Recently, I was contacted by a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, who found this blog and wanted to interview me for a story. It had nothing to do with being a mom, or the challenges of raising a heart-tranplant baby - stuff I could talk about with some semblance of poise.
She wanted to talk to me about my folding habits.
Yeah. Folding - like clothes. Seems she stumbled across a meme post I did, about personal quirks. In it, I mentioned a seasonal stint at the Gap, where I learned the folding techniques that still bring me such joy today. We spent a large chunk of monkey nap time talking about this.
Here's the text of the article, which appeared in today's Wall Street Journal. I don't know whether to giggle at the sheer silliness of how I sound, or hang my head in shame. Maybe the moral of the story is, be careful what you put out there in the blogosphere. It may come back to haunt you.
But, for the record, I stand by my folding style, and challenge anyone to fit more t-shirts neatly into a drawer than I can.
Excuse Me, Do You Work Here?
No, I Just Need to Fold Clothes
Thousands of Neat Freaks Picked Up
The Habit as Clerks at the Gap
By JENNIFER SARANOW
July 9, 2008
On those rare occasions her husband, Brad, folds the laundry, Joanne Ross-MacLeod can't keep herself from refolding it. She recently undid a pair of leggings he had bunched up into a small square. She folded one leg onto the other, brought the bottom up past the knees, then the knees up to the waist, in the manner she had learned 20 years ago folding jeans at the Gap.
The 39-year-old fabric-product developer didn't tell her husband. But he's used to it. Folding is a subject on which the Kenosha, Wisc., couple agree to disagree. "I need therapy," Mrs. Ross-MacLeod says.
She isn't the only one. The ranks of obsessive folders have swelled in recent years as a generation of Americans has done stints as clothing-store clerks. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, annual nonsupervisory employment in clothing and clothing-accessory stores grew to nearly 1.3 million workers in 2007, up nearly 20% from 1990. Gap Inc. says it has trained "hundreds of thousands" of Gap store employees in the art of folding since the late 1980s.
Along the way, legions of retail grads have spent countless hours neatly folding T-shirts and jeans and stacking them on tables and shelves. Now, their peculiar idea of perfection is straining marriages and leading to bizarre behavior ranging from buying clothes based on an item's foldability to straightening up sloppy displays while shopping.
Thirty-six-year-old Sadaf Trimarchi stopped doing laundry for her husband two years ago, she says, after he complained that she had folded his undershirts so tightly and stacked them so neatly in his drawer that he couldn't tell which were V-necks and which were crew necks.
"He had no idea what he was talking about," says Mrs. Trimarchi, of Leonia, N.J., who learned the basics of her folding technique at Gap during the 1989 holiday season. Her husband, Jeff Trimarchi, 34, says she caught him refolding and he explained his frustration as nicely as possible. "I imagine she took offense," he says.
Like military veterans who just naturally fold sheets with hospital corners when they make beds, today's retail refugees say they can't help themselves. "It's been programmed into me," says Marcos Chin, a 33-year-old free-lance illustrator in New York, who folds his jeans the same way he did in the 1990s when he gave folding seminars for clerks at Gap.
Phil Walmsley, 24, of Vancouver, still uses the plastic folding board he stealthily slipped into his backpack on his last day of work at Club Monaco five years ago. "I like the idea of having a perfectly folded closet," says the graphic designer. "It's kind of like my own little retail store."
Michael Jenike, chairman of the scientific advisory board for the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation in Boston, says he has treated people who have folding compulsions but doesn't recall whether any of them had ever worked at clothing stores. He says compulsive folding becomes a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder only if someone is spending excessive amounts of time doing it, doesn't want to do it but feels compelled to and the behavior is causing distress. Otherwise, it's just a harmless habit.
The folding craze at Gap began in the 1980s when Millard Drexler, who as a boy had sorted towels at his uncle's towel-delivery service, took the helm as president of the Gap Stores division. At the time, most store clerks hung clothes on racks because hanging merchandise was far easier to maintain. But Mr. Drexler and his team put tables in Gap stores and had employees decorate them with piles of folded shirts and sweaters. The goal was to better emphasize certain items and color choices and make it easier for customers to sort through clothes. Shoppers found the displays inviting -- but displays needed constant attention from clerks.
Other chains trying to mimic Gap's success soon adopted the look, and clerks everywhere were spending hours folding. "Over the past 10 or more years, the trend has definitely been to more folding," says RoxAnna Sway, editor-in-chief of DDI magazine, which focuses on retail design and display.
Romey Louangvilay stopped working at Abercrombie & Fitch three years ago but it was only last October that he was finally able to go shopping without automatically spending 10 or 15 minutes refolding messy T-shirt piles in stores. The 22-year-old assistant account executive for a public-relations firm in New York forced himself to kick the habit after growing tired of having to awkwardly explain himself to other customers asking him for help. "I still kind of have the urge to do it," he says.
Mr. Louangvilay's friends notice his folding tendencies, too, and sometimes jokingly mess up his neat, color-coded piles. "Everyone makes fun of Romey for his folding habits because it's so weird," says Mandella Dwayne Lambert, a 23-year-old mutual-fund accountant in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Everything in his drawers looks like a store layout."
Over the past decade, former retail workers have invented a slew of folding-aid products with names like FlipFold and Mobilefold, many of which are bought by former clothing clerks. Jeff LaPace, president of Customer Minded Associates Inc., maker of the nearly $300 Mobilefold, a portable folding table meant primarily for retailers, says the company has received so many orders from people who used to work at stores like Gap that it's rolling out a less-expensive consumer version later this year.
Some clothing-store alums are letting folding dictate their clothing choices as well. Tychelle Mc Laurin, 35, hasn't bought a sweater or a shirt with wide bell- or cape-like sleeves since she worked at J. Crew in 2004. That's because the compliance officer in Jersey City, N.J., can't easily and neatly fold the sleeves using a "trifold" she perfected after working at J. Crew. "I don't think those styles look attractive folded," she says. "They are difficult to fold -- like folding a batman cape."
For traveling, Lauren Smith, 24, avoids duffel bags and sticks with hard, rectangular suitcases. They better hold and maintain the uniform, rectangular piles Ms. Smith stacks her clothes into when packing, using the folding technique she learned working at Gap when she was in high school. The packed clothes "look like they would be sitting on display," says Ms. Smith, an interior-design saleswoman in Atlanta. She says her packing technique keeps clothes wrinkle-free.
It isn't clear whether the next generation of retailers will produce so many compulsive folders.
Today, more stores, including Gap, are receiving their merchandise already folded. Other chains like lululemon athletica and Hollister Co. are encouraging employees to make merchandise look messy or wrinkled. Within the past year, mainstream retailers, including Banana Republic's new Monogram concept store and even Gap itself, have begun hanging more merchandise, whether to emulate a sparsely merchandised high-end boutique in the case of the former or to emphasize unique styles and details in the case of the later.
"In women's, we are hanging more because there is more fashion there and more detail that gets enhanced with hanging," says Felicity McGahan, vice president of store visuals and experience at the Gap brand. Finding the balance between hanging and folding, she says, "is something that we've actually put a lot of time into in the last 12 months."
Write to Jennifer Saranow at email@example.com