For some reason I seem to be one of these people who finds herself in odd situations every now and again. I’ve been privy to a few exposé worthy experiences in my time, and until recently was unsure about whether to ‘go public’ with the information. But hell, isn’t it my duty as a journo to bring people the truth? I think I have a couple of interesting stories and I’ve decided to tell them here on Salute to Style, starting with…the truth about Abercrombie & Fitch.
Almost a year ago to the day I was in the basement of London’s only Abercrombie & Fitch store, on Savile Row, getting an impromptu talk from one of the store’s many managers.
Riam Dean, a 22 year old former A&F employee, had just filed a law suit and launched a very public attack on the company for discrimination. She told the papers one of the managers had humiliated her. Banishing her to the stock room because her disability – a prosthetic arm – was inconsistent with the shop’s strict ‘looks policy’.
‘There are going to be a lot of people hanging around and trying to ask you questions today’, the manager told us on the day of Riam’s court case, ‘If anybody approaches you, just say “no comment”. Please, whatever you do, do not talk to any members of the press’. Little did they know, the enemy had already infiltrated their number…Mwahahaha!
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Let me tell you about the day I was recruited. I was just innocently leaving Topshop on Oxford St (where I’d been spending money I didn’t have as usual) when a very hench, very handsome young man approached me and asked if I would consider coming to work for Abercrombie. Obviously I agreed or else I wouldn’t be telling this story, but I hope I can put it in context by explaining that this was early 2009, and the country was deep in the recession at this point. Who was I – a student who was very much scraping the bottom of her £1250 overdraft – to turn down a free job when it was offered?
On my induction day I arrived and was taken into a room which I can only describe accurately in terms of its likeness to an exam hall. Tables were positioned in rows, each with its own employee handbook and pencil. At the front of the room was a TV which was playing an old BBC news report about the opening of the London store on a continuous loop. As I entered the other inductionees looked up to stare at me and smiled awkwardly.
What happened next was literally unbelievable. We were told that we had been selected to work for Abercrombie & Fitch because we were ‘aspirational people’. We would fit in there because at Abercrombie – and I quote – ‘People see us, and they want to be us’…
Yep. I’m not making this up. That’s what our manager actually said to us. This was followed up with: ‘In the morning when we do our Starbucks run, and we walk past all the people waiting in line for the store to open, they just stop and stare at us. They’ve got their jaws on the floor. They just can’t believe how good looking we are!’. Again, I’m seriously not making this up.
We were also told that everybody from Abercrombie goes out to Mahiki (etc) together. They get in without queuing and drink all night without handing over a penny, all in return for just a flash of their staff card. Word was we could even get a discount at Nandos. I know right! How lucky were we…
The job itself was less than mindless. The clothes were constantly moved which mean’t we couldn’t help when a customer asked where a particular item was. My role (defined laughably as ‘model’) literally consisted of standing where I was told and saying hello to customers. Not folding clothes or replenishing stock or working the tills as in any other retail job. A&F employed a whole other group of people to do those tasks – the charmingly named ‘impact team’.
There were very specific guidelines laid out in our handbook:
- Staff must “look great” while still exhibiting “individuality”
- Women’s fingernails must be no more than a quarter of an inch beyond the tip of the finger
- Beards, moustaches or other facial hair are banned. Men must be cleanly shaven every day.
- Clothing should always be “classic American style”, while only “clean, natural” hairstyles are acceptable (i.e no hair dye)
- Make-up “must be worn to enhance natural features and create a fresh natural appearance. Foundation, base or blush can only be worn if it is applied in such a way as to look completely natural.” No lipstick or noticeable eye make-up
- Store managers will define “appropriate” colours for toenail polish (which means pink or red)
- No jewellery apart from stud earrings which “should not be longer than a dime and should not dangle”.
- Other piercings are forbidden and men must never wear earrings. Tattoos should not be ‘offensive looking’
Riam wasn’t the first employee to sue Abercrombie & Fitch. In the US many people have taken legal action on the grounds of racial discrimination, and this was something I experienced second hand in London as well.
The managers are told to be very specific about which models they put in each room. Employees who look similar will be separated, so for example I wouldn’t be working with another wavy haired brunette. One girl told me she’d overheard a conversation between two managers over the walkie talkies. The first had told the second ‘I’m in (room) 4 and I’ve got too many black girls’…
It was a pretty disgusting company to work for basically (being asked to dance on ‘the rail’ in plain view of everybody entering the store was a low point). Although I must point out that the Abercrombie & Fitch employees are not vacuous and vain as the press would have had you believe in the aftermath of the Riam discrimination case (with a couple of exceptions of course). Most were fun and friendly dancers, actors or models trying to make some extra cash on the side, just as I was.
When I went to intern at NYLON Magazine in New York I took myself off the rota, and when I returned in the Autumn I decided not to put myself back on. I haven’t set foot in that store since, and considering how horrendously overpriced and dull the clothes are I probably never will again.