People would always say to me, more than anything else, that the store’s smell was too strong—that all you could smell was cologne. They’d walk up to the registers and say, stone-faced, that it stung their eyes. How could you shop for clothes, they’d say, if you had to walk through a humidor of fragrance spritzes to get to them?
(It was a mandate, by the way: to spray their musky cologne every thirty minutes on every mannequin, every T-stand, every meticulously folded sweatshirt and jean wall. To literally walk around and spritz everything in sight. It became the unofficial smell of unrequited crushes, weekend bonfire parties, sneaking off from the group and making out. And if the District or Regional Manager popped in on a whim and was not greeted with a sharp palisade in air quality, if they couldn’t smell it from the mall entrance, if they were not embalmed in the perfume the moment they entered the store, we’d hear about it.)
I worked on and off as a manager at Abercrombie & Fitch for years. It was a go-to job after college, as I navigated the film industry in Los Angeles, and after graduate school, as I tried to figure out what to do with two English degrees. The job, I quickly found out, in addition to running the store generally, required me to be a doormat—to absorb the daily barrage of (typically) mothers who hated the brand, the low-cut tops and low-rise jeans, the sex appeal and overt-sleaze, as they saw it, that was dangerous and inviting their children into a world they had been protecting them from their whole lives. A&F was, as I was told time and time again—reminded often by my own family, too—everything that was wrong with the world.
The first time I experienced this blinding animosity, a few weeks into the job in West Michigan, I was the only manager in the store, running the registers. I was drinking a giant-sized blue raspberry Slurpee throughout my shift. This was 2003, the last year the infamous in-house magazine/catalog A&F Quarterly would be printed. There had been widespread outrage over models appearing flat-out nude in the pages, no Abercrombie clothes in sight.
A mom stormed in with a copy of the back to school issue, titled—not subtly—the “Sex Ed Issue.” It was dog-eared, bent. It looked like pages had been torn out, others burned with a lighter. She chucked it at us behind the register as she stormed forward, me and the two college freshman Brand Representatives (their official, Orwellian titles). We all ducked, and the dictionary-thick magazine slapped against the back wall, fell open along the floor to a page that showed, simply, in black and white, two men and a woman running naked toward the ocean, mountains hovering sleeplessly in the distance bearing no trees, no snow, naked themselves.
The mom cussed at us for a couple of minutes. Her face puckered and reddened. Did we know the damage a book like this would cause her son!? she asked us. Why were we peddling such perversion! We did as we had been instructed, though, and listened, waited. We nodded along.
After her rant, the store muzak drummed up, the beat of nameless European techno sweetening our eardrums once more, the ceaseless rhythms she’d been screaming over returning, pounding. She looked me up and down, arms crossed, a bag hanging over her shoulder I hadn’t noticed before. She said, “And I have some returns.”
The problem was with the color red.
If you had cherry, raspberry, watermelon, and strawberry flavored products, how could you distinguish them by color, these red fruits? It was a simple question with a complex answer.
In the late 1950s, consumers were growing impatient and demanded to know if the ever-growing world of food additives was safe—if these artificial colors and flavors being added were dangerous in the quantities they were consuming them.
For a while, Red No. 2, which produced a deep red wine color, was used to color raspberry flavored items. But word got out that Red No. 2 especially was unsafe, poisonous. In 1958, the Food Additives Amendment was passed, dictating that food manufactures had to prove additives they used were safe. Red No. 2 was, but the public found out this study was funded by the very same industry that made the dyes, and Red No. 2 seemed to have its day—banned outright in 1976 in the United States.
So, the color for raspberries was quickly ousted, and manufacturers were left scratching their heads: Raspberry was a popular flavor, but they had no way to distinguish it. What was there to do?
Founded as an outfitter of expensive sporting and outdoors goods, Abercrombie & Fitch existed in that model until 1977. Exchanging hands for eleven years, it emerged in 1988 as a subsidiary of Limited Brands the way your high school crush emerged after a summer break of touring Europe with their family: the acne’s gone, they’re taller, there’s a worldliness to them you can’t quite place but you find irresistible, and they have little to no interest in you any longer.
And from there, infamy was achieved: the brand became associated with the “popular” and the “elite.” Kids saved up to buy just one of their infamous graphic t-shirts with the bad sex puns. The A&F brand was billed as a lifestyle, a way of life geared towards high school and early college students.
