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The Massive, Secretive Christian Clothing Chain You’ve Never Heard Of

Photo: Altar'd State
Photo: Altar'd State

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Every person has her white whale. Mine is a faith-based clothing chain called Altar'd State. If you don't live in the God-fearing heart of this great nation, or frequent its shopping malls, allow me to explain.


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There are currently 59 Altar'd State locations sprinkled throughout the South and Midwest, in 19 different states. The company's website details its history, which began with a single "modern Christian retail store" in Knoxville, Tennessee. It claims to "donate a total of 1% of all sales to local and international charities" and "fund employee volunteer hours each month." Despite its large footprint (59 stores! 19 states!), you can't find out much more about the brand than what I've just told you. This, my editor tells me, is a story.

So I contact corporate headquarters in Knoxville. They initially seem receptive to participating in this story, but after four weeks of back and forth, the company's home office withdraws its cooperation. The questions I sent over elicited "hesitations" from the leadership team, my point of contact explains in her last, apologetic email.

Then I reach out to 26 current and former Altar'd State employees for more information. All 26 either flat-out reject or ignore my pleas to briefly chat. I desperately want to talk to someone, anyone, with a direct connection to the company. But no one at Altar'd State wants to talk. Well, some want to talk — but they can't, legally speaking. They've all signed an NDA.

Photo: Altar'd State

As a reporter, you train for this sort of reluctance when covering covert military activity, the sex lives of political figures, or Star Wars plot rumors. But what does a clothing company that trades in moderately-priced blouses and wood blocks posterized with inoffensive truisms have to hide? Altar'd State seems innocuous enough, if not wholly well-intentioned.

What little information, criticism, or even news there is out there about the company, in the bowels of the internet, is limited to local news sites, personal blogs, and job listing aggregators. If the company does have anything to hide, it's the 2.4 rating it holds on Glassdoor, a vast company review database that archives millions of employee-submitted evaluations.

"If you want an accurate representation of the company, the reviews on Glassdoor are pretty spot-on," a former employee who requested anonymity tells me. "To be honest with you, I used to believe in everything Altar'd State stood for as a company. However, after working there for four years, I no longer do. If you want a positive outlook on the company, I won't be a good person to interview."

"If you want a positive outlook on the company, I won't be a good person to interview."

But I'm not looking for a positive outlook — I'm just looking for an outlook, period. Altar'd State stores house prayer request books in their dressing rooms, and I seriously consider taking out a whole page in the journal at the store near my Austin home to scribble down my phone number and doodle a prayer hands emoji. Because all I want is some (any!) information, and all I have are the 76 reviews on Glassdoor, a relatively small and entirely anonymous sample, but one that can't be discounted considering the range of geographic locations they cite and the consistency in their pros and cons. Just 37 percent of the reviewers approve of the CEO.

Which brings me to this.

"To be honest with you, we're a pretty under-the-radar company, so we're not big on doing interviews or things of that nature," Aaron Walters says on my voicemail more than a month after I give up on getting in touch with him. (Never before have I been so furious with myself for screening a call from a strange number.) Repeated calls made to Walters, the chairman and CEO of Altar'd State, over the following days go unanswered.

"Is there any way to convince you to not do this story?" he asks when he eleventh-hour returns my calls, that were returning his call, that he made in response to a press request I put into his company's chief charity partner. "All I have to go off of are those company reviews," I tell him. Walters says he'll speak to my editor, and then make a decision. The next day, he's in.


"SERVING as an inspiration, EMPOWERING others, by GIVING more than we receive, we stand out for good to glorify GOD," reads Altar'd State's mission statement.

Photo: Altar'd State

The story goes that Aaron Walters and business partner Brian Mason — whose combined CV includes executive positions at the now-closed Goody's Family Clothing, plus high-level gigs at Macy's, Walmart, Kohl's, Walgreens, and Proffitt's — founded Altar'd State in 2009 "with a mission to fill a gap in the retail industry and change the world for the better."

That same year, the Associated Press reported that Christian merchandise represented a $4.6 billion industry, though many of the category's products were gimmicky and pun-heavy, quite literally wearing religion on their sleeves. There was a hole to fill, and money to be made, for a company with a subtler approach and a keener sense of style.

Altar'd State does not sell Christian apparel. The company sells feminine and flirty womenswear that taps into boho-chic trends for the Instagram set. Its stores push both in-house brands and external labels, all showcasing looks that are big on antiqued lace, soft tulle, and crochet detailing, with plenty of flowy layers in muted colors.

