer be the head of the company, but that doesn't mean the company's longstanding, clearly bro-ish aesthetic has gone away.
    Abercrombie has seemingly always wanted its consumers to be skinny. In 2013, Abercrombie's women's pants didn't go above a size 10 (they now are offered up to a whopping size 14, but it's considered "plus-sized," so you can decide if that's progress). In response to the revelations at the time, protests at Abercrombie & Fitch stores sprung up across the country.
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    More than a decade earlier, in 2002, protests also rocked company stores in response to racially insensitive Abercrombie T-shirts. One shirt read, "Wong Brothers Laundry Service -- Two Wongs Can Make It White." The company eventually recalled several shirts, with a company spokesman at the time claiming, "We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt."
    And only two years later, the company found itself in court, paying $40 million to settle a lawsuit filed by black, Latino and Asian employees and job applicants who accused Abercrombie of illegally favoring white people in hiring and promotions.
    Taken as a whole, all of these things made sense, right?
    There must have been no room in the "look policy" for Muslim employees. There were racist T-shirts on the shelves, but only super-skinny pants for women. Employees or applicants of color were arguably discouraged or downright discriminated against. And workers still aren't paid what many consider a livable wage (the average Abercrombie sales associate pay nationwide is reportedly $8.73 an hour, according to glassdoor.com, which means they can't afford to buy the clothes the company has seemingly forced them into buying).
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    Despite supposed rebranding and policy changes, the message is still clear: Abercrombie & Fitch is primarily designed for -- and marketed to -- skinny, well-off white kids in every sense of the word. And if you don't fit that model, it's likely Abercrombie doesn't want you -- as a customer or an employee.
    But here's the rub. Apart from the fact that Abercrombie's known pattern of discrimination violated several state and federal laws (as well as the basic American principles of fair and equal treatment), the fantasy that Abercrombie has been selling over the years is only afforded by such discrimination. Most consumers can only afford $39 jeans because average wages have been stagnant or in steady decline for over 30 years.
    These $39 jeans are only made possible through poor payment of workers -- whether in storefronts or in factories -- thus perpetuating the race-to-the-bottom wage dynamic. Meanwhile, elite, social imagery and beauty standards can only exist against a backdrop of discrimination. White, wealthy country clubs are seen as desirable because of their exclusivity. As is the wealthy, white country club aesthetic Abercrombie has been known to perpetuate.
    Does all of this mean that past (and maybe even current) executives, marketing heads and staff who run Abercrombie & Fitch are conscious racists, anti-Muslim or intentionally sexist? Not necessarily. Who knows? It might not matter, because the company's policies and practices intentionally (or unintentionally) feed into our social biases and hierarchies based on race, class, religion and body type.
    Abercrombie's "rebrand" isn't fooling anyone. If you want to know what structural bias looks like, this is it. Hiding in plain sight. Rationalized by the supposedl -benign motives of profit making, but in fact very clearly relying on and reinforcing discrimination and bias to turn a buck.