Illustration by Chiara Sbolci
In the summer of 2007, people were tapping their thumbs on iPhone screens for the first time. Amy Winehouse was alive, as were Alexander McQueen and Heath Ledger; Lindsay Lohan was still being hired to act in movies (more or less); and in a few months, a burned copy of Tha Carter III would play nonstop in my Nissan Maxima.
I had graduated earlier that spring and moved to Los Angeles in an effort to avoid the lawyers and wedding planners with whom I had gone to college. With an unspeakable amount of money owed in student loans, I needed cash and I needed to make some friends, so I took the first job I came across: working as a sales associate at the True Religion store in Beverly Hills.
Having grown up in a small town in New Hampshire, I thought True Religion was the epitome of sophistication. To pay $167 for a pair of jeans had to be cosmopolitan. I would soon learn that the brand's aesthetic was more Vegas cowboy than Sloaney pony, but that's really splitting hairs. It was a day job, anyway, and I was confident that I would soon be so inundated with auditions and writing gigs that I'd be out of there soon enough.
The shop was located on Robertson Boulevard across the street from Kitson, a store known for popularizing Team Aniston t-shirts and everything Heidi Montag ever wore. It was not unusual to see paparazzi chasing down Eva Longoria, Paris Hilton, or LiLo, as they perused the new seasons at Intermix and Tory Burch. Once, Kate Beckinsale ran straight through our shop and out the stockroom exit to escape the paps.
Charmingly enough, the neighborhood still hadn't decided exactly what it was, indicated by the presence of Robert Clergerie, Agnès B, and Camper in close proximity. Soon enough Kira Plastinina (the fashion label started by a 15-year-old Russian heiress) and Rock and Republic moved in, eliminating all doubt that this neighborhood embraced the apex of noughties ideals—trend over style.
My favorite co-worker at TRBJ was a young Japanese woman named Summer. She said she got her name because a group of kids in her neighborhood, who liked to play with her collection of Japanese toys, insisted that she was—not looked like, but actually was—the Asian American character from Clueless. Summer was married to a man of unknown employment, who occasionally swung by the back entrance of the shop wearing a hoodie and dark sunglasses, driving a gold Mercedes SL. Summer herself drove a top of the line Range Rover, which she whipped around with a confidence that no one should have in a car that size. When I asked why she was working retail, since she clearly wasn't struggling for dough, she vaguely dismissed it as a favor to the owner. I also asked why she didn't wear her wedding ring to work, to which she replied, "It's too flashy," without a whiff of irony.
The rest of the crew included the grumpy store manager who saved all her vacation and sick days to travel to Humboldt County for marijuana picking season; the often grumpier but always impeccably dressed assistant manager, who became my boyfriend during the interim months between my acceptance to and leaving for graduate school; a gaggle of models/actresses/FIDM students who lived for sales at Bebe; and a part-time employee we called the Germ.
The Germ would swoop in on weekends and steal everyone's sales (we worked for individual commission, which is a sound idea only if you want to create Machiavellian warfare among your employees). He would encourage customers to buy shirts that clearly didn't fit them (none of the men's shirts fit anyone, of any shape or size); convince them to splurge on the flashiest, most heavily stitched and rhinestone-encrusted denim; promise them that the canary yellow purse, "handmade" in Italy, was a wardrobe staple. And without fail, three days later, these people would be back returning it all.
The most surprising thing I learned at TRBJ was that shoppers actually wanted to hear the truth. Whereas the Germ would try any sort of flattery to close a deal, I found that a much more reliable way to engender a sale was to bring the customer down a peg—tell them, nope, you know what, that fit does nothing for your ass, let's try the ones without button pockets. They felt that you were honest, not just trying to up-sell them, which inclined them to buy everything you flung over the dressing room wall.
