The incredibly true story of how I got involved with one of the Whitest, most horrible companies on the planet Earth. And how I got out.
2008 was a tough year for a college graduate. Our country was in an economic recession and finding a job was super challenging. I had decided to study Psychology but upon graduation, I had no idea on what to do with my degree. My dad had just passed and I was also grieving that loss. I wasn’t ready for graduate school just yet and so I decided to move to Georgia with my boyfriend at the time and find a job there. There just had to be something, I thought.
I had known about Abercrombie and Fitch mostly from my high school years. I grew up in a predominantly White suburb of South Jersey and although I had gone to a very racially diverse Catholic school up until 8th grade, high school was where my parents drew the line on paying tuition and sent my somewhat sheltered ass to the public high school… which just happened to be one of the largest populated high schools in our county. And I was none too pleased with the change. But that’s beyond the point. It was in high school that I learned how to dress for school. I had spent all my school years in a uniform and when I did have dress down days, I was heavily inspired by basketball, hip hop styles. However, once I got into high school, I learned that that wasn’t going to fly if I was going to make friends. This was the early 2000s, friends. Image was everything. Image is what attracted other people to you. And in 2000, in my freshman year, I had none! Upon entering high school and journeying through my freshman year, I learned of many popular trends including the boxy Guess purse, the heavy eye makeup, and the halls and halls of Abercrombie and Fitch. And if you were anyone cool, and had a little bit of money, you stayed in Abercrombie and Fitch.
Fast forward to my college years. I maybe had a few A&F pieces but as I opted to attend an HBCU (historically Black college/university) I didn’t really wear them on campus. And I had all but forgotten about the store and the brand as I went through my college years. I remember coming home a couple times over the course of my senior year. The first time I got recruited by Abercrombie was during Christmas break. Someone dressed in Hollister, an A&F store, approached me in the mall and complimented my look and asked if I would be interested in working for the brand. I politely declined, stating I was home for the holidays and I would be returning to Florida soon. I was flattered, as I hadn’t been used to some random person coming up to me out of nowhere and complimenting me on how nice I looked. I would soon learn why this happened. The second time I was recruited was in Florida. I was at the mall with some friends and someone approached all of us to see if we would be interested in working at A&F. I thought it strange this time. Not one of us was wearing a stitch of A&F or Hollister and we were nowhere near the store. It was the second time that a white girl had approached me directly to ask if I wanted a job, just out of nowhere. I was curious as to why. I never gave off any vibes that I could tell would make me a good fit to work in that particular retail store. I would soon find out.
The third, and final time I was recruited by A&F, I was walking the mall in Cobb County, Georgia. I had just moved to the state after graduation. The woman approached me and asked me the question I had heard twice before.
“I have a degree,” I responded. “But thank you.”
To that she smiled widely and stated that I could interview for a manager in training position. That the leadership positions in the stores were reserved for those with college degrees and said I would be a perfect fit. All this without even having talked to me for more than a few seconds. There was no avoiding it anymore. I didn’t have much of an excuse, and as much as I despised the idea of working in retail, I also hated the idea of not having money. And figuring that I didn’t have much choice in the current economy, I relented and agreed to come in for an interview.
I interviewed twice in two different locations. The first interview went well, I think, but the district manager obviously was unimpressed because I never heard from her again. The second interview went much better. It was more of a conversation if I remember correctly and I felt super comfortable with this district manager. Within the week, I was offered a job and was more or less relieved that I was going to finally have a way to support myself and help get my boyfriend and I a place of our own.
That good feeling did not last very long.