Wear A&F, the stores lauded, and see the world!
Wear A&F and get straight A’s!
Wear A&F and be good at all sports!
Wear A&F and get invited to all the parties!
Wear A&F and everyone will want to talk to you!
Wear A&F and be cool!
Wear A&F and get laid!
Wear A&F and never be alone again!
ICEE, the still-popular frozen carbonated beverage, changed the artificial raspberry game.
In the early 1970s, raspberry flavors still floundering without a color to call their own, The ICEE Company got creative: they had incalculable quantities of blue dye sitting around, but no naturally blue products to marry it with.
But, they said, what about the whitebark raspberry that turns a dark blue when ripe?
(Although, if we’re being honest, it’s more of a deep purple. Still…)
Yes! they said. Good enough!
And so, raspberry flavoring was paired with Blue No. 1 dye. Blue raspberry was born.
The CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, Mike Jefferies, was legendary. He once said in an interview, “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.”
The phrase “good-looking people” was one I came to despise. I saw how it made people feel, shopping in our store. The management culture was one of cold-shouldering-rejection. We were supposed to ignore customers—we were told, in no certain terms—to seem “out of touch” with what was going on. It would make customers want to be part of our brand.
Once, I arrived at the store epically hungover. I formed go-backs in a dressing room into a sort of mattress, covered myself with wool-lined jean jackets and distressed green surplus coats, and napped. The other workers—friends, at the time—knew to leave me alone.
When I woke up twenty or so minutes later, I had drooled on the clothes, made a sort of nest. I looked at myself in the mirror: ruddy-faced, blood-shot eyes, sunken cheeks. On the wall behind me hung a poster advertising the new styles of jeans for the upcoming winter season. I admired the way they hung on the hips of the male model, how they fit him perfectly, even though I knew how these photos worked: clothes pinned and pulled back, tightened and loosened for maximum perfection.
My bleary-brained reflection in the mirror, unshaven, earlobes too long and knees that bowed inward, was off-brand. He didn’t, at all, look the part.
Other companies followed ICEE’s lead, pairing Blue No. 2 with raspberry flavor, leading children everywhere clamoring for the electric blue color, the electric blue. But why?
Back in 1922, American chemist Melvin De Groote was one of the first to study children’s attractions to brightly—and often unnatural—colored foods. It’s how, for example, pink lemonade was born: it sold better than the typically colorless regular lemonade. Children just had to have that pink-colored beverage.
This appeal has been capitalized on ever since. It doesn’t matter that dazzlingly blue raspberries don’t exist in nature. It doesn’t matter that most, even today, haven’t heard of the whitebark raspberry. (Native to the Western United States, Alaska, parts of Mexico, the fruit is too soft to be grown commercially—it wouldn’t survive the farming, the packaging and shipping—so no one bothers. It’s a trophy, a niche fruit. It’s a dream.) What matters is the manipulation: these companies can, with great success, tell our brains how to react.
We don’t even know yet all the ways we’ve been spellbound.
The A&F brand represented a twisted view of what “beautiful” was and should be.
During the holidays, A&F paraded shirtless men in Santa hats, women in barely-there camisoles (Yes, yes! I learned what a cami was working there!) and pajama pants folded down real low, right below the hipbone, underwear sticking out. Consumers and media reported on it, aghast, derided the brand’s loose standards, and I, too, working there, hated this adherence to one-kind-only physical perfection—oversexed, standoffish, their way or nothing at all.
There were posters we managers would get, hung up in the back office, that showed exactly how the models at the front of the store had to wear the clothes, what angle shirts and hats and pants had to be tilted to, how much cuff jeans should have. It was horrible. I felt uncomfortable about my own body already, had suffered my whole life with body issues, how I saw (and still see) myself, and I detested seeing people feel as if they didn’t belong based only on what they looked like—on physical traits they couldn’t change.
And yet, it worked. The stores were always packed. People came by with digital cameras and early camera phones and snapped photos with the models. People hung out in the store, met friends and flirted there. They made wish lists of expensive t-shirts they couldn’t afford, tried on sweatshirts and outerwear they’d never actually own. It was a place to meet. A clothing store that people wanted to hang out in, to be seen in. To be viewed, perhaps, the way the models were viewed. That they, too, had potential.
Blue raspberry flavor makes your tongue, your lips, turn blue.
Blue raspberry flavor burns your tongue with its too-sweetness.
