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Claims Against Abercrombie Detailed

Nine students say they were fired or not hired because they didn't fit the 'A&F look.'

June 18, 2003|Elizabeth Kelly | Times Staff Writer

There was a time when Jennifer Lu was the face of Abercrombie & Fitch. For three years, she worked nearly 30 hours a week as a sales clerk in Costa Mesa, peddling the company's self-described "classic American" clothing and accessories.

But in the wake of her sudden termination in February, Lu now contends she suddenly wasn't "American" enough.

Lu is one of nine college-age plaintiffs, all of Asian or Latino descent, who are suing New Albany, Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch Co. They claim in their lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco that the retailer discriminates against minorities who do not match the preppy, virtually all-white "A&F look." Six of the plaintiffs either were dismissed from their jobs or saw their hours reduced to zero; three were denied employment.

Lu, a third-year student at UC Irvine, said she had worked longer than any employee in the Costa Mesa store and had no record of performance problems. She was told she was being let go because of weak sales. But Lu, 21, attributes her termination to fallout from the corporate "blitz," an occasional event in which top managers visit locations to ensure compliance with company practices.

Lu said that during a late January blitz, a corporate employee directed a manager to a poster of a young white male and said, "You need more staff that looks like this." On Feb. 8, Lu was fired.

"I begged to get my job back and was met with a cold shoulder," Lu said, choking back tears during a news conference.

Eduardo Gonzalez, 19, a student at Stanford University, said he was told to consider a less visible overnight or stockroom job when he applied to be a clerk at Abercrombie's Santa Clara, Calif., store. He was later hired for a sales position at Banana Republic.

Abercrombie spokesman Thomas Lennox said in a statement that the company "prides itself on diversity" and that the company has a policy of "zero tolerance for discrimination." Lennox said the company had not seen the lawsuit and had no further comment.

The retailer, which operates more than 600 stores and employs about 22,000, has carefully targeted teens and young adult shoppers with its sometimes controversial advertising campaigns, which have included at times drinking instructions and sex tips. Last year, Abercrombie, which posted $1.6 billion in sales, was forced to pull a line of T-shirts depicting Asian caricatures after receiving complaints.

Abercrombie stock fell 76 cents to $26.51 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Dawn Stoner, a retail analyst with Pacific Growth Equities in San Francisco, said it is too early to tell whether the lawsuit would be damaging to the company.

"This is a high-profile company that has been the subject of ... scandal of all sorts, although this is certainly a lot more serious than racy" catalogs, she said.

The lawsuit follows a series of complaints filed by Lu and others with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which are still under investigation, said Thomas Saenz, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund who represents some of the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit, which seeks certification as a class action, does not specify damages.

"The real purpose is to reform this company and make sure it is a workplace that is in fact hospitable to all Americans," said Bill Lann Lee, a former assistant attorney general for civil rights who also represents the plaintiffs.

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