If you came of age between the two Bush presidencies, chances are you had – or still have – strong feelings about Abercrombie & Fitch, the retailer whose t-shirts with logo were once ubiquitous in high school cafeterias.
Maybe you yearned for the brand’s narrow definition of cool. Maybe you don’t appreciate the company’s exclusionary identity. Maybe both. But you just couldn’t be a youngster in the late 1990s and early 2000s and avoid Abercrombie.
Now, a new Netflix documentary examines the brand and its legacy, arguing that Abercrombie’s corporate culture was even more harmful than the cologne its employees zealously dispensed in malls across the country.
“White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie” explains how the company, founded in the 1800s as a supplier of sporting goods for elite adventurers, became the hottest brand of the era” TRL” under CEO Michael Jeffries, who has made billions in profits aggressively going after cool kids – and who once proudly said, “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes]and they cannot belong.
The strategy worked for a while, but it was not sustainable: nothing that burns white can last forever. Especially when the brand is built on exclusion.
“It’s a story anyone can relate to,” director Alison Klayman said. “People immediately start talking about their personal experiences with the brand. It quickly cuts into something about identity, about childhood, about integration.
The film chronicles the innovations that propelled the company’s rise in the ’90s, including A&F Quarterly, a racy catalog/magazine shot by famed fashion photographer Bruce Weber, and store employees who were hired as a result their appearance rather than their customer service skills. Abercrombie’s vision stems directly from Jeffries, who dictated every aspect of the company’s image, right down to the jewelry and hairstyles worn by employees. (Dreadlocks and gold chains were prohibited.)
The company’s popularity crystallized in boy band LFO’s 1999 hit “Summer Girls,” which played in heavy rotation on MTV: “I like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch,” the chorus went. .
But “White Hot” also traces the controversies that ultimately turned opinion against Abercrombie and contributed to Jeffries’ ousting in 2014, including racist merchandise, allegations of discriminatory hiring practices that culminated in a landmark case before the Supreme Court and allegedly predatory behavior by Weber. towards the company’s young male models.
Klayman said she was drawn to making a film about Abercrombie because she thought it was “the perfect story to bring seemingly abstract forces to life. It shows you how prejudice in society is actually formally enforced from the top down. How do you explain systemic racism? Well, how about people from corporate office coming into your store and telling a 20-year-old who they should hire and fire? »
The filmmaker grew up in suburban Philadelphia during the retailer’s heyday. She preferred thrift store finds to the casual preppy styles of Abercrombie and felt intimidated by the local King of Prussia Mall store. “I wasn’t skinny or blonde, so I knew it wasn’t for me,” she said. “I got the message that this is what was cool. And I also got the message that this wasn’t for me. (The documentary, while comprehensive, doesn’t have time to rehash all Abercrombie’s controversial moves, like the flip-flops marketed to tweens with the words “eye candy” on them or the decision for many years not to make women’s clothing above a size ten.)
“White Hot” is likely to evoke complicated emotions in millennials who grew up under the influence of Abercrombie – nostalgia for mall culture, the era of pre-social media and the brands we yearned for in as teenagers, tinged with distaste for the pervasive racism, misogyny, and homophobia that seemed perfectly acceptable in the not-so-distant past. (Some viewers will also feel very old when malls are explained as “an online catalog that’s a real place.”)
The documentary comes at a time when pop culture is caught in a time warp of the year 2000. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are engaged, Britney Spears is pregnant and low-rise jeans are coming back into fashion. Television offered sympathetic portrayals of women once treated like media punching bags like Spears, Janet Jackson, Monica Lewinsky, Brittany Murphy and Pamela Anderson. “America’s Next Top Model,” a show that debuted nearly 20 years ago, has been the subject of journalistic exposure and countless outraged Twitter threads.
And the recent Hulu docuseries “The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For,” told the crazy story of another clothing company strongly identified with the early years. Just as yuppies endlessly relived the 1960s throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Millennials and young Gen Xers look back on their youth and ask themselves: why did we ever put up with this?
“Pop culture was so much more hegemonic back then – it was more of a monoculture. There were plenty of people who thought [Abercombie] was ridiculous from the start, but it was the mainstream culture and they weren’t going to drown it out,” said Klayman, who spent several years reflecting on that time: His previous film, “Jagged,” focused on the 1990s pop. Alanis Morissette, and she is also working on a documentary about the WNBA, which was founded in 1996.
“White Hot” features interviews with journalists who covered the retailer during the height of its influence, as well as former models and employees who were disillusioned with the company’s exclusion policies. (A model named Bobby Blanski jokingly describes himself as “the armpit guy” because of a famous ad featuring his likeness.)
As an undergrad at Cal State Bakersfield 20 years ago, Carla Barrientos applied for a job at an Abercrombie store in the nearby Value Plaza mall. She loved their clothes and stuck to a pair of low rise jeans with tiny front pockets. “I don’t know what they were supposed to contain,” Barrientos said with a laugh during a recent video chat. “At the time, everything I wore was low rise, everything was tight. If I could show my navel, it would be a beautiful day.
Although Barrientos, who is black, noticed the lack of diversity in the store, she thought to herself, “They’re looking for all-American, and I’m all-American.” She worked at Abercrombie for a few months but was quickly phased out with little explanation. When she learned that another friend, who was white, was still working 20 hours a week, she began to piece it all together. But she did not act immediately. “I saw it as if the racism had to be blatant – almost like the KKK, right? I wasn’t called a racial slur, I wasn’t kicked out of the store. says- she.
“I think part of me didn’t want it to be about race,” she continued, “because there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m very proud to be a black woman. How can I solve this problem?”
Barrientos, now 38, eventually joined a class action lawsuit against the retailer in 2003, alleging the company’s hiring practices excluded people of color and women. The case resulted in a 2005 consent decree that required the company to promote diversity within its workforce, but was largely non-binding. After the settlement, Abercrombie came up with a cynical workaround: If it reclassified employees who worked at the front of the store as “models,” it could continue to hire them based on their appearance. In another case a decade later, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a young Muslim woman, Samantha Elauf, who was denied a job at Abercrombie because of her headscarf.
The experience at Abercrombie “opened my eyes to what discrimination looks like” and how quietly insidious it can be, said Barrientos, who appears on “White Hot.” She’s encouraged to see the changes at Abercrombie, whose website now features models with an array of body shapes and skin tones. A banner on the homepage reads: “Today – and every day – we lead with purpose, championing inclusivity and creating a sense of belonging.”
“It’s so refreshing and beautiful to see how inclusive the world is these days, and how people want to know about you because you’re not like them, not because you fit that box of what is cool,” Barrientos said. “I’m so glad we’re where we are, but I think you still have a long way to go.”
Though she credits social media and the rise of a new generation “who weren’t willing to be spoon-fed” for accelerating Abercrombie’s fall from its turn-of-the-millennium highs, Klayman sees There are also less inspiring forces at work: falling profits and changing consumer habits. “It’s really hard to be at the top of the youth market for many, many decades. Abercrombie had a formula that worked, but it hasn’t changed.
In other words, the brand suffers the fate of all fashions. The cool kids got bored with this.