Historian Oliver Lee Bateman reflects on the depths to which he sank during the year he spent managing an Abercrombie & Fitch.
It happened innocently enough: I was at a job fair on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus when a man in his late thirties approached me.
“Hey, you look collegiate and quality,” he said to me. “You play rugby? You wrestle? Student-athlete?”
Ecce homo. He was dressed like an aging actor who had been miscast as a teenager in a hot college comedy. Three too-tight t-shirts, one layered atop the next, with each shirttail exposed. Several shell necklaces. Beaded anklets on each ankle. “Distressed” cargo shorts. Flip-flops.
“I’m a recruiter for Abercrombie & Fitch, and we’re looking for collegiate, quality people who can represent our brand,” he explained. “You have a bachelor’s degree, right?”
“Yeah, I double-majored in journalism and history,” I said.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter what it’s in. It can be in whatever. It just shows you’re collegiate and quality. Here”–he handed me his card–“Let’s meet at the Southpoint Mall on Monday and we can start you up. You’ll be an assistant manager, but really, you can be anything in this company. Regional manager, VP, whatever. Everybody starts in the store and soon you’re managing ten stores or maybe you’re at corporate in New Albany putting together the Quarterly. It’s amazing. We’re an amazing company. We hire only amazing people.”
That was the entire interview. “Collegiate,” “quality,” “bachelor’s degree.” I had those things. What I didn’t have were any other job leads, just a bunch of applications to teach phys ed at impoverished rural high schools that didn’t require teaching certificates. “Sure,” I said. “See you there.”
I signed on with Abercrombie in 2002, which would prove a banner year for the company. Its offensive “Wong Brothers Laundry Service–Two Wongs Can Make it White” t-shirts were ripped from the shelves and either sent back to the warehouse or sold at a considerable markup on eBay by larcenous employees. Its Bruce Weber-helmed A & F Quarterly remained a cultural phenomenon: a lushly-photographed catalog that doubled as softcore gay pornography, often purchased in haste by parents who were eager to exit the store to escape the thundering beats and strange aromas that assaulted their senses. Most notably of all, the rampant, systemic discrimination against minority job applicants that led to the Gonzalez v. Abercrombie & Fitch litigation was still in full swing.
When I arrived for my first day as a “manager-in-training,” I had only three pieces of information about the company at my disposal:
- Once upon a time, Abercrombie & Fitch sold durable outerwear. Old men wore Abercrombie & Fitch chinos and would boast to their kids about how the crotches never busted.
- The A&F soundtrack was so loud that the stores were nearly unshoppable. I could hear the throbbing sound of the techno/EDM corporate soundtrack halfway across the mall.
I had no idea that über-creepy CEO Mike Jeffries had overseen a redesign of the venerable brand to make it “sizzle with sex.” I had never owned an article of their clothing. I had never once thought about my appearance beyond such meatheaded concerns as “dude, how awesome would it be to be able to bench 700 pounds?” I certainly wasn’t racist or sexist, no sir–I had voted for Al Gore in 2000!
That would soon change.
The job involved impossibly long hours and lots of folding. As fate would have it, I turned out to be a dreadful worker. I cut every corner imaginable, counting down registers that were always fifty dollars short or fifty dollars over, overlooking a staggering amount of employee theft, and sleeping or otherwise screwing around in the back office while the more competent “brand representatives” (i.e., the minimum-wage employees recruited for their looks) closed down the store. I was a master of the slowdown: I’d punch in, set up my protein powders and other exercise supplements, and immediately go on a mental strike.
At the time, I figured this was all the company deserved from me. They could have my body, but they would never have my soul. My soul would explore unimagined vistas (Final Fantasy VI fanfiction, the entire All Music Guide, e-wrestling, etc.) while 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.
This is the story of the year I discriminated against everybody.
We have to begin somewhere, so let’s begin with bodies. Mine, yours, hers, theirs. All of the bodies that entered the store and left it. All of the bodies that could fit into our clothing and all of the bodies that didn’t.
“No ma’am, we don’t carry size 16 in those pants,” our cattiest assistant manager, a former cheerleader with a rail-thin physique, would gleefully inform potential customers.
