Looking 'Brand Appropriate' at Apparel Retailers Leads to Lawsuits

February 6, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The only way workers at the Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch can talk the talk and walk the walk is if they're wearing the clothes they sell.

That was the key allegation in two lawsuits filed against the San Francisco-based Gap and the Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch and a third against Polo, according to a news story in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The lawsuits against Gap and Abercrombie claim that the retailers pressure hourly workers, either through written policies or subtle enforcement by managers, to pay for clothes purchased where they work as a condition of keeping their jobs. The lawsuits claim that such rules violate California laws requiring companies to provide uniforms, defined as including clothing of a specific design or brand, to employees free of charge.

The lawsuits mirror a pending federal lawsuit that was filed in September against Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. (See  Polo Worker Challenges “Uniform” Policy ).

According to the Chronicle story, Gap managers criticize employees who wear non-Gap clothing, routinely telling them to buy and change into Gap clothing on the spot or go home. One Gap worker told the newspaper that he spent $500 on Gap clothing to satisfy managers after they hired him as a seasonal worker in December.

Gap spokeswoman Stacy MacLean said employees shouldn’t come to work wearing clothes with obvious labels belonging to competitors. Moreover, employees should look “brand- appropriate” at Gap and sister division Banana Republic (at Old Navy, employees are given T-shirts to wear), according to a policy stating that the company prefers, but does not require, that its own brands be worn, she told the newspaper.   Abercrombie & Fitch faces similar allegations.

In a similar pending federal lawsuit against Polo, Toni Young, 32, said she has spent more than $35,000 on Polo purchases since 1997 in order to satisfy alleged dress-code policies and keep her sales job at Polo’s Post Street store in San Francisco. Polo, in court documents, has denied allegations that its store employees are made to buy Polo-brand clothes in order to avoid being reprimanded or fired.

The California Labor Commission, meanwhile, says dress-code requirements as alleged in all three lawsuits, even when they involve typical employee discounts of 20% or more, violate state laws prohibiting employers from forcing employees to pay for their own uniforms. Such policies nevertheless are common among both high-end and lower-priced clothing chains, according to industry insiders and the California Labor Commission.