By Emily Shugerman
Abercrombie -- the brand that haunted your middle school days and made you think that wearing two polos stacked on top of each other would suddenly make you popular -- is dying. And I am here to sing its eulogy from the treetops.
Abercrombie's stock dropped 11% on Thursday -- even more than originally predicted. That's not exactly new for Abercrombie, which lost $63.2 million in its first quarter last year, and has yet to show steady improvement. A Google News search for the company turns up dozens of articles about the company's decline.
Execs tried to shake things up starting in 2014, ousting their controversial CEO, Mike Jefferies. The company vowed to cut the sexy images from their bags, and removed the once-coveted moose logo from most of their clothing.
But these changes to Abercrombie's "brand" don't obscure what's at its rotten core: A company set on propagating an outdated, unattainable image of perfection. I know, because I helped them.
I started working for Abercrombie my first year of college. My second week of school, two women approached me at the campus coffee shop and asked if I wanted to model for their company.
"We work for Abercrombie and Fitch," they whispered, leaning in conspiratorially. It was my official invite to the "exclusive" club Abercrombie has built.
I went to the interview, admittedly a little flattered at the request. Once there, I learned that "model" is Abercrombie code for sales associate -- a title used so the company can legally hire and fire their front-of-house staff based on appearance. I arrived 20 minutes late to the group interview, told them I had no retail experience, and was still hired on the spot. Not as lucky were the three other (much more qualified) women at my interview, who had submitted applications instead of being "scouted." I never saw them again.
A friend who worked at the company headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, confirmed that hiring at Abercrombie is based largely on looks.
"I was asked to go look at a group of people interviewing and see if they were attractive enough," she told me. Later, when she applied to work at one of the retail stores, she was required to submit only a picture.
A "model's" job is to stand in predetermined areas of the store -- purportedly to assist customers, but largely to act as a human mannequin. As a model I was provided a uniform, which changed seasonally, but was always short on fabric.
Every aspect of my appearance was inspected -- I was once sent to the back to scrub eyeliner off of my face because it violated the "natural" look they strove for.
Appearance approved, I was stationed at front of the store for hours on end, with nothing to do but spout pithy, store-fed "taglines." I once complained to a co-worker about how I was always assigned the entrance position, where I stood shivering in my barely-there outfit. She told me I should take it as a compliment.
"You remember that picture they took of you your first day?" she asked me. I did. I had been told it was for record keeping. "They send that picture to the district manager. You have to be approved to stand at the entrance."
I don't say this to brag about my appearance. I wasn't hired because I am any great beauty, but because I fit within the Abercrombie boundaries of what is acceptable: white, blond, tall, skinny. The company needs people like me working at its stores to attract people like me to shop at them -- and to keep everyone else out.
Reflecting on it now, it is a frighteningly Donald Trump-esque business model. Both Trump and Abercrombie harken back to a mythical, by-gone era of American greatness, where the wealthy, healthy and white were celebrated, and everyone else was largely invisible. In Trump's case, this is accomplished by building walls. In Abercrombie's, it's done by constructing strict "look" policies that only a select few can meet.
Samantha Elauf learned that the hard way, when Abercrombie denied her a job because she wears a hijab. So did thousands of Latino, Black and Asian employees who Abercrombie paid out in 2005 for denying them front-of-house positions. And so did I, when I learned that my membership to this privileged, front-of-house class was based on my willingness to act simply as decoration.
I wish I could say that Abercrombie's declining sales were evidence of America's rejection of this mentality. I wish it signified a greater acceptance of diversity, and an acknowledgement of women's virtues other than beauty. But as Donald Trump has taught us so well, it's not acceptance or acknowledgement that talks -- it's money.
Hopefully in this case, plunging profits can shut Abercrombie up.