Netflix’s tell-all documentary about discrimination at Abercrombie & Fitch is painfully accurate. I know, because it happened to me

On one occasion, a Black family walked into the store and a senior manager pointed them out to me asking: "Is that your family?"
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Netflix’s new tell-all documentary, White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch has Twitter on fire. It may have been the millennial uniform of choice back in the early noughties when the brand’s cali-cool mini skirts and jeans were all everyone wanted to wear. But really, A&F was famous for two things: denim and discrimination. So why is it only now, a couple of decades later that the brand is being firmly held to account?

For me, the documentary was triggering to watch. Many of the workers who were interviewed had similar experiences to me when I worked there. There’s a part of the documentary where a former A&F Recruiter, Jose Sanchez, candidly says that he would be doing a disservice to previous staffers of colour if he didn’t admit that the culture at A&F was suss. “It wasn’t…not racist” — he says, implying that it was in fact racist, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to say it out loud. The interviewer repeats it back in a questioning tone and they both share an awkward, despairing laugh. I could relate to that moment, because the fear of speaking out is real, and sometimes it’s easier and more cathartic to be honest about your thoughts by being equivocal, instead of getting thrown on the firing line as a whistleblower. I too have been asked the same in the past, and my answer? “Hmm, it wasn’t… not racist.”

When I first stepped foot in Abercrombie & Fitch as an employee for Hollister Co. (a sub-brand of A&F), I was just a 19-year-old looking for pocket money. I stayed for four years and was hired as an assistant manager after two and a half years of service, but ultimately, I was left distraught by the racial bias and discriminatory behaviour from senior management. Effectively, I was pushed out. 

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It was 2014 when I joined, the brand was under a microscope as they manoeuvred through major leadership changes as the notorious ex-CEO Mike Jeffrey stepped down. After many years of doubling down on their poor diversity and inclusion efforts, intrinsic discrimination charges, exclusionary marketing, and racism lawsuits, A&F was looking for a transformative re-brand. As a Black woman, it had never felt like a safer time for me to jump onto it. Their marketing made me feel like people that look like me now mattered. 

At the time, I had dark hair with wavy extensions that I very proudly dip-dyed blue. During my interview, I was told my hair didn't comply with uniform policy, so that same day I cut the blue out without hesitation. During orientation, I watched a video with people from different nationalities saying how much the company embraced diversity and championed people of all different backgrounds. There was even a Black woman in management wearing an Afro. I felt seen. 

I loved my years as what they called a “brand representative” (formerly known as a model). It was a fun and eccentric job, and a refreshing distraction from my maths degree seminars. But I started seeing and hearing things in the company that were suspicious. Stores had a “Diversity & Inclusion” notice board which felt like optics. They proudly displayed a sheet with names and profiles of the D&I council full of people – from senior managers and above – who were supposed to be representatives of the company. And yet, after the brand revealed it had increased its POC staff ratio to 53% in 2011, from 10% in 2004, as of 2018, zero of the 15 members of the D&I global council were Black and only two of them were visibly of colour.

I remember a member from my senior management posting on their Instagram feed an image of five young white people (four of them having blonde hair and blue or brown eyes) holding signs saying their nationalities: “Welsh, Swedish, Danish, Greek, American, Dutch” and another sign saying “Diversity & Inclusion” with a very non-discrete caption reading: “#beinclusive #eraseexclusion #31027 #hco #hollister *surf emoji”. It felt like satire, but it was serious. I know, because I challenged it. I knew from that post alone [although that not being the only post] that the brand had failed its mission to effectively educate staff with its D&I initiative in that ten-year run full of lawsuits and bad press. The staff simply did not understand how they could create a safe and inclusive environment for marginalised groups, and that was alarming. 

There were numerous incidents that would have made anyone chuck out their flip-flops (the phrase used for departing A&F employees), but my ‘don’t quit’ mentally often kicked in. One time, a Caucasian staffer accused me of throwing an object at them and I was reprimanded. But when the CCTV cameras were checked, they confirmed it was totally fabricated. She was not apprehended for falsely accusing me of a serious offense. She proceeded to get promoted a few months later.

On another occasion, a Black family walked into the store and a senior manager pointed them out to me asking: "Is that your family?". On numerous other occasions, the N-word was used as “a joke” or as ‘part of lyrics’, on and off the shop floor.

There was a culture of celebrating mediocrity – if you looked like Mike Jeffrey’s vision of ‘attractive’. Anyone else had to be exceptional and complicit, otherwise, they would likely get pushed out, one way or another.

Things began to change when I started showing signs of wanting to progress. For me, as a Black woman, the rules were different, and the goalposts for progression kept changing. I was being asked to go further than my colleagues in order to get half of the credit. I was treated poorly by seniors, patronised, gaslighted, accused of things I didn’t do, and regularly had the “Angry Black Woman” trope thrown at me without any basis. 