“No ma’am, we don’t carry size 16 in those pants,” I soon found myself saying. First sadly, then automatically and cattily. First time as tragedy, second time as farce, amiright?
Those out-of-shape people 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.
I don’t know if I ever totally bought that. Then again, I can’t reproduce my interior thoughts from a decade ago with a high degree of accuracy. Did I drink the Kool-Aid? Was I “collegiate” and “quality” to the core of my being? My terrible performance as a manager suggests that it didn’t take, but, then again, I was also something of an arrogant 20-year-old asshole who took inordinate pride in his ripped 220-pound physique.
Or I was until the weekly meetings started.
On Sundays before the store opened, all of the managers would gather on the couches in the store’s central “canoe room” and discuss the various corporate directives for the next week. We’d go over the changes to the floorset, discuss updates to the number of hours the store was allotted for brand representatives, analyze the sales figures for the previous week, and, oh yeah, we’d grade every single brand representative working in the store on an A-F scale based on his or her appearance.
One of the two store managers would read off the names, and the various assistant managers would begin chiming in. “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.”
The first meeting was surreal. Subsequent ones, like the bulk of my childhood, were repressed. Two moments, however, remain fixed in the amber of my selective memory.
The first consisted of a short conversation about a female brand representative with whom I had twice engaged in some mostly harmless extracurricular activities. The person who brought up this brand representative was also the assistant manager who took such joy in telling women that we didn’t carry their size.
“Ooh, Oliver, [name deleted] isn’t ever closing with you again,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“What am I talking about,” she repeated in a teasing manner. “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,” she said.
Then, a few months later, I found myself putting sensors on merchandise alongside the same assistant manager. Since this manager was the most vociferous on all matters related to brand representative grading, I decided to solicit her opinion about my appearance.
“Where do I rank on the scale?”
“Like a solid B or B-minus,” came her matter-of-fact reply. “But you’re a smarty-pants, you know. You should be doing something else.”
Whatever arrogance I once harbored was gone, finito, kaput. To this vain and superficial person, I’m at best a B or B-minus. I should be doing something else. I’m a smarty-pants.
But, judging from what came next, I should’ve been called far nastier things.
As near as I could ascertain from my rare meetings with the upper ranks of Abercrombie & Fitch management, the top brass consisted primarily of extremely fit, extremely tan white male homosexuals who despised women, minorities (particularly individuals of Asian descent), everyone who had a BMI in the overweight/obese range, and…anyone or anything that wasn’t “collegiate” and “quality,” really.
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?”
“I sweat a lot,” I explained. “And the necklaces don’t actually fit around my neck.”
“Put them around your ankle, then. You need to show more layers.”
“More layers? It’s 95 degrees outside. And I’m not wearing an anklet.”
“Like after you get to work, I mean. Maybe a jean jacket and a polo and a fitted T, and pop up all the collars. And you’re going to wear an anklet.”
Stuff like that was tolerable, I suppose. It amounted to little more than standard corporate nonsense that I was well versed at ignoring. But other remarks stung, such as when he dismissed my dreams of appearing as a model in the A&F Quarterly with a curt “we like rugby boys for that, not pro wrestling boys,” which was followed quickly by “Do you think we can convince [attractive male brand representative] to do it? He is just gorgeous, just so gorgeous. You cannot see him and say he isn’t so perfect in the way he looks.”
The regional manager’s adoration didn’t extend to our finest worker, a tall, chubby, and openly gay African-American who had bright green braces. Although we tried to avoid scheduling him when we knew the RM was due to visit, chronic labor shortages on account of the company’s low starting wages and obsession with brand representative beauty ensured that he was often working 30+ hours per week.
“You have to get that guy off the floor,” he’d tell us. “He’s a fucking disasterpiece.”
I had no incentive whatsoever to keep the brand rep with the green braces off the floor, particularly since he was far better at my job than I was. In fact, I’d sometimes leave my register keys with him and go watch a movie, secure in the knowledge that he, unlike me, gave two shits about this horrible company. But the store managers always caught hell about him, and finally we removed him from the schedule despite the fact that we had no workers who could replace him.
