How I spent my summer: Naomi Klein
Author Naomi Klein’s summer retail rebellion
Long before the famous author of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies – and, later this summer, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World – became the face of anti-consumerism and climate justice, B.C.-based journalist Naomi Klein held an unlikely, albeit very fitting, gig in retail: Selling (heavily-branded) women’s clothing at Esprit. A summer spent working in a Montreal shopping mall taught Ms. Klein about working for, fighting against and ultimately getting axed by corporate overlords.
It was the summer after Grade 8, so I was probably 14 or 15. I’d worked a few jobs before – babysitting, which I was really bad at, and a short-lived job at a salad bar in a food court – before I moved into retail, specifically clothing. I basically just wanted the discount, starting at Le Château, but then I “graduated” to Esprit.
I’m not going to name my friend, cause she knows who she is, but she worked there already and got me the job. She sold it to me like we’d run the place together, try on clothes all day – and we could shoplift. In practice, it was mostly a whole lot of folding. I’m still really good at folding laundry.
Once I got there, it turned out they had this whole handbook about how to be what they called an “Esprit girl.” She was very specific-looking and fresh-faced and wholesome. It included everything from the length of our fingernails to no nose rings or heavy makeup. It was quite demanding, considering we were kids being paid minimum wage, so my friend and I had a good time laughing about the whole dumb notion of Esprit girls.
We had a very lackadaisical manager, meanwhile, who did not care to enforce any of the rules. They were probably not paying her much more than us, so I get it, but she basically tapped out, leaving us to run the store. We stopped following the handbook and ignored the customers, who eventually complained. There also may have been some “inventory issues,” if you know what I mean.
The store had these huge advertisements of the Esprit girls we were supposed to look like all over the place. We hated the idea that we had to perform their brand. Someone actually blackened out a front tooth of the Esprit girl with a pen. I swear this wasn’t me, though I think I got blamed for it anyway. I guess that’s when things were officially getting out of hand.
Headquarters brought in a regional manager to deal with us. We had a serious meeting in the store, during which I may have talked back a bit and explained how the rules were unfair. I was supposed to apologize and promise to change, but I didn’t. The manager determined that I was the ringleader of this uprising, even though I still maintain I was second in command.
Then I’ll never forget this part: She took me out to the back hallway and said to me, “There’s going to be a time in your life when a lot of people will listen to you. But that time is not now.” Then she fired me.
That was the end of my career at Esprit, which had only been about three months. I wasn’t mad about being fired, at first, but then I remember talking to someone about what happened and he said, “That sounds like getting fired for union work.” I didn’t see it as organizing or activism at the time; I just thought the rules about how to do our hair and nails were ridiculous. I got madder later on.
The takeaway for me was that just because some company was paying me minimum wage, they didn’t have the right to tell me what to wear or how to cut my hair or how to be. We wanted to be Montreal bad girls. It was the mid-80s, we weren’t going for their fresh-faced look. I just wasn’t an Esprit girl and they couldn’t make me one.