Abercrombie & Fitch Headquarters is far from perfect.Abercrombie & Fitch is famously controversial for its provocative ad campaigns, its CEO's commitment to not making plus-size clothing, and its very strict dress codes. Here, a former employee at Abercrombie's corporate headquarters explains what working in the thick of the brand was really like.
As told to Elisa Benson
"Did I not tell you it was supposed to be casual?" was the first thing my interviewer said to me when I showed up at Abercrombie's corporate headquarters in 2007. I was dressed for my first "big kid" job - tie, jacket, suit. She was wearing a fleece and jeans. I immediately rolled up my sleeves and ditched the tie (I probably looked like the end of a wedding), and surprisingly, the rest of the interview went well. A week later, the job was mine.
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Orientation was relatively typical, focused on the story of A&F starting as an outfitter in New York City. We were strongly encouraged to wear A&F clothes and, weirdly, told never to wear black or purple. (You'll never see those colors on Abercrombie clothes.) I worked with someone in his forties who wore a black windbreaker occasionally, and we'd joke, let's not stand near him, we'll all get in trouble. Even contract employees doing tech support are expected to match the corporate culture on campus (that's what they call the headquarters). You'd hear rumors about people who didn't wear A&F clothes appropriately and were told, "Please don't eat lunch on campus anymore, go to the distribution center" - a hidden-from-the-public building off-campus - "and eat there."
The corporate culture seemed image-obsessed. A few of the female designers were a bit heavier, but of course they still had to be brand appropriate, so you'd see them wearing men's jeans and hoodies. It's one thing to encourage your employees to wear the brand, but when your brand literally doesn't make clothing that will fit you and tells you to wear it anyway? It seems like a subtle way of being discriminatory.
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I also wonder about the cafeteria. Everyone eats there because the campus is isolated. The food on the whole is very good, very healthy. But I wonder if there's an almost insidious spin on it, like, we don't want our employees to get too fat.
Walking through campus, the marketing material is everywhere - the same half-naked images you see on the bags and in the stores. There was one picture of a man I would walk by every day and think, Oh, that's a nipple. That just doesn't seem very professional to me.Abercrombie has a security force of guys who look like models, and it wouldn't be unusual to see them leave the front desk and play Frisbee or kick a soccer ball out front. Then during office parties, they would pop their shirts off and serve a tomato-mozzarella appetizer - cater waiters. I mean, these are people who work here. Sometimes at the office parties, which took place mostly after our quarterly staff meetings in the middle of the day, a beer truck would show up. One guy, it became legend, got so drunk that he either stole a golf cart or urinated on it in full view of the company. It was very surreal, having these "parties" during office hours and then going back to work.
A few years ago we had an opening in my department. Every employee in my area is male, but we interviewed a few candidates who were female. At the time another employee came up to me and said, "I hope they don't hire a girl. That will really mess up the vibe." We ended up hiring one of the guys. It's very much a bro culture.
In late 2008, when the recession really hit, there was a mass email about an emergency meeting. The big announcement was that there was nothing to worry about: "We love everyone here. Everyone is a member of the team. Headcount is not going to change." Meanwhile, several weeks later they had mass layoffs. Eventually ninety people from upper management alone, and many more throughout the rest of the company. They attributed the cuts to soft sales from the recession, but what I think was masked was that their stuff had been dropping in quality and their style had been stagnant for many many years. It was not a fun time to be working there.
You could tell things were starting to get bad by the Christmas parties. The first Christmas party I went to, there was prime rib, cocktail shrimp, and three stages for three different bands. The last Christmas party I went to, there were glow sticks and no food.
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Everyone talks about the lawsuits. When The Situation sued us, people were very happy about it - like, "Bring it on, this is free advertising." The shirts are designed to be widely offensive on purpose, to make parents upset and get them to sue the company. That buys into [CEO] Mike Jeffries' idea of being cool - what's cooler than something your parents would never want to wear?
Mike Jeffries was always at the quarterly meetings, where he'd have something to say. But outside of that, I only saw him twice, and he generally looked at me like I was a piece of s***. I remember he held the door open for me, but it was an awkward moment because I was going to a different room. He looked at me like, I can't believe you're wasting my time. I might be blowing it out of proportion, but it was a dirty look.
Everyone I worked with knew it: This place is not great. But for me, personally, I loved the work I was doing, and that work isn't offered everywhere. So what can you do? One night, I cut the speakers. I waited until after-hours and cut the wire to the speakers that pump music into the office. I couldn't stand to hear that music anymore, that same music from the stores playing at the same unbearable decibel level.
Earlier this year, I left the company. Now that I'm on the outside, I wonder why I stayed so long. You can work really hard there and get an "Atta boy!" But unless you're in the inner circle, it's not going to mean anything, because it's not a professional environment that values expertise.
The biggest impact A&F had on me personally is that, in a corporate environment, nothing weirds me out anymore. A&F broke me. Nothing else seems weird.
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