The closing shifts after this brand representative had been removed from the schedule, which were coincidentally my last closing shifts before leaving North Carolina to work in Glacier National Park, proved nothing short of heartbreaking. And I don’t use “heartbreaking” lightly in that previous sentence, given how disaffected and apathetic I was during this Holden Caulfield-ian “everyone is stupid except me” phase of my life.
I’d often be all by my lonesome, struggling to fold down the immense denim walls in the vain hope of leaving by midnight, when he’d show up. He just wanted to hang out, he’d say. Did we have any extra hours on the schedule, maybe a single four-hour shift? No, I’d tell him, we don’t. But he could look around and see that there had to be hours to spare. How could there not be when there were never any other employees in the store?
Then, for reasons I’ll never understand, he’d ask if I needed some help anyway. And I’d tell him no, but my no wasn’t a firm no because I really did want to get the hell out of here. So he’d obligingly fold down the denim walls, perfectly creasing and size-tagging each pair, in a fraction of the time that the process would have taken me.
Allow me to recap: there’s this awful, terrible, gross, maleficent company that I and thousands of other foolish young people have worked for. It’s run by some of the nastiest pieces of work this side of the Schutz-Staffel. Its reluctant employees, hired because they have college degrees and prepossessing, phenotypically Caucasian/Aryan bodies, are encouraged to join in the fun: ridicule the brand representatives, laugh at fat people, and hate on everybody who isn’t “collegiate” and “quality.”
Oh, but the joke’s on you, Oliver Bateman, because you’re just a B-minus, too. You’re a joke of a manager and a joke of a human being and the girls you like, however smart and pretty they are in the so-called “real world” that is filled with ugly, non-“collegiate/quality” people, are in fact nasty skanks who don’t belong within a thousand feet of our sacred hardwood sales floor (a thousand feet being roughly the distance at which one can begin smelling the “Woods” cologne and hearing the A&F soundtrack).
And what else? Ah yes–your best worker, the one brand representative who takes pride in his job and loves everything that Abercrombie & Fitch does? The one who’d likely follow through with a Jonestown proposal if corporate demanded it? Fire his sorry D-minus ass. So what if he’s the only ethnic minority on the roster except for an Indian kid you don’t ever let out of the stockroom? He’s not “collegiate” or “quality,” despite the fact that he’s enrolled in college and probably doing reasonably well there.
I departed for Montana in a depression-induced fog that wouldn’t lift until 2005, after I had entered my second year of law school. I’ve been trying to tell this story ever since, but I didn’t know where to start. So I just started here.
In 2005, Abercrombie & Fitch reached a $50 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by Latino, African-American, and Asian American plaintiffs who had alleged that the company’s hiring decisions were motivated by their skin color rather than their qualifications. As part of the settlement, Abercrombie & Fitch agreed that it would implement programs to diversify its workforce–programs that, at least based on my own cursory, unscientific research consisting of two store visits since the settlement, appear to have yielded some positive results.
The A&F Quarterly is gone and is unlikely to return, a relic of a bygone age when the Strokes were an up-and-coming band and the WWE hadn’t yet decided to stop doubling down on the racism and misogyny. I never appeared between the Quarterly’s glossy pages, and I never will. Bruce Weber, it seems, wanted rugby boys, not professional wrestling boys…and professional wrestling is a big part of what I do these days. Ah well. Such is the life of a B-minus smarty-pants.
Mike Jeffries, by all accounts, continues to make progress on his quest to become one of the worst people in human history who wasn’t a genocidal dictator or a hypocritical religious huckster. “[Beauty] is almost everything,” he told Salon in 2006. “That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” For this important work, he earns a cool $45 million a year–roughly the same amount his company paid to settle that 2005 civil rights lawsuit.
I’m now gainfully employed as a history professor, and twice a week I lecture to hundreds of ennui-afflicted young people who remind me of myself at that same stage along life’s way. I try to convince them to reflect critically on the cultural detritus that surrounds us, with the hope, however foolish and forlorn, that none travels down the same blind alley I followed to Abercrombie & Fitch in 2002. It’s the best and only way I can offer penance, because I must.