Abercrombie and Fitch has a long history of priding itself on exclusion. They were a brand for a very few chosen people. People who reflected coolness and that “All-American” look and lifestyle. The clothes were expensive, with stores never having sales. Whenever someone would ask if we were having a sale or if we honored various discounts, I was coached to tell customers that we have a clearance room in the back of our stores and that accounted for any special sales that we might have otherwise had during the year. A&F also had a history of being very White. In fact, before I joined the company, back in 2003, A&F was the defendant in a class action lawsuit that accused the brand of deliberately firing, not hiring, or the blatantly racist treatment of people of color. Abercrombie settled this lawsuit but part of the settlement decreed that they had to make changes to their diversity and inclusion effort, a department they never had until after the lawsuit was settled. When I was hired in 2008, much of our role as managers was to ensure we were still hiring people who had “the look.” We just had to put a little more effort into finding people of color too. It wasn’t hard in a place like Atlanta. The city, and its surrounding suburbs, was rich in cultural and racial diversity. When I was hired, I was the second Black woman on our store’s leadership team. Much of our interviewing process focused on questions about diversity i.e. what does diversity mean to you? Whenever we knew a more senior manager was visiting, we still had to ensure our best looking people were scheduled for the day but now it was like “well make sure we have some diversity on the floor as well. I remember one big visit where we pulled our more experienced “impact” or stockroom employees out on the floor to be a model for the day, much to her chagrin, simply because she was a cute, Black girl. And most of our models were still very white. To be clear, our employees who worked the floor were called models. This foolishness was implemented so that we could legally hire people, and subsequently give them more hours, based on how they looked. After our open interviews, we often had to judge the folks who interviewed for the model position on how “cool” they were, aka, how beautiful, cute, or handsome they looked. But now, with the diversity decree in place, we had to really make an effort to bring on talent that reflected the diversity of our hometown. I won’t say that we had a quota to meet, but we had a quota to aim for. In fact, much of my job, besides the setting up and moving around of the physical layout of the store, was recruiting as often and as much as I can. We were constantly told to find more talent, the more diverse the better, even though we were forced to cut down on hours for the people who already worked there. And of course, the more good looking you were, the more hours you “earned.” It was super unfair and I thought a tad bit illegal. It had to be, right? I mean, here I was, working on schedules every week and forced to give more hours to the models deemed more worthy and cut hours for others who maybe didn’t fit a certain mold. As a manager, I wanted to reward the hard working individuals. The ones who never called out; the ones with the more open availability; the ones who wanted to be there and who worked hard. I wanted to give hours to the folks I could depend on. But instead I went against what I knew was right, and scheduled according to what was expected by my leadership, if you could even call them that.
Abercrombie employees were brainwashed. Or at least there was the attempt to do so. We were led to believe that we were selling a lifestyle, not just clothes. Every aspect of our store spoke to that. The loud music, the overwhelming scent of cologne that infiltrated every nook and cranny of the store and into the halls of the mall, the lighting, or lack thereof, only having it focused on the marketing and the clothing-nothing else. The goal here was to invite all five senses or at least four of the five senses to experience our brand. We wanted people to touch how incredibly soft our clothing was, take a seat in our lounge and hang out with their friends as they peruse a variety of reading material. We longed to still be the cool choice for kids. And for a while we were. Most of our clientele were older kids or parents of kids looking to buy “quality” clothes. This was the brand most kids were still wearing. It was still the brand for the cool kids, a brand that still longed to exclude those who didn’t belong. And the key word here was “kids.” This brand was for kids and stores wanted employees to somewhat resemble the population they were marketing to. And if you didn’t meet the mark, you simply were not given hours. That’s the guidance that we were given as managers. There were people who stayed on the schedule simply because of how they look and there were people who were only hired to appear in our stores for those big visits from higher management and even from the CEO whenever he decided to come to Georgia. To say that Abercomrbie gaslit the fuck out of its employees would be very true. If someone wasn’t given hours, we were supposed to say that it was because they didn’t have “the look.” But that mostly meant that if you didn’t fit what Abercombie and Fitch thought was cool which even after the lawsuit, still meant White and skinny. Most of our employees who were people of color found themselves in the back. Sound familiar?
I also learned very quickly that “the look” didn’t just mean race and size. It also meant family. Allow me to explain.
