Abercrombie & Fitch. The name of the infamous fashion company alone can evoke a special set of memories for those who come of age during the nineties and early 2000s. Perhaps these memories may have been captured somewhere in middle or high school, as brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Aeropostale reigned in the world of teenage fashion culture. Or these memories are of the particular musky scent brand associated with entering the domain of the store in a mall. Once American malls were once bustling and vibrant with shoppers looking for the hottest fashion of the season, Abercrombie stood out with its shutters, dark interiors and the endless posters of half-naked male models.
It’s no secret why Abercrombie & Fitch is no longer a titan of American teenage culture. While Vogue have chosen “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” as their 2022 Met Gala theme, Americana as aesthetics has fallen into a world of rapidly changing trends. Classic Americana brands like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger sought to make WASP culture sexy and a global commodity, but in the last decade they have found that their sales have not met quotas – especially compared to other international premiums. brands. Abercrombie & Fitch was a bridge to the elite world of luxury and premium fashion, giving young people with disposable income the opportunity to look like old money Americana.
Documentation of Abercrombie & Fitch’s decline
White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch seeks to hash out the information that is already public knowledge within a short eighty eight minutes. Every empire must eventually fall, and that’s what happened to Abercrombie & Fitch. The brand was founded over a century before the events of the documentary, in 1892. A&F was originally a brand that sold outdoor clothing to the wealthy, and many of America’s prominent people – including Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt – bought equipment for their adventure from retailers. Abercrombie, as we know it today, originated in 1988.
Filmmaker Alison Klayman is the mastermind behind it White warm. Her previous work includes the documentaries Exciting, with singer Alanis Morissette, and Ai Weiwei: Never apologize, which won her a jury award at the Sundance Film Festival. At the beginning of this documentary, viewers meet the former employees who helped create all the magic. It seems funny and amusing when they laugh at how the store smelled, or recite their sales pitch to try to recruit models. As a journalist puts it in the first arc, “[Abercrombie & Fitch] have crystallized everything I hate about high school and put it in a store. “
Inside its structure is White warm reminiscent of the pictures a teenager would cut out of a magazine and tape on their wall and closet. Its interviewees mention that they once did this when they were teenagers, so it seems plausible why they chose to do this. At times, however, it seems forced, excessive use of nostalgia factor to try to recreate an era that its subjects – and potentially its viewers – know very well. That makes the documentary itself a time capsule, especially as it jumps to nineties music and movie clips from movies from the early 2000s.
Disclosure of racist and discriminatory practices
The set-up of the documentary is via interviews; many of the people interviewed during the documentary had an affiliation. Some are models, while others are what the store dubbed to be models. These were instead the sellers in the shops. Others, however, play a special role in the downfall of one of America’s most beloved and hated retailers. It is the clear testimonies of their experience in the company that give a glimpse outside the world created by the former employees at the top level.
An eerie fact that is repeated over the course of the term is that employees were hired solely on the basis of their appearance, and if they did not fit a certain standard, they were fired. This led to blatantly discriminatory practices, as the standard here was what they defined as an “American” look. They defined Americans as white. Other practices that seem to be standard in the modeling industry seem almost predatory, especially the use of scouts and actions taken by the photographer and the CEO of the company.
In one story, a Muslim girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma was only seventeen when she was denied a job at the retailer because she wore a black hijab. The case would go all the way up to the Supreme Court, which gave the teenager 8-1. It was found that Abercrombie & Fitch violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thus setting a precedent for dealer recruitment practices. Other stories bring in former Asian-American and black employees who eventually ended up suing the company because of what they experienced working as salespeople.
And that’s perhaps the most interesting part of the documentary, and not the subject itself: A & F’s former company employees do not admit anything wrong in their time in the company. Every company employee is white, except for the Diversity officer, Todd Corley, who was brought in. Corley then openly refuses to discuss a key argument against the company’s CEO. While the documentary establishes him as the sacrificial lamb for the company’s overall goal of not wanting diversity or inclusion.
Corley’s report offers one of the most interesting pieces to this puzzle, as well as the journalists. They provide the critical context and clues to begin the process of trying to understand why what happened was able to occur. A journalist laid the groundwork that led to Jeffries’ fall from grace years after the original interview was published. An activist came across the interview, saw how Jeffries’ comments could be considered offensive, and then went on the offensive to try to raise awareness of what Abercrombie & Fitch represented.
A&F then turned into one of the most hated companies in existence due to its work on social media platforms and activism, something that seems more common today. But in the early 2010s, this form of social media activism was new and exciting, which laid the groundwork for something bigger to come. The only form of physical protest mentioned in the documentary was an Asian-American led. Asian Americans gathered to protest the racist slogans on the A&F shirts, but this is then undermined by a clip inserted by a white news anchor. The anchor makes a joke about the protesters and reduces the situation completely to a punchline for the Americans.
But why did this happen?
From the documentary’s point of view, it puts Jeffries, the CEO of Abercrombie, as “just a weird guy.” Racism and fetishization seem to be at the heart of the problem, but in addition to explaining what happened, why did it happen then? The fashion industry is no stranger to shouts of racist and discriminatory incidents. Ever since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, fashion companies have promised to do more to change the industry and the way it works. But the fashion industry is inherently rooted in racism, making this a broader issue that goes beyond just Abercrombie & Fitch.
Another issue that has been skipped over in the documentary is that A&F employees admitted that merchandise was burned if they did not want to sell it. The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter – the oil industry is the first – but burning clothes has become a common practice to prevent lower prices. This in turn keeps the company’s image of prestige alive when their clothing retains its original retail price. While White warm making its case in the blatant racism and discrimination that the company engaged in, they have still only scratched the surface of a darker abdomen.
Abercrombie & Fitch is a symbol of American culture that often evokes tremors when discussing it, which many might do when watching the documentary. What White warm fails to do is to connect it to the broader issues, instead of choosing to focus on A&F to the point where it becomes a question of whether A&F is the only company engaging in this practice. And unfortunately, it is not the only company.
It may have gotten mainstream attention, but this story is not an outlier in this industry. The hint of a Weinstein connection is the only hint that something bigger, more sinister is at stake here. White warm is a good starting point for those who want to understand Abercrombie as a company, but it fails to deliver and question a broader message. One can easily walk away and feel confident that they know a little more about former CEO Mike Jeffries or photographer Bruce Weber and the toxic culture they helped create in the company.
White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is available to stream on Netflix from April 19, 2022.
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