What It Was Like to Sue Abercrombie & Fitch at the Height of Its Popularity
The new documentary, White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, is not just a nostalgia trip back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when potent-smelling A&F stores were found in malls across North America. The film, recently released on Netflix, tells a story of how the retailer—and its former CEO Mike Jeffries—turned whiteness, sex and youth into a multi-billion dollar brand. The retailer notoriously catered to thin women and muscular men, and workers say they were often told to recruit good-looking people from sororities and fraternities on college campuses. That same recipe of exclusivity ultimately led to A&F’s decline.
In 2003, A&F, which had nearly 700 stores including its offshoot Hollister at the time, was hit with a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of former employees and job applicants who alleged racial discrimination by the retailer. The plaintiffs said the company hired predominately white people and kept workers of colour off the sales floor, designating them to stock-room and cleaning jobs. One of the former workers who sued the company was Anthony Ocampo, who is a figure in the new doc. Ocampo says when he tried to get rehired at A&F during a summer break from Stanford University, he was told he couldn’t have his job back because there were “too many Filipinos” already working there.
A&F settled the suit in 2004 and agreed to pay US $40 million to several thousand plaintiffs. It did not admit wrongdoing, but agreed to improve diversity in its workforce and bring in a vice president of diversity. (Two years later, in 2006, Jeffries famously said that A&F targets attractive “cool kids” and that “a lot of people don’t belong” in the brand’s clothes.)
CB spoke to Ocampo, who is now a California-based scholar and writer, about what it was like to sue A&F at the height of its popularity, how he felt about the film and what, if anything, he thinks the company has learned since.
When did you start working at A&F and what drew you to the company at the time?
I started working there as a seasonal brand representative in December of 1999 when I was a freshman in college. I went from living in L.A., around many people of colour, to Stanford’s campus, where it was predominately white. For a long time, I felt I didn’t fit in. As an 18-year-old kid, I thought, maybe if I dress the part—all the white kids were wearing Abercrombie—I would fit in.
When did you first notice that employees of colour were treated differently than white employees?
At first, I thought that me being placed in the back of the store was just a matter of seniority. I assumed that everyone on the sales floor had worked there longer. In retrospect, I realized that the folks who worked at the front of the store tended to be white. The people in the stock room were people of colour, mostly Latino, regardless of how long they had worked there.
Things changed when you tried to get rehired for the summer during a break from college. That’s when you say the discrimination became more evident.
When I left, I was told by my manager at the time that I could get rehired, so I came back in June 2000. But when I went asking for a job back, they said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t rehire you.’ And when I pressed for a reason as to why, the brand rep that I was speaking to said, ‘I’m sorry, my manager said we can’t rehire you because we already have too many Filipinos working at this store.’
I went outside, and I played back the conversation my head, thinking, Did that really happen? I couldn’t believe it. I felt really embarrassed and felt a lot of shame—I should have said something back, but I didn’t.
You eventually joined a class-action lawsuit against A&F. How did you get involved in suing the brand?
I was telling my story to friends, and it just so happened that a friend who worked at MALDEF—a Latino civil rights organization—was interning for a lawyer who was working on a case against Abercrombie at the time. For me, I just wanted to tell my story—there was no part of me that was in it for monetary reasons. I wanted a chance to share my experience on a larger platform.
When you settled, Abercrombie didn’t admit wrongdoing, but it did promise to make changes, and eventually hired a VP of diversity and inclusion. What did you make of the resolution?
I was skeptical. There’s was no way that hiring one executive could change the culture overnight, but it offered a glimmer of hope. Part of me was excited about the fact that they conceded to hire a vice president because I thought it would send a message to other companies that you can’t racially discriminate. But in terms of my faith about Abercrombie changing, it was pretty, pretty small.
And incidents did continue to happen. In 2013, A&F was sued for firing an employee for wearing a hijab. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the company discriminated against a Muslim woman when it didn’t hire her because her hijab was against the store’s dress code.
When all the other stuff happened—employees not being able to wear certain hairstyles or wear a hijab—I was not surprised.
What has it been like for you sharing your experience again in this documentary?
I’m 41 now. What happened with Abercrombie was, at this point, more than 20 years ago. I’ve had years to process what happened to me and to heal from that incident. When I was asked to do this documentary, my first instinct was, This feels like it’s so in the past. In my mind, I was wondering if folks would even care about what Abercrombie did. And to my complete shock, when the documentary came out, I had folks from every period of my life—from elementary school to college—as well as strangers, reach out to me and tell me their traumatic Abercrombie stories.
What sort of stories did they share?
Some of the stories had to do directly with race, people feeling like they were let go from a job in a passive aggressive way, while other people have talked about class issues, like feeling less than because they couldn’t afford the clothes, or not beautiful because they couldn’t fit into the clothes. Sometimes with incidents of racism or discrimination, you think that you’re the only one. All the reactions I’ve heard sort of prove the point of documentary: The negative impact of the brand was quite widespread.
A&F has since rebranded, and its website and social media seems to have an emphasis on diversity with models of colour and different body sizes. Do you think the company has really changed?
I see that as cosmetic and as Abercrombie trying to salvage the profitability of their company. They never really reckoned with the past, whether it was not hiring a Muslim woman because of her hijab or telling Black people you can’t style your hair in a certain way, or all the things that happened with me and other employees. While Gen Z may have a different image of Abercrombie, for the rest of us it’s not like the diversification of the models now in any way erases the experiences we had. If you Google Abercrombie’s corporate team, it’s mostly as light as yesteryear.
In the documentary, A&F provided a statement saying that the brand has “evolved to become a place of belonging rather than ‘fitting in.'”