Which is to say that for a self-described Christian fashion company, there's a surprising dearth of religious iconography when it comes to its clothes. Instead, there are graphic tees best worn by weekend warriors sipping on mimosas that read "Will Work for Brunch" and "I Hate Mondays."

But Altar'd State's faith is never far from view. Stores pipe in contemporary Christian music and the dressing rooms feature those aforementioned prayer request books. There are plenty of wood-block wall hangings with snappy messages like, "Just Sayin'," "Be Nice or Leave," and "I Totally Agree with Myself" — but the larger blocks displayed in-store include text like, "Be Patient. Our prayers are always answered but not always on the exact day we'd like them to be," and "Don't tell God that you have a big problem. Tell your problem that you have a big God." A display near the front entrance of the Austin store features hand towels with Philippians 4:13 alongside joke linens (all stitched in the same distressed Courier font) that define a calorie as, "A tiny creature that lives in your closet and sews your clothes a little tighter every night."

It only takes a lap around the store to figure out Altar'd State's MO: faith is part and parcel of everyday life, so items of holy inspiration should be nestled right alongside secular finds. There's no separation of church and state of mind.

Faith is part and parcel of everyday life, so items of holy inspiration should be nestled right alongside secular finds.

In a rare interview earlier this year, the company told conservative blog Politichicks, "Yes, we are a Christian company and most Christians pick up on that while shopping at our store. However, we like to think that no matter what your religion is, you can feel at home at Altar'd State."

Altar'd State first called itself Altar'd State Christian Stores, but dropped the "Christian" qualifier in 2012 while also adopting the tagline "faith meets fashion." By August of that same year, a new, comparatively non-religious slogan emerged: "Stand out. For good." Other language on the site clarified how the company planned to set itself apart from competitors: "Fashion focused. Cause motivated." Up until last month, the site's homepage had a prayer form, a digital version of those dressing room prayer request books. The "Our History" page on the website still notes that the original intent of the business was to create a "modernized Christian shopping experience," but Christianity, and more recently faith, have seemingly faded into the background.

"I'll be honest with you, we need to overhaul our website, which we're in the process of doing," says Walters. "I guess the way I would describe it is, we're a faith-based company, we have individuals from all backgrounds, all lifestyles, all beliefs who work for our company. So for example, we have individuals who are Jewish, Protestant, I mean, any background you can think of: atheist, Muslim, whatever it may be. So number one, we're all accepting. But part of the principle of really what we're trying to communicate there is living our faith, living through what our beliefs are, what our core beliefs are."

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"How I was raised is, ‘You should give to people in need,'" he rambles on. "And I found that I was very blessed at a very young age. And I was able to move up very fast at a very young age. So what we're really talking about, what we're really saying is doing it through your actions not your words. And how do you do that? Well, the first four-and-a-half years I worked for this company, I worked for free. We didn't have the money to pay me a salary, and we still gave back. I'm very proud of that."

And here's where I remind you the question was about the website.

But I get it. Walters wants his company's site to better represent its move from a boutique explicitly celebrating a specific faith to a chain endorsing volunteerism and charity.

Photo: Altar'd State

As per a 2010 story on AL.com, the name Altar'd State is a reference to both the altar of God and the altered life of a Christian, or, as Walters said at the time, "because when you live a Christian life, it is a different life." Giving back was also part of the internal company mandate from day one, says Walters, but it's tricky to pinpoint when exactly charity work became such an integral component of its public-facing brand identity.

The Mission Mondays program (in which 10 percent of the day's net proceeds go to a different local charity each month) has long been one of the tentpoles of Altar'd State's philanthropy program. That word choice — "mission" — is religiously evocative, but it's the only remaining vestige of the old messaging.

"They've repositioned their brand, which is smart," says Elisabeth Hinckley, a merchandise marketing professor at FIDM and a Los Angeles-based marketing and PR consultant. "A brand is like a living breathing entity, so as things change, you have to reposition. They haven't disassociated themselves with the past, but they've redefined what they stand for in a way that includes more people."


Photo: Altar'd State

The Altar'd State girl can feed her fashion taste and choose from a number of styles. The Altar'd State girl can honor her Christian faith, if applicable, by perusing the religiously-inspired home goods section or paging through the limited faith-based and devotional books the brand offers. The Altar'd State girl can be 14 — or 40.

