IT HAPPENED TO ME: I'm An In-Store Abercrombie "Model" and I've Witnessed Discrimination and Racism

Wwo chiseled male models came up to me at the mall and told me I had a “great look” for Abercrombie and Fitch.
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Wwo chiseled male models came up to me at the mall and told me I had a “great look” for Abercrombie and Fitch.

I’m not really sure what went through my mind when two chiseled male models came up to me at the mall and told me I had a “great look” for Abercrombie and Fitch.

“Um, look?”

“Yeah, your look is great.”

Fast forward three months later and I’m in a sequined cardigan, frilly white mini skirt, vigorously folding flannel shirts to the beat of the latest house music playlist.

Behold, Abercrombie models in their natural, shirtless habitat.

Behold, Abercrombie models in their natural, shirtless habitat.

As a broke college student with a pathetic $100 meal plan for the entire semester, I accepted a part-time job at Abercrombie in an effort to socialize outside of college and have some pocket money to eat. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into, apart from a heavily fragranced club-like clothing store laden with attractive sales associates.

Yes, this club is actually a clothing store.

Yes, this club is actually a clothing store.

I reluctantly accepted the recruiter’s offer to go in for an interview, and scrambled to prepare a resume filled with high school activities and clubs. I was completely over-prepared. Three other hopefuls and myself hoping to be hired for a “model” position (Abercrombie’s euphemism for sales associates who do nothing but fold clothes) arrived for a group interview that lasted barely 10 minutes. It was comprised of four questions about “diversity” in what I assumed was an effort to accommodate for the racial lawsuits the company has received in the past.

A few days later, I was hired and began training. The training lasted five hours, during which our headshots were taken and we were forced to practice corny taglines to greet customers, such as “Hey, how’s it going?” and “Welcome to Abercrombie.” 

We were encouraged to believe that our headshots (which were sent to Abercrombie headquarters) might land us modeling opportunities in the Abercrombie catalogs and campaigns. Realistically, no -- the in-store “models” are not the same models gracing the ads. Those people are legitimate models hired from agencies. 

There was a 0.0000002% chance this could be us.

There was a 0.0000002% chance this could be us.

I didn’t have much of a negative outlook on Abercrombie when I first started working there. Yeah, it was my first job, and yeah, it was retail and it paid nine dollars an hour. But it was nevertheless a fun, relaxed environment, where I could mingle with employees who were a mix of college students like myself, and attractive signed models. It wasn’t until I caught sight of how toxic and superficial the environment was that I began to have ethical issues with working there.

In recent years, Abercrombie’s reputation has partly diminished due to a generation of teenagers that realized overpriced logo-ridden sweatshirts are not that cool, but also partly because of the racial lawsuits made against the company, and discriminatory comments made by Former CEO Mike Jeffries. 

Because my store was the “flagship” store, the CEO frequently visited us. When he did visit, managers went out of their way to ensure that the models on the floor were the cream of the crop. Unfortunately, this usually meant the thinnest, tallest, and whitest models.

On one particularly horrifying instance, most of the black models were sent home an hour early before their shifts ended and before Jeffries was scheduled to visit. One of the models complained to the confidential company hotline of racism on the manager’s part, and the security team conducted an investigation. 

The manager, of course, denied any racial bias. Unfortunately the investigation led nowhere, because there wasn’t enough “substantial evidence” to prove that her actions were racially motivated. 

In another incident, a model was told to leave early before Jeffries came to visit. When she asked why, the manager then told the model that she could stay only if she wore the cashier uniform. I felt sick to my stomach when this model -- who was also my friend -- confided in me that she thought the manager told her this because she wasn’t attractive enough.

These are just some of countless incidents that occurred when Mike Jeffries was scheduled to visit. The impactors (stockroom workers) were not allowed to be on the floor during his visits. Signed model associates were called in to work specifically on those days, while models who “slipped through the cracks” (what my manager actually said to describe models who were not attractive) were sent home.

There was only one black greeter in the entire store, and he was also the first black greeter chosen in five years. FIVE YEARS! When the other black model who was up for that position asked the managers why he wasn’t chosen, he was told that his look wasn’t “exotic” enough.

As these events unfolded, I grew wearier about continuing to work with the company. In addition to the countless discriminatory incidents, we were also subject to sexual advances by customers on a regular basis. The model uniform that every model has to wear ranges from cheeky low rise shorts that barely cover our asses, to miniskirts that make it impossible to bend over without sweaty tourists ogling our behinds.

One of our more modest uniforms.

One of our more modest uniforms.

I was once followed by a group of men across the entire store, while the men made profane comments under their breaths about my “nice ass.” Another time a customer came up to me and in what little English he knew, praised the store for not hiring “fat and ugly women.” I uncomfortably smiled and continued to fold in shock and bewilderment at the crude comment.

I grew to hate coming in to work. What was once a fun, easygoing part-time job now made my stomach churn as I reluctantly squeezed into my uniform of short shorts and low-cut tops. I dreaded having to explain to confused customers that while men’s shirts went up to a XXL and a size 36 in jeans, we only carried up to a size 10 in women’s jeans and a large in women’s tops.

I gradually stopped coming in for work and closed my availability. I am still in the system, and while I’m on the lookout for another retail job, I do come in for one or two shifts a month.

While I met many of my close friends at Abercrombie and I am grateful for that, my experience taught me that regardless of what the company portrays, nothing has really changed, and it is still the vapid, superficial brand that it was 10 years ago when the racial lawsuits surfaced.