Things happened fast after I started working for A&F. Within 18 months of being hired as a manager there, I got married and became pregnant with our first child. I found that the bigger my belly got, the more I got in trouble for little things. I also was unable to wear the clothes. There were no Abercrombie shirts that were made for a growing belly. I ended up finding comparable clothes downstairs at the maternity store that I wore. We were supposed to be brand representatives that Abercrombie didn’t really invest in commercial or other means of advertisements. The fact that I was no longer able to wear the brand I worked for had to have miffed my leadership somewhat. There was also the issue of my needing to slow down at work. I had miscarried before and being the cautious woman that I am, I, through my doctor, informed my job that I needed frequent breaks and that I could no longer climb ladders, something that my job as a visual manager had me do quite frequently. Luckily I had very helpful employees that often did some of the more physically demanding parts of my job for me. But there was one time, while we had a member of senior management visiting, I was very uncomfortable, physically. My lower back started to hurt and my ankles were swelling. I chose to take a break and sit behind the cash register, sending the model there to work on the floor just for a little until I could build my energy back up. I was the only manager there at the time and there was no one else to take over walking the floor. Besides, it wasn’t even busy that afternoon and I could see the entire store from the registers. About an hour later, the district manager took me to the back and told me she was writing me up for not doing my job. I explained to this woman, who was also a mother, that I was in pain, my feet were hurting from being on them most of the day and that per my doctor’s note, I was to get frequent breaks as needed. I told her that our HR department had agreed to these terms as they were reasonable accommodations. She did not care. She wrote me up anyway.
I returned to this job about three months after having my son. I did my best to find a new job while on maternity leave, knowing that things would be so much more difficult with a child in this type of environment. I was scared I would no longer be able to fit the clothing as I was nursing and I had gained some weight in the process. On my first day back, I had returned with highlights in my hair, a self-care gift I gave to myself after having my son. My manager told me to turn around and leave the store and that I couldn’t come back until my hair is in its natural color again. Yall my first day back! Not a “congratulations” or “how are you feeling” None of that. I didn’t go back for two days since that’s how long it took me to try to dye my hair on my own which resulted in my hair shedding drastically, that then led to an emergency visit to my hair stylist. And from that point on, things were never the same.
In the weeks before I left Abercrombie for good, my son had been sick off and on, with a stomach bug. Being a new mom, it scared me because if you know what a stomach bug is, there is really nothing you can do for it but just let it pass. And my husband and I had to go to work so after our son was fine for about 24 hours, he sent him back to daycare. About 3 hours before my shift was to end, I got a call from the daycare that he was sick yet again and that he needed to be picked up. We had a new manager in training at the time who was the only other manager there. I tried calling my husband who was unable to leave his work. So after calling my boss, I left the store with a very green manager in charge of things just for a short time so I could go pick up my son. As a mother, he was my first priority, not some store. I got in trouble for this call too. I admit, looking back, I might have maybe done something a little differently, but I was a new mom. My son was sick and that’s all I cared about. Once again, I was written up for abandoning my post. It was ridiculous. At that point, I knew I needed to get out and quick.
My motivation to do my job well had dwindled dramatically. I had gone to NJ for a couple days to interview for a new job as I just found out I was pregnant again and my husband and I decided to live with my mother for a while for childcare purposes and to save money. I came back to Georgia with that job in hand just about and returned to work with my mind on just getting out as soon as I could. By this time, I had been managing A&F stores for over 2 years and had worked in the three brands in our mall. I also helped out other stores in the area as well as one in Macon GA and one in Chattanooga TN. But I had avoided getting a store of my own. I honestly didn’t want the responsibility and I knew my future was not with this company. I remember my last day at Abercrombie. It wasn’t supposed to be my last day. I pretty much knew that I was getting this job in Jersey. That morning, I pulled my manager aside and told her that I had interviewed for a job so that I could return to Jersey and that the HR manager from that company would be calling her that morning for a referral. I wanted my manager to be aware and available to take the call. After she got off the call, I went ahead and gave HR my notice which she graciously accepted. She was also looking for another job too and was happy to see that I had found a way out. Most of the management team across our malls’ three stores of our brand were looking for a way out and we celebrated when someone else made it. Fortunately, or unfortunately for me (depending on the way you looked at it) our district manager was also visiting our store for the day. When this guy came on board, I was relieved at first. He was a Black guy who had gone to an HBCU and had pledged one of the Divine Nine fraternities. I honestly thought I had a partner in crime at a higher level. Someone who could advocate for his managers of color much better than the previous district manager had. Boy, was I mistaken. He had been very disappointed in the way I was managing the weekly set changes, as I was unable to adhere to the insanely ridiculous timeframe they gave us. Before I came on board with this company, set changes used to happen overnight with plenty of staff scheduled to ensure that everything was done to perfection. This changed by the time I had been at the company two years. We were supposed to do entire set changes with a laughable amount of hours and hardly any staff to cover the workload. There were times where I came in after closing the night before and set up the store in such a way where people could come in and just get to work. I’d put all the new clothes where they were supposed to be and put the ones to be moved in their new location. I’d also come in an hour or two before to get started before my impact team and models were supposed to report to work. All these pre-prep and still to no avail. We still could not make up for the lost hours or lack of staff coverage. We were being asked to do more with less and I just couldn’t. This dumb dumb took notice and instead of asking how we could better be supported so that we could meet these ungodly expectations, I was scolded, criticized for still being an assistant manager when I should be a store manager, told that I was unable to manage my time effectively, and overall about to be put on a performance improvement plan, the last step before they fire someone. I got to them first and gave him my notice the same day I gave it to my manager. His response went along the lines of him talking about how he hoped to have a family and blah blah blah and then told me I didn’t have to come back since I needed to get ready to move and all. I should’ve questioned it. Something told me to question it but I was so ready to leave that I was like “you don’t have to tell me twice” threw up the deuces and left.
