We, the Underdressed: A Brief History of Discrimination and Indifference in Fashion Retail

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries' comments about the brand's strategy of only marketing to "cool" kids is another on a long list of fashionable injustices

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Scott Eells / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Shoppers exit an Abercrombie & Fitch store in New York CIty, on Nov. 12, 2012.

There are myriad lemonade-from-lemons issues embedded in the fashion industry, a situation that L.A. writer Greg Karber has already learned in the fallout from Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries’ resurfaced quotes about his belief that hiring good-looking people will tap into their desired (read: exclusively tiny) market of cool, “attractive all-American kid[s] with a great attitude and a lot of friends.” Karber recently responded to Jeffries’ personal, yet absurd business model by posting a #FitchTheHomeless video that showed him handing out thrift store-sourced Abercrombie apparel to homeless men and women on Skid Row in East Los Angeles.

Karber saw the lemons, and so did Jes M. Baker of the blog The Militant Baker, who addressed the eternally frictional relationship between plus-sized women and fashion in an open letter to Jeffries. Though that sector of consumers has seen more success than others in getting both noticed and getting results—in addition to specialty stores like Lane Bryant, retailers like H&M have begun embracing larger sizes—Abercrombie still refuses to carry women’s sizes XL or XXL.

Baker’s letter to Jeffries told him that, “The only thing you’ve done through your comments (about thin being beautiful and only offering XL and XXL in your stores for men) is reinforce the unoriginal concept that fat women are social failures, valueless, and undesirable. Your apology doesn’t change this.” Baker then posted a series of mock Abercrombie & Fitch ads, in which she and model John C. Shay sent up Abercrombie’s “thin and beautiful” concept by posing next to the title “Attractive & Fat.”

(MORE: H&M Praised for Using Size 12 Model in Swimwear Campaign)

Jeffries may defend his views until he dies, but his quotes serve as yet another “clothes: they’re not for everyone [though everyone must wear them]” quandary. Abercrombie, like many other retailers, has stores in malls and on street corners on both Fifth Avenue and Main Street, USA, yet they blatantly don’t aim to appeal to a majority of the wide audience of consumers that encounter the storefronts on a daily basis.

Those excluded, “uncool” kids saw just the tip of the iceberg during American Apparel’s 2010 “no uglies” policy scandal. The hoopla surrounding Jeffries’ comments have made them the next, though more than likely not the last, category of people either discriminated against or ignored by the greater fashion industry. Whether by circumstance or by design, huge swaths of consumers, from shorter men to minorities, have experienced the ubiquitous exclusivity of style, yet many have fashioned their own solutions.

Here, a look at how some underserved individuals addressed their fashion problems:

  • Minorities: Low-priced mall retailer Wet Seal has weathered several crises of discrimination in the past decade for firing employees that don’t fit the “white, blond, blue-eyed” prototype to which they hope to exclusively market. Nicole Cogdell, an African-American manager of Wet Seal’s King of Prussia Mall location, was fired four days after meeting former Wet Seal vice president Barbara Bachman in 2012. Immediately following Bachman and Cogdell’s introduction, Cogdell heard Bachman say, “That’s the store manager? I wanted someone with blond hair and blue eyes,” she told CBS Philadelphia. Following the incident, Bachman sent out an e-mail stating that “Store teams need diversity. African American-dominate, huge issue.” The e-mail also stated that though the King of Prussia lovation was doing well, Cogdell was “not right fit for the store.” Cogdell filed a racial discrimination complaint with the EEOC and was offered her job back, but filed a class action lawsuit when she saw that nothing had changed. This wasn’t Wet Seal’s first go-round with discrimination. Nine years prior to Cogdell’s termination, Wet Seal agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle a class action suit that originated when three African-American employees from a Philadelphia-area store filed a complaint claiming the company fired them because they didn’t fit the store’s image.
  • People with disabilities: Abercrombie & Fitch’s inclusion problem has also touched its surf-cool Hollister stores. The company labels itself as a retail destination that’s “all about hot lifeguards and beautiful beaches. Hollister’s laidback lifestyle and All-American image is timeless and effortlessly cool.” A recent lawsuit proved that the stores aren’t effortless for all shoppers. Earlier this month, a Denver-based federal judge ruled that the entrances to hundreds of Hollister stores nationwide violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications and governmental activities. Hollister’s store entrances feature steps that lead up to a mock-surf shack or -beach house’s front porch to enhance their Southern California-cool vibe, but they instead pose an insurmountable obstacle for disabled customers. Technically, there are side ramp entrances that comply with the ADA, yet plaintiffs said the ramps, disguised by decorative shutters, are blocked with tables stacked with merchandise. The ruling ordered the company to work with disability rights activist on implementing accessibility options at Hollister stores.
  • Shorter men: Jimmy Au, owner of Jimmy Au’s For Men 5’8” and Under, serves the opposite of the Big and Tall male population. Early in his tailoring career, Au noticed that men below 5’8”, an overlooked size by retailers, department stores and designers, needed custom suits the most, so he started catering to notoriously diminutive horse jockeys. According to Profile Magazine, until Jimmy opened his shop, then called Jimmy Au’s Tailors and Fashions, in 1971, it was not uncommon for shorter men to shop for suits in the children’s department. Now, Au’s store serves only shorter men and aims to tailor suits to make them look taller. His Beverly Hills store is the only designer-clothing store exclusively for short men.
  • Tall women: Au’s success is part of a thread that connects short-statured men with both tall women and busty women. 6’1” supermodel Karlie Kloss’ enviable struggle to find appropriate-length jeans inspired her to co-create two denim styles this year. “I’m freakishly tall, so finding pants that fit is something I’ve struggled with my whole life,” Kloss told Vogue earlier this month. “My secret to pulling off too-short jeans has always been to pair them with boots…and I really rocked the flood-pant trend for as long as I could!” The two new “Forever Karlie” styles, designed and sold through Frame Denim, have 40-inch inseams and a slightly raised waistband, which demanded a new approach to manufacturing denim. Kloss’ collaborator Jens Grede was concerned: “Nobody has ever done this before. It’s not just a case of making jeans longer; the entire proportion changes and denim factories had never cut that way before,” but high-end stores including Barneys New York and Net-A-Porter fell for the concept and will start selling the designs in June.
  • Busty women: Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss was once best known as Jerry Seinfeld’s much younger girlfriend in the ‘90s (she was 17 and he was 38 when they started dating). In 1998, she changed the conversation and sizing standards when she launched her eponymous fashion line. Shoshanna grew from Gruss’ frustration at the dearth of fashionable items that fit her trim physique and bigger bra size. “I found that there were not any wearable, beautiful clothes out there for someone with my body type,” she writes on her website. “I could never find a halter dress or strapless top that offered support for women who usually need to wear a bra.” The swimwear line that she introduced in 2001 features somewhat revolutionary sizing that emphasizes separates and sells tops labeled in bra cup sizes and not just small/medium/large, reinforcing the new standard of clothing tailored to non-standard body types.