Blue raspberry flavor stains the plastic snow-cone cup rim, your fingernails.
Blue raspberry flavor won’t get your eighth-grade crush to talk to you, won’t make you seem more interesting.
Blue raspberry flavor won’t get your parents to stop fighting or your brother to stop stabbing knives into the drywall.
Blue raspberry flavor won’t teach you how to talk to people, how to be yourself. It will only tell you how to lie, how to become something you’re not.
Rumors swirled about Jefferies leading up to his famous in-store visits, every time—that he had calf implants, pectoral and chin implants. That he had distorted his body to the point of being unrecognizably non-human. That he refused to talk to people he considered ugly. We asked each other, scoffed, What right did a man who hated the way he looked so ruthlessly, who changed himself so tremendously, have telling us if we were good-looking enough or not?
And yet, his visits were short, albeit gaudy, affairs. They were meant to be surprise visits. To catch us off guard. We spent so much time folding jean walls, folding shirts with perfect creases, and tucked away at the Home Office in rural Ohio, he assumed (wrongly, oh so wrongly!) that clothing stayed like this in the stores when he wasn’t around. That, magically, after a busy Saturday, piles of clothes remained untouched, lorded over, fantasized about, folds remaining unbroken, unaffected by customers.
But word about impending visits would get out, as it always did. Regional Managers would whisper to District Managers: It’s your store, be ready! And then you had to pull all-nighters, get no sleep, order pizza in and listen to music and fold and re-fold piles of everything, again and again measuring stacks against thick plastic folding boards and wooden rulers. And then, the next day, the visit would happen. Everyone was placed perfectly in the store, every room decked out in Brand Representatives wearing the new hotness of the season, everyone would be smiling, the whole place lacquered with cologne. You’d get a call from someone: Jefferies is in the mall!
The store would be on high alert. Higher-ups lingered nervously, as if he never made these visits. And then Jefferies would stroll in, followed by a cavalcade of lackeys all wearing the A&F brand, middle-agers wearing popped-collar polos, distressed jeans, A&F sandals. Jefferies would literally strut in, walk to the back of the store to the register, look around, smile at the staff, and then march back out. And that was it.
In all my time working at A&F, I saw him twice, in-person. He looked just like a…man. I couldn’t see his calves, his chin looked like a normal chin. And yet, each season more posters arrived full of mandates about how we had to look, how we had to tell our employees how to look, what haircuts were acceptable, what colors were on- and off-limits. Each season we were told, bit by bit, to let go of who we were and give in to the Brand. They told us, every time, that we just weren’t good enough.
Many artificial flavors are combinations of other artificial flavors—raspberry contains, for example, more cherry and banana and pineapple artificial flavoring than actual raspberry. We’re being conditioned in ways we can never fully understand. We’re tasting a thing that exists nowhere but in our minds.
Working at A&F taught me about layering clothes—two polo shirts, yes, three t-shirts at a time, too—and to love jackets and denim, how to put an outfit together. But it also taught me how to hate my body.
I’d flip through the catalog at the models, I remind myself now, whose job it is to look that way. They do nothing else all day but workout to look like that, I tell myself. And yet, I’m back there in that stockroom, often, back in that tiny cramped office looking at the mandates from Home Office on how the male employees should dress, feeling ashamed at how I look in the mirror beside the printed photo directives. In those photos, the models’ hair never grays and they never grow course hair on their backs or their necks and their football-sized biceps with the veins perfectly center-mounted and their teeth so white and their square jaws like action movie stars and and—
Whitebark raspberries don’t look like what we imagine raspberries to look like—the color, obviously, is off from what we see in picture books and imagine in our minds, and they’re oblong, resembling blackberries, not the red raspberries we’re conditioned to imagine. They’re ugly, in the way expectations make something ugly.
I haven’t had an artificial blue raspberry Slurpee or ICEE or piece of candy since the mid-2000s. My taste for that flavor has vanished. But a couple years back, at the local farmer’s market, they were selling whitebark raspberries and I bought them on a lark. I was desperate to know what they tasted like.
Back home, I washed a handful and studied their shape. I popped one in my mouth and held it there a moment, rubbing my tongue along the drupelets. I bit in and it exploded, as berries do. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the flavor, the taste, trickling down my throat. It is, after all, exactly what it portends to be.
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com and on Twitter at @robhollywood.