Abercrombie and Fitch was an experience where my looks were pretty much everything. Of course, they had expectations related to the actual job too; I had my set of work responsibilities that I had to adhere to. But the focus on looks was something I never thought would be important for a role that this company had the audacity to label as a career role. My identity as a Black woman became a focal point for the first time in my life; I had gone to an HBCU prior to starting this job and before that, I was a child, not really sure of who I was or what I was to become. But I became very much aware of my Blackness when working for Abercrombie which was weird to be honest. The focus on diversity further highlighted this unspoken pressure for me as a Black woman to have this magical power to recruit all the Black people I could to work at this store; a store that still preferred to show images of white people on their marketing, a store that catered to a very specific body type, a store that emphasized a lifestyle that was catered more toward the upper crest of society. And the longer I worked there, the harder it was to justify recruiting for a company that only cared about keeping itself out of trouble; at no time did this company try to better understand different points of view or differences in culture that made up the fabric that is diversity. Atlanta is such a diverse city; there are so many people to learn from and experiences to be had. At no time, did our company encourage us to explore the city, learn from the people who live there and find ways to implement those elements within our store culture. Getting people of color in the door was merely a means to satisfy a court order, not a way to change how people thought of Abercrombie or what the company stood for. And managers like me, who looked like me, were only a means to an end to achieve that goal. For almost three years, I was used for what I looked like instead of receiving the training and guidance to further develop my skills and become the best manager I could be. No wonder why my friends and I were suddenly recruited out of nowhere that one time in college.
It has been years since I stepped foot in an Abercrombie or any of their brands. I hadn’t thought about them in years. In 2013, I found out that they had put that they terminated me on my records (working for the government unearths all the secrets, friends) and I had to find a way to dispute that. Of course, when I went to try to call their HR department to request my personnel record, no one ever called me back or agreed to my request. Luckily so much time has passed that I don’t even put that experience on my resume anymore but I will say it was a life-changing experience, working for Abercombie and Fitch. Despite all the bull shit, I learned that the employee was at the heart of a company. Not the customers, not the leadership, but the people at the bottom who come into a store or an office and give hours of their day, days of their week, weeks of their month, months of their year, and even years of their life to an organization that more often than not does not appreciate them nor values them for the sacrifices that often have to be made to even get to work in the first place. I learned to listen to my employees, to learn what they needed to be successful. I often tried to place people in positions where they would not only be happiest but also be most successful, and I often engaged in conversation with them whenever I could. Because this was a first job for many of our employees, I wanted their experience to be a positive one and to let them know that I cared about them. I found out quickly that people who feel appreciated will show up for you. I learned how to not only find talent but also harness and develop that talent. I learned that I enjoyed coaching people on how to be their best selves. And when I look back on my time at Abercrombie, my favorite memories often include interacting with my colleagues and my employees.
Abercormbie was a brand that was as superficial as it got. But I learned that despite the way they tried to indoctrinate me into the brand and despite the fact that I was used for my looks, I found a way to take something positive from the experience. I used it to be a better leader, a better mom, and a better person.
But I’ll never work there again.
Watch White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch, now streaming on Netflix.