I applied to do the retail management graduate scheme with the brand which fast tracks you to an assistant manager position, without you having the experience. A position had become available at the store I worked at part-time, and my managers – with whom I’d built a good rapport  – often reminded me that they couldn’t think of anybody better for the job.

In the documentary, one of the case studies follows Samantha Elauf who is a fashion blogger, who took the company to the Supreme Court and successfully sued A&F for religious discrimination because they refused to hire her for wearing a hijab. 

When I applied for the Manager In Training role (that can fast track you into becoming an Assistant Manager in three months), I didn’t get the job, which I was disappointed about. The feedback I received from a more senior manager was that I didn’t have “enough management experience”, which was not a requirement for the graduate scheme. Incidentally, the girl who eventually got the job was a graduate with no previous management experience either, she was white. A few months later this happened to another fellow Black colleague of mine at the same store. 

At the time, I figured it was a district problem, so I decided to apply for the same role in the London, UK district instead. This time I got it and I was grateful for the opportunity.

I wasn’t aware of any other Black manager in the entire district at that time. They made me feel like I was a prize and a token for change. The company also reminded us often that they hired from within which meant that the talent pool for selection was smaller and stricter, giving us better opportunities for job progression. All you needed was to show that you worked hard and were passionate about the brand, and you could make your way to the top. It felt like we all had a fair chance. I was sold a dream. I was wrong. 

I was routinely rated “excellent” on my quarterly reviews, then a senior manager joined, claiming that they were “intimidated” by me without grounds, and gave me a yearly report rated: “poor”. It placed me back on probation without the opportunity for a raise anytime soon. A more senior manager eventually joined in on what felt like an attack. I felt bullied, I didn’t understand why I was being so harshly punished. 

In fact, after that notorious yearly review, the senior manager was shocked about how receptive I was to the feedback and said: "Phew, that went well!" and when I questioned that statement they proceeded to tell me "Oh, we were very worried, and a more senior manager wanted to come because we didn't know how you would react". I felt like a wild animal. I questioned this too. They told me that my quietness was “passive-aggressive”. Being a Black woman with a voice was the perfect trifecta of someone who they absolutely did not want climbing their exclusive ladder. 

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I was spoken to like I was stupid and uneducated and working in that environment made me feel inadequate and singled out. I was pushed to the brink of anxiety and when I finally decided to hand in the keys and *metaphorically* hang up my flip flops I gave a thorough breakdown of my experience to the HR department during my exit interview. The senior management team, whose negative treatment I’d documented, all proceeded to be promoted. 

I am aware that my experiences were at a significant time of change, and change doesn’t happen overnight. Their marketing has since been more inclusive in terms of race, religion, sexual orientation, sizing and just general identity, and I hear they are now more receptive to negative feedback, both internally and externally.

However, that was not my experience and although I haven’t set foot in a store in four years, former colleagues informed me that there is work still to be done. I hope that these experiences opened the eyes of those that make the decisions, as this damaging culture has trickled down to generations of leadership and has been inherited like a treasured family heirloom. It will take a much more genuine effort to change and evolve the experience of employees and shoppers for the better. Brands have an undeniable power to help shape society, this is a direct reflection of that. The era of ‘white-hot’ is dead.

GLAMOUR UK approached Abercrombie & Fitch for comment. A spokesperson for the brand responded with the below:

"We are disheartened to hear about your experience with A&F Co. The behavior you described was wrong then and would not be tolerated now. Our culture today encourages speaking up and creating an open dialogue with team leadership and ensures that all associates have equal opportunities to excel. We believe in attracting, retaining and developing diverse, qualified talent, representing different backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets. Fostering an equitable and inclusive work environment is integral to our company's success. We’ve taken steps to improve and sustain representation across all dimensions of diversity throughout our global home offices, stores and distribution centers. We have been on a journey to advance our Inclusion & Diversity efforts and as part of that commitment, we’ve actively engaged our global teams and customers through various initiatives including, continuing to build our Associate Resource Groups, creating relationships with key community partners like the Human Rights Campaign, The Trevor Project and The Steve Fund, establishing further diverse talent pipelines by broadening our reach to underrepresented talent pools, engaging our social communities through purpose-led content on Instagram, developing more pathways to learning through our internal Courageous Conversations series, and ensuring ongoing open and honest communication. As we move forward, we remain committed to partnering with internal and external stakeholders to hold us accountable as we continue our transformation focused on inclusivity."

For more from Glamour UK Beauty & Entertainment Assistant Shei Mamona, follow her on Instagram @sheimamona