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The rise and fall of Abercrombie’s ‘look policy’

Pedestrians are reflected in the window of an Abercrombie and Fitch store in 2013 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On Monday, the Supreme Court added itself to the long list of people who aren’t fans of Abercrombie’s “look policy.”

“This is really easy,” Justice Antonin Scalia said as he announced the court’s ruling in favor of Samantha Elauf, a young Muslim woman who said Abercrombie & Fitch denied her a job because her headscarf didn’t comply with the company’s dress code.

The majority decision said that while companies can have dress codes, they cannot act with the “forbidden motive” of discriminating on the basis of an applicant’s religious practices. The justices sent the case back to the lower courts for adjudication on whether the company did, in fact, violate job discrimination laws.  The company, noting that it has replaced it’s “look policy” with a more “individualistic” dress code, said it would “determine our next steps” in the case.

In many ways, the take down in the Supreme Court was just the final nail in the coffin for the company’s much-criticized “look policy,” which at one point dictated everything from fingernail length (no more than ¼ inch beyond the tip of the finger, preferably unpolished) to hair color (“sunkissed” highlights were okay, but no “extreme styles,” according to guidelines published by BuzzFeed in 2013).

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Muslim woman after she was denied a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch clothing store because she wears a hijab. (Video: Reuters)

In the years since Elauf was turned away from a job at an Abercrombie Kids store in Tulsa in 2008, the retailer has seen its sales plummet and its policies come under fire. By the time the Supreme Court ruled yesterday, it had been forced to drop the ban on “caps” that Elauf said prevented her from being hired, along with a whole host of other rules.

But it wasn’t an easy transition.

Abercrombie & Fitch hasn’t always been a preppy purveyor of clothing to conventionally attractive, well-heeled tweens. It was founded in the late 19th century to sell hunting supplies and for most of its history was one of America’s chief sources of frumpy safari wear.

When former CEO Mike Jeffries took the helm in the 1990s, he kept the safari theme and ditched everything else. He filled his stores with deafening music, wafting cologne and vaguely tropical furnishings. And teenagers. Lots of  them.

The new brand’s aesthetic was best characterized by the Bruce Weber photographs featured on early Abercrombie posters: lots of blonde, toned men in unbuttoned flannel shirts and blonde, toned women in bathing suits. The company sought to recreate that image in its stores, hiring salespeople, called “models,” who were stylish, conventionally attractive and often scantily clad as the models in the photos. Male employees were hired specifically to work shirtless — a job position called “lifeguard” at the company’s Hollister brand stores.

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” Jeffries infamously told Salon in 2006. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

“That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores,” he elaborated later in the article. “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.”

For years, that attitude worked. If you were a high schooler in the early ‘aughts, the “cool kids” were easily distinguished by their distressed jeans and the embroidered moose emblem on their polos. The fusty sporting goods retailer had become a multibillion dollar company comprising several brands: Abercrombie Kids, Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch and the now-defunct Gilly Hicks and Ruehl No. 925.

The company took flak for its oddly particular “look policy” as early as 2003, when it was the target of a class action lawsuit alleging that it preferentially hired white men for manager and “brand representative” positions. The suit was settled in 2005 with a multi-part agreement that included the creation of an office of diversity, the development of an internal complaint procedure and a payment of $40 million to applicants who said they had been denied jobs because of their race or gender.

But around the 2009 recession, when Abercrombie’s clothes became too expensive for shoppers, was when people really began to decide that its standards were too strict.

In 2009, a British tribunal ruled in favor of a woman with a prosthetic arm who said she was forced to work in a back room and then dismissed because the cardigan she wore to cover her arm didn’t fit with Abercrombie’s “look policy.”

In addition to Elauf’s lawsuit, two other Muslim women sued the company for its policy on headscarves, or hijabs. One woman said she was fired for refusing to remove her hijab, while another said she was never hired. Abercrombie eventually settled the case out of court and in 2013 amended its policy to allow accommodations for religious practice.

Meanwhile, body image activists were fed up with the company’s emphasis on serving only cool, thin customers. Though Jeffries’s “exclusionary” comment didn’t make many waves when it was published in 2006, it was thoroughly lambasted when it resurfaced seven years later after the store announced it would stop selling clothes larger than a size 10. More than 80,000 people signed a petition demanding that the retailer start selling XL and XXL sizes for women. Kirstie Alley said she and her children would never shop at Abercrombie stores, while Ellen Degeneres joked that the company’s ideal shopper would fit into a shirt roughly the size of her palm.

The company even managed to incur the wrath of “Jersey Shore” fans — in 2011 it offered to pay spikey-haired star Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino to stop wearing Abercrombie clothes (“We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino’s association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image” it fretted in a statement to CNN.)

Meanwhile, the company’s sales were plummeting. In 2009 it announced it would shut down its upscale young adult brand Ruehl No.925 because of declining profits. Other teen outfitters faced the same tough market, but the downturn was especially acute for Abercrombie because its conformist “cool kid” aesthetic seemed so outdated, analyst Wendy Liebmann noted.

“The sexy collegiate image fit into the age of ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘90210,’” Liebmann told New York Magazine, “but now it feels like it’s grounded in an era that’s at least 10 years old. I don’t think shoppers in the U.S. and Canada have totally walked away. But, as a whole, I think shoppers have moved on.”

Within the past few years Jeffries started making concessions. He amended the “look policy” to allow hijabs. He turned up the lights and lowered the music volume at Hollister stores. He reduced the amount of cologne sprayed in stores to precisely 25 percent less than the original amount, according to Bloomberg.

Even so, the company’s shareholders began calling for his ouster. In December of last year, after losing his position as chairman of the board and 70 percent of his pay, Jeffries simply stopped showing up for work. The following day the new chair convened senior execs in a meeting and told them that Jeffries had stepped down.

But the biggest change of all came this April, when Abercrombie announced a major overhaul of its look policy. It would no longer hire employees based on their physical attractiveness, stop requiring employees to wear only clothing made by the company, relax the dress code to allow employees to be “more individualistic” and (gasp) no longer station shirtless men at its stores to help lure in customers.

“We are focused on the future not the past, and there is complete alignment that these are the right changes,” A&F Brand President Christos Angelides told CNN.

The Supreme Court’s decision Monday came too late to do anything about the company’s stringent aesthetic standards. They’re already a thing of the past.