When you work retail, you develop a funny relationship to your customers. It's not that you know them, but you can start to feel like you do—and sometimes they feel like they know you, too. One of our customers tried to woo me into going on a date with him by presenting me with a Christian Audigier shirt. (Over the years, I watched the huge Christian Audigier shop on Melrose downgrade to an Ed Hardy store, then an Ed Hardy outlet, and then an empty retail space for lease.) He was a French rapper who came into the shop multiple times, but never bought anything. Then he sprung the shirt on me, and I learned that any person who has ever been in possession of an Amex Black Card believes that he is the member of a secret society that entitles him to constant adulation, fully expecting anyone in the service industry to drop to her knees when she encounters the card's metallic weight and sharp edges. The Black Card is the coalescence of noughties values: it's bottle service and Juicy Couture sweatsuits and hair extensions and gradated Tom Ford sunglasses in currency form.
My favorite customers were the foreign plutocrats, all with the same floppy haircuts and Polo shirts with that giant horse, who were usually friendly and surprised when you could identify where they were from. More than anything, they had a sense of shame that was truly endearing. Aware, unlike their American counterparts, that this whole charade was pretty ridiculous. Maybe they didn't know about the impending global economic collapse (they probably did), but the sense lingered around them that this frenzy of consumption was a tenuous trend.
After the store manager finally quit, a new manager, Robbie, was poached from the Ted Baker shop across the street. Robbie was big on ethnic profiling: If you were young and African American, he would hover around you like a helicopter over Baldwin Hills; if a woman in a silk headscarf and sunglasses walked in, he would makes us foist the most expensive product onto her. He obsessively tracked foot traffic throughout the day, and if someone came in to return something, we had to make up for it in double the value in sales. Robbie did his best to destroy any notion I had that commerce could be an interpersonal exchange of ideas, an expression of individuality; everyone was a chip in the system, expected to perform their task.
Not long after that, I quit too. In the summer of 2008, I got accepted to a masters program in Classical Acting and moved to London for a year. I proudly embarked on that experience with no expectations: I'd never been to London, never lived outside the US, I knew little of class systems or the significance of regional accents. In fact, I was so untroubled by what the future might hold that upon my arrival to the UK, I briefly moved in with a woman whom I'd met while working at True Religion. She was a semi-regular customer who lived with her three adult children in a stunning flat in Kensington. I may have Googled her before I left, but I also may have not; I honestly can't recall. I definitely did not know what or where Kensington was. Nonetheless, that fall I took a plane, then a taxi to the address she wrote down on a piece of receipt paper, and started a new chapter of my life.
Drama school changed everything for me. I learned how to do a passable RP accent, how to breathe in a Shakespearean soliloquy, how to stage fight with a rapier and dagger. I learned how to cry on cue. I studied John Ford and Cecily Berry and Yat Malmgren. I learned, in a fundamental way, that every person perceives the world differently—that no one, not a sibling or soulmate or parent will see the world exactly as you do. Making those ephemeral moments of connection and flow all the more meaningful. And I learned that it didn't matter what success I had in ten months; the goal was ten years. Rejection is a fact of life, but if you have conviction in your art, your story, your view, you'll find a way to tell it.
And in a way, I see threads of those lessons from my time at True Religion Brand Jeans. I recently learned via Instagram that my ex-boyfriend/assistant manager is engaged. Summer and her husband divorced after she learned that a friend of his with "connections" at the NSA hacked into her phone, read all her messages, and deleted contacts of whom her husband didn't approve.
A lot has changed since 2007. Selfie sticks are now a thing, as are hashtags and the Kardashians. The Hummers and Bentleys that once clogged West side traffic have all been replaced by Teslas. Twitter fights and ayahuasca ceremonies have overtaken crotch shots and prawn diets as the preferred celebrity fads. True Religion Brand Jeans has become embroiled in multiple lawsuits.
Too many artistic geniuses have met an untimely demise, and everyone left seems to think they're Basquiat. Fashion has adopted something called "athleisure," which, if you ask me, is an improvement. I'm back in Los Angeles, trying to assemble a career of which I can be proud. It's the small things, the marginal wins, that move us forward. And I am grateful that we're no longer expected to wear uncomfortable, unaffordable jeans while we do it.
Follow Sandha Khin on Twitter.