Netflix Doc White Hot Tracks Abercrombie’s Rise and Fall

nyone who grew up going to American malls in the late 1990s and early 2000s likely remembers the dark pull of Abercrombie & Fitch. The retail store—which catered to teenagers and young adults, and repelled their parents—used photos of shirtless guys to sell shirts and had a scent as potent as a skunk. Between about 1996 and 2004, Abercrombie & Fitch and its aspirational Americana ruled the mall. However, the mall was impacted by several external factors that led to the company’s decline in the 2000s.

The Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & FitchThe book, due out April 19, is directed by Alison Klayman. It shows how the store’s beauty standards, which emphasized thinness and whiteness in its advertisements, started to fall apart after employees called out why it was so toxic. This company glorified the beautiful, thin-and-white models it featured in its advertisements and deliberately employed only employees who fit this mold. They fired anyone who didn’t conform to the rules.

The documentary features interviews with former Abercrombie executives, retail employees, and models, as well as cultural critics and activists who helped bring Abercrombie’s troubling practices to light. But before the film gets into what made Abercrombie so toxic, it reminds viewers what made the store intoxicating in the first place—talking heads recall its all-American image, the models who graced the doorways, the smell, the dark lights, and the loud music.

Klayman explains how Abercrombie’s perception changed, in both the minds of employees and consumers. One former employee on the corporate side says in the film that he felt a shift when he saw 2002’s Spider-ManIn this video, a bully in an Abercrombie Polo tries to beat Peter Parker. The documentary shows how employees of color in retail shops became frustrated when they saw the way they were treated in comparison with white workers. Public protests in response to offensive slogans on Abercrombie’s popular graphic tees began in 2002. Following years of litigations and boycott campaigns, Abercrombie’s CEO Mike Jeffries was forced to resign in 2014.

Abercrombie is still around, but it doesn’t look like the famous mall store it was 20 years ago. The company now sells minimalist, trendy basics. A quote from current CEO Fran Horowitz on its website reads: “Abercrombie isn’t a brand where you need to fit in—it’s one where everyone truly belongs.” While Abercrombie & Fitch was built on the exact opposite sentiment, White HotIt is clear that the company needed to move in a radical direction to be able to continue to thrive in modern times.

An exclusion-based company

Abercrombie, unlike many other fashion companies, was clear about their mission. They made it crystal-clear who they were looking to shop at, and how they would like their employees to work in the stores. White Hot uncovers how Abercrombie implemented a broader dress code that clearly targeted Black employees, with rules that didn’t allow employees to have dreadlocks, or allow men to wear gold chains.

Jennifer Sheahan (an ex-employee at Abercrombie locations in Irvine, California) claims in the documentary she was fired along with other Asian workers after an employee of corporate said that there were not enough people looking like white Abercrombie models. Another former employee, Anthony Ocampo, recounts being fired because they had “too many Filipinos working at the store.” Both Sheahan and Ocampo were part of a class-action lawsuit filed in 2003 by former Abercrombie employees against the company for race and gender discrimination. Abercrombie settled the case in 2004 with a payment of $40 million by the plaintiffs. Abercrombie had to include diversity in their hiring process, and in advertisements and catalogues. Additionally, the company had to recruit 25 diversity professionals.

The documentary shows former Abercrombie workers claiming that the settlement did not enforce the changes. According to them, the company discriminated against people based on their appearances. One example is a member of Abercrombie’s Diversity and Inclusion Team. She recalls sitting in a meeting with her fellow colleagues and discussing what features she desired in employees.

The company also hired Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion managers, which improved some issues on the surface level, like diversifying the store’s staff, but did little to remedy the real problem of having an overwhelmingly white executive staff.

From the top, problems

As White Hot shows, there seems to be unanimous agreement from everyone who worked for Abercrombie that the company’s problems trickled down from CEO Mike Jeffries, who was with the brand from the mid-90s until 2014. His role in reviving Abercrombie is highly regarded. The brand was founded as an outdoor-oriented sporting goods company back in 1892. Jeffries was brought onto the brand by Leslie Wexner, the former CEO of L Brands, which owned, among other mall stores, Victoria’s Secret. Wexner has been under investigation for his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, whom he allegedly allowed to misrepresent himself as a recruiter for Victoria’s Secret to get access to young models.

Jeffries made his strategy for Abercrombie clear in a 2006 interview: “Candidly, we go after the cool kids,” he told reporter Benoit Denizet-Lewis, who also appears in the documentary. “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

The quote was first published after the settlement of the