Abercrombie & Fitch’s awful financials make me optimistic about the future. For a long time they were a dominant force in the teen market, but Abercrombie & Fitch’s legacy of discrimination and elitism has made it basically untouchable to today’s cool kids.
But for a while there, before popped collars and layered shell necklaces were the recognizable hallmarks of “douchebags” and villains from 80s movies, the Abercrombie & Fitch was cool, and Salon writer Oliver Lee Bateman was in the thick of it as an assistant manager.
Between the discrimination lawsuits and CEO Mike Jeffries‘ own horrible words, the world has been well-aware of Abercrombie’s elitist jerkdom for a decade. But Bateman’s Salon essay, “I sold my body (and nearly my soul) to Abercrombie,” gives us a rare glimpse of what, specifically, went on between Abercrombie’s managers and executives while they gleefully body-snarked and discriminated against customers, employees, and each other.
Bateman doesn’t come off well in his essay, of course. At best he was a shiftless asshole whose most redeeming quality was not giving a shit about the evil company he worked for. But looking back on one’s asshole years can be cathartic (in about 6 years I might be ready to write about the asshole shit I did when I was 17), and in Bateman’s case it’s a bizarre and eye-opening look at what specifically went on behind the scenes at Abercrombie & Fitch.
1. Bateman begins:
“This is the story of the year I discriminated against everybody.”
Bateman was hired off the floor of a college career fair, seemingly just for being muscular and having a college degree. There was no real interview. The recruiter just said he looked “collegiate” and “quality,” and that was everything they needed.
2. On being the worst manager ever.
I half-assed my way through a fourteen-hour shift. But you know what? Abercrombie & Fitch deserved far worse. And I owed all of their customers and brand representatives far better.
It didn’t matter what Bateman’s degree was in. Having one proved he was “collegiate” and “quality,” but it wasn’t really necessary, considering the job only required a person be able to fold and body-snark.
3. On slowly losing one’s humanity.
“No ma’am, we don’t carry size 16 in those pants,” I soon found myself saying. First sadly, then automatically and cattily.
4. On drinking the Kool-Aid.
Those big bodies didn’t belong in “our” clothing, you see. I mean, look at this killer body–I bulged out of the A&F’s 100% cotton and 100% poorly ventilated “muscle-fit” t-shirts. Get out of here with that sloppy trash. ”We” were hot and “you” weren’t.
They didn’t just body-snark the customers, the managers also sat around and body-snarked the employees during weekly meetings:
5. On Abercrombie’s performance evaluation system.
”Yeah, the regional manager wants to see less of him,” someone might say. Or “hmm, maybe we can recruit better than her but she’s okay for now and doesn’t call off.” Or “gawd, he’s hot, but he can’t fold for shit and it’s a shame he’s not straight.”
6. On a particular female employee Bateman liked.
“She’s nasty as fuck. That’s nasty. You’re nasty. She’s a C.”
“She never calls off. She’s always on time,” I said.
“Whatever–don’t tell me you don’t like fat girls.”
One can’t help but want to tell this manager that she’s an assistant manager at an Abercrombie & Fitch, not Anna fucking Wintour.
Then, because this is the corporate culture, the upper-level employees would show up and body-snark the managers.
7. On who you grow into if you get promoted.
I’d sometimes go on walkthroughs through the store with our regional manager, whereupon he’d drop one nugget of bitchy wisdom after another. ”That form [mannequin] is a fucking disasterpiece. Those lights look like shit. Are you retarded? Are you blind? And why the fuck aren’t you wearing more layers and jewelry?”
When Bateman pointed out that the necklaces wouldn’t fit around his beefy, muscle-guy neck, he was ordered to wear one as an anklet.
Most heartbreaking and revealing of all is the story of the only good employee, a tall, chubby, black, and openly gay sales associate who Bateman says was by far the single best employee in the store. (Bateman that he’d sometimes just leave that guy with the keys and going to go see a movie in the middle of the day.) But the regional manager (the one who ordered the necklace-anklet) didn’t like the look of him and made them get rid of him despite the fact that the store desperately needed him and couldn’t get anyone to replace him due to the company’s shitty pay and weird obsession with employee beauty.
8. On the best employee in the store.
“You have to get that guy off the floor,” he’d tell us. “He’s a fucking disasterpiece.”
And yet that guy would come back during closing and ask if they had just a few hours to give him, sometimes even helping out for free. But they wouldn’t give him hours because he didn’t look the way the company wanted its employees to look.
Bateman’s story is awful and appalling, and it puts a sad, human face (not Bateman’s) on the stories we’ve all heard about Abercrombie & Fitch’s tacky elitism. It warms my heart to think of all today’s teenagers turning away from Abercrombie’s popped collars and layered shirts, and hopefully also rejecting the looksism and discrimination that have been woven through the brand’s identity since the 90s.