"We are a mother-daughter store," says Walters. "A mother and a daughter can come in and shop, they can experience our store and enjoy the fitting rooms together. Maybe the daughter buys a little bit more product or apparel for herself, but we also have product that fits a fashion-forward mother. I think a mom and daughter being able to go into a store and spend three or four hours in a great fitting room and try things on and laugh and talk about it and have things that inspire them as they're doing it, in today's time, that's important."

On my recent Saturday visit to Altar'd State Austin, the store is filled with mother-daughter pairs. Over the course of an hour, I count one middle-aged woman shopping solo, and three shopping with boyfriends or husbands, trying on clothes I'd file under "Cool Mom." But the other 15 or so customers on the floor and in line for the dressing rooms are giddy teenage girls and accompanying moms checking the price tags.

"It's a bonding time for mother and daughter," continues Walters. "We're hitting that component of it. That's very hard to do because a lot of stores go one way or the other, where the daughter walks in and is like, ‘Oh, this is my mom's store,' or the mother walks in and is like, ‘Oh, that's my daughter's store.'"

Now let's talk about the clothes — namely, what sort of clothes appeal to both a teenaged girl and her mother and dovetail with the Christian values of the men who run a for-profit clothing company.

The items are by no means revealing, but shorts can be short, and bikinis are sold. "I wouldn't call them modest because that kind of connotation is, I don't know, not modern — and they're modern," says Jennifer Harding of Seek Wander Share, which partnered with the brand on a campaign last year.

"We feel like you can still carry very exciting clothes and still be right on-trend, appropriate. It's not that we're overly modest, we just try to be respectful."

The Altar'd State girl can show skin, but not too much skin, lest mom nix those mother-daughter shopping trips altogether. I can imagine the pieces displayed on the floor's mannequins — faux fur vests, beaded headbands that go around the forehead, plenty of feathers — being worn by a gaggle of girls attending their first music festival, with someone's fun mom in tow to keep an eye on things. "Conservative Coachella." "Bonnaroo Lite."

"It's one hundred percent a part of it," Walters says of the relative wholesomeness of the aesthetic. "The way we look at it is, we feel like you can still carry very exciting clothes and still be right on-trend, appropriate. There are definitely businesses out there where you can sell more racy things, but that's what we choose not to participate in. It's not that we're overly modest, we just try to be respectful."

Taylor McKinsey Coonce, a 23-year-old customer who has been featured on Altar'd State's Facebook page and blog as part of its #MyAltardState campaign, appreciates the range of sizes it offers: "I'm a big girl, so it's hard for me to find clothes that are cute and that fit me well. One thing that I like about Altar'd State's clothes and the clothes that they bring in is that I normally wear a 2XL, but I can go there and find a flowy shirt, try on a large, and that'll fit me well. I like being able to find cute clothes that I've always wanted to wear, but I can't find anywhere else."

Altar'd State's pricing rests in the mid-tier range, with certain items topping out at $100 and the majority of apparel hovering around $50 to $70. "It's pricier because it's definitely a boutique," says Coonce. "With a store like Free People, their stuff is much more expensive and I can't fit into any of it, so when Altar'd State came along, I was like, ‘This is perfect.'"

For Coonce, a shopper who frequents Goodwill, Walmart, and Meyer, Altar'd State is a splurge. But the price tag is worthwhile, she says, because "part of the money is going to charity."

Photo: Altar'd State

There is indeed value added in bundling product with philanthropy. A 2014 Nielsen study found that 55 percent of online consumers are willing to pay higher prices for goods offered by companies that advertise charity as part of their brands. Many corporations make yearly, tax-deductible charitable donations (think McDonald's Ronald McDonald House), but companies like Toms, The Giving Keys, and 31 Bits — which have all been sold at Altar'd State in the past — render purchasing their products the socially-conscious choice simply by way of their charity-centric identities.

"I always think that people want to do the right thing, that we want to help but we don't always know how," says FIDM's Hinckley. "So when a brand like this builds it into their business model, it makes it easy for the customer to say yes. It differentiates them from the other retailers."

In addition to choosing to work with like-minded give-back brands and maintaining Mission Mondays' give-back policy, Altar'd State says it makes direct donations to local and international organizations. "We've donated to hundreds, if not thousands, of different charities," says Walters. "We've donated money to basically anything to do with homeless women, building self esteem, betterment, veterans, children" — listing numerous veteran-focused charities, like Heroes on the Water, Veterans Empowerment Organization, Operation Homefront, and Blue Star Mothers of America, as examples. The company's primary charitable partnership is with non-profit Coprodeli USA, which serves at-risk youth in Peru.

