Abercrombie & Fitch Tries To Make Diversity Fashionable

By Elisha Sauers

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
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Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is known for many things: classic casual apparel, fresh-faced half-naked models, and gorgeously photographed catalogs combining those two elements. But, for the past year, Abercrombie has been selling something that doesn’t have a price tag: tolerance.

Last fall, Abercrombie teamed up with the Anti-Defamation League to create a diversity-training program called “A Campus of Difference,” aimed at student leaders on college campuses. The anti-bias workshop was inaugurated at Washington University, in St. Louis, and over the past academic year four more colleges participated: Ohio State; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Houston, and The Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement at Spelman College.

This fall, Abercrombie and the ADL will expand the college program, and unveil a parallel program for use in high schools. Todd Corley, Abercrombie’s vice president for diversity, said, “This is an important initiative for us because it helps us to support the dialogue among college students about the importance of appreciating difference.”

Abercrombie’s involvement in this diversity program initially raised some eyebrows, coming as it did on the heels of media and consumer uproar over some of its T-shirts, which were emblazoned with slogans deemed offensive to Asians and women, such as “Two Wongs Make it White Laundromat” and “Gentlemen Prefer Tig Old Bitties.”

Jill Stratton, the assistant dean of students at Washington University, was the liaison for “A Campus of Difference” when it came to her campus. Some of the students were aware of Abercrombie’s controversial T-shirts and were, at first, skeptical of the program, she said. “To be honest, I was concerned at first when I heard about the tie-in with Abercrombie,” she said. “But I was very impressed with the facilitators. Before they started, they were very honest. They told us, ‘Look, this is a response to the consequences of some of our actions.’ It’s a lesson that you should always be honest, be genuine and then move on.”

Deborah Stogel, the ADL’s director of higher-education programs, said that Abercrombie “wanted to do something in the community like this” in the wake of the T-shirt flap. “The idea was sort of happening simultaneously on both ends,” she said, noting that the ADL is “neither promoting nor endorsing Abercrombie & Fitch,” although all of the workshop materials feature the corporation’s name. Caryl Stern, the ADL’s associate national director, said that Abercrombie is demonstrating that it is a “responsible corporation” and that it is “concerned … about confronting bias and prejudice in the larger society and especially among young people.”

Some universities hold “A Campus of Difference” programs for their honors students, while others have used it as a training workshop for club or residential hall leaders. ADL training specialists with experience in higher education then guide the discussions among several smaller groups of five to 10 participants each.

The four-hour-long training program focuses not only on antisemitism but also on other forms of bigotry, including racism. The first activity asks the participants to list four different terms that they identify as relating to their heritage. Then, they must think of situations in which they felt proud or embarrassed about being one of those four terms.

“The program concentrates on who we are as individuals, celebrating individual identities,” Stogel said. “We do activities that show us how we create a campus that is accepting of all different people.”

When “A Campus of Difference” came to Washington University, some 120 leaders of student residential halls participated. Stratton said the experience was productive: “I mean, it’s not like if you put it in the oven at 350 degrees for four hours, you’re done,” she said. “It’s a lot more complicated than that. What this did was set the foundation.”

The next phase for the ADL and Abercrombie will be to craft a high-school version of the program to debut in the coming academic year. “This time around, we’re reaching a broader age range of kids,” said Stogel.

The high-school program will hone in on fighting hate crimes and acts of bias — particularly cyber-bullying, a relatively new form of harassment over the Internet that has become more prevalent among adolescents, Stogel said.

“This will be an ally-building effort,” Stogel said. “We want to teach students how to become agents to stand up for those being victimized.”

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