"I always think that people want to do the right thing, that we want to help but we don't always know how."

The site's "Giving" page features a banner that reads, "It's not what we do... It's who we are." Rotating statistics appear below. As of September 1, the banner claims Altar'd State has sponsored 123 children, contributed 1,907 employee volunteer hours, and donated $1,277,525. The posted dollar totals, however, are slightly out of date, says Jamey Snyder, Altar'd State's media marketing manager, via email. The new number, not including website donations for August, is $1,389,639.

"The volunteer hours are a little harder for us to keep track of," says Snyder. "Our associates all over the country go volunteer out of the goodness of their hearts and don't think to tell our website manager to add their hours to the total." Altar'd State has funded employee volunteer hours since its founding, paying its staff for up to four hours of volunteer work a month. When employees volunteer for paid hours, they must file those hours with the home office.

"We just didn't want to be a company that wrote out checks and didn't make a difference in people's lives," says Walters, explaining this hands-on approach. Employees are free to pick their own charities, and the compensation process abides by the honor system. Though, I will mention again that no retail associates contacted were willing or able to speak about, let alone confirm their experience with, this aspect of the company.


So, what about the employees? What about those 2,000 associates? What about those company reviews?

Photo: Altar'd State

The pros listed across the 76 reviews highlight ease of creativity, flexible hours, the company discount, and, above all, Altar'd State's "great values." Says one employee located in Altar'd State's homebase of Knoxville in an anonymous 5-star review, "I have never seen a company that cares more about giving back to those that are less fortunate. They don't just say it, they DO it. Love working here and hope to stay for a very long time."

The positive reviews praising Altar'd State's company mandate to make a difference, however, are far outnumbered by the negative reviews citing lack of support for sales managers and associates, an unresponsive home office, unpaid overtime for salaried employees, unrealistic expectations from corporate, failure to give raises, low hourly wage, and high turnover rate. Of the 76 reviews posted, 48 are 2-stars or under. The reported hourly salary for sales associates is $7.73/hour, slightly above the current national average minimum wage of $7.25/hour.

Of course, these anonymous reviews must be taken with a grain of salt. We post reviews when we feel strongly, whether that be strongly in the positive or negative direction. It's worth noting that many of the low-rated reviews specify that the core values of the company and the people employed there are positives, before detailing their grievances.

The 1-star review below that was posted in June 2015 by an anonymous store manager is particularly indicative of the whole:

PROS

My own employees. I have met some lovely people throughout the company during the time I was there but unfortunately majority of them quit due to circumstances below.

CONS

You're required to clock at least 45 [hours], being paid on salary at only 40. In actuality, clocking the week at a min of 50 hours was a dream when majority of my weeks consisted of 13+ hours days and 60+ hour weeks ... The Christian and Mission based cloak are just terms they use to manipulate employees into thinking that they're working 60+ hour weeks for a better cause.

Another 1-star review posted in June by a current employee acknowledges, "Great product. Great looking stores," in the Pros section, before cutting to the chase in the Cons:

Well, where to begin. You start working here with this ideal...Christian company, great values, family culture, work life balance, we give back, and WOW. Just amazing. And the opportunities for growth are endless. Then, reality sets in. There is no structure. Stores are opening left and right. At the new store openings, the leaders are not adequate to lead. They are inexperienced, so the process takes forever and you don't really learn anything. The mgmt team is left after the opening (which stores are not properly staffed for) to run high volume stores without training. Then the store opens and customers love us. Problem is? We don't know what we are doing and there is no one...I mean no one...to answer emails or respond to phone calls. Then, the markdowns start. I've worked in retail for 8 years. Markdowns are normal and tedious. But here...you will literally mark down 3/4 of the store right after you set it. So, then you have to reset the store. This means overnights. And more overnights. Salaried managers are hired in to work 45 hours a week. 60+ is the real expectation. And it's still not enough. You turn and burn part time help because they have other commitments and get tired of getting called in on their days off. So...hello managers...run this high volume store alone. It's a great idea and provides the utmost customer service to shoppers. Ummm, no. Opportunities for advancement are always available bc people with any experience leave. Upper management visits often which is nice. Minus the cult-like mentality.

Altar'd State stores are now open seven days a week. At one time, however, company-wide policy mandated that stores be closed on Sundays. Several reviews indicate that employees were compelled to work on Sundays during that time anyway, including this 2-star review from August 2014:

They claimed on their door that Sunday was supposed to be a "day of rest" but inside the store, all of their employees were basically forced to come in and work long shifts, sometimes 8 or even 12 hours, to complete almost impossible tasks in the amount of time allotted. I understand that doing floor sets and markdowns are normal for a clothing company and that often times, stores have to do them over night. I do not have a problem with working hard, or long, hours. I do have a problem with a company that claims to respect and honor Sundays as a holy day of rest but then turns around and secretly works its employees on that day. A couple months into my time there, they decided to just be open on Sunday. I had much more respect for them after they did this. At least they weren't secretly having their employees work.

A 1-star review from February 2014 lists "faith based" and "volunteer opportunities" as pluses, before delivering advice to the management succinctly: "If you make promises, follow through on them. If you claim to be a Christian company, live a godly, Christ-filled lifestyle. Instead of bumping up prices outrageously and treating employees like crud all the time, actually practice what you preach and love people more than you love the money."

Photo: Altar'd State

Reports of workers breaking down into tears and being berated by upper management are not uncommon. There's a pattern among the critical Glassdoor reviews. Altar'd State puts its money where its mission statement is, absolutely; but care for its own employees is something left to be desired.

"I think the way I would respond to that is to be totally transparent and honest with you," says Walters, in his trademark winding fashion. "I'm not familiar with Glassdoor, so I'm not going to pretend to be completely familiar with it and understand it completely, so it's kind of hard for me to speak to it exactly, but I think the way I would answer that is I'll tell you how we approach things. One of the things that we do, and one of the challenges about being a growth company, is you're hiring a lot of new people, and when you go through growth, you've got to do some growing pains, and that is just an unfortunate part of it."

Walters agrees that more needed to be done to support sales associates during the company's early years, and mentions yearly internal surveys that were later established as a means to ensure more oversight. He says there is also an anonymous help line, the opportunity for employees to email Walters directly, and weekly store visits from district managers. According to Walters, 98 percent of employees internally surveyed were "either very proud or extremely proud to work for Altar'd State, and very satisfied," adding again that Altar'd State employs 2,000 individuals.

Reports of workers breaking down into tears and being berated by upper management are not uncommon.

"As far as addressing directly the pay raises, just to be transparent with you, I just don't think that's accurate," adds Walters. "We'll tell you that, unfortunately, sometimes, associates don't necessarily fall in love with the company, which is understandable. Obviously we want everybody to love Altar'd State, and it's something we pride ourselves on, but I can just tell you, I know for a fact that we've always given pay raises."

These pay raises are annual in the spring of every year, reports Walters, adding that his favorite day, "is the day we pay bonuses because I get to come in and sign hundreds and hundreds of bonus checks. I sit there and personally sign every single one of them, because I'm so proud of what our team is doing." Every law, he continues, is adhered to insofar as overtime compensation goes.

Walters says that the leadership team, himself included, spends a great deal of time visiting individual stores: "Because they've asked us to. Part of the survey was, we want more visits from you. And I think that has to do with the millennial. I think the millennial wants more feedback. A lot of our associates are millennials, and the truth is I think they love feedback. They like to know how they're doing at all times, and that's, I don't want to say hard to do, but it is hard to do with 2,000 people, as you can imagine."


Let's go back to Altar'd State's mission statement: "SERVING as an inspiration, EMPOWERING others, by GIVING more than we receive, we stand out for good to glorify GOD."

Is it possible to turn a profit — the most basic marker of a successful business — while still giving more than receiving?

"You can't give anything unless you're successful," says Walters. "We have to be unbelievably successful to be able to make a difference in the communities we're in. So if we're not thriving as an organization, and we don't have that mission, then we can't be successful. And also remember that giving does not just necessarily mean financially, giving means of your time. As a matter of fact, I would even argue, giving of your time is even more important than giving of your finances."

But then, well, then there is this.

"A woman's life is very stressful," he continues, "so one of the ways to give more than you receive is create a shopping experience she actually wants to be a part of and spend time in, right? Versus making it a chore. If you've ever watched, poor women have to go shop for groceries, you can tell that they're stressed to the hilt before they even walk in the store, and then it's like they're on a mission, because it's just one more chore they've got to get done that day. That's really what we mean by giving more than we receive."

Editor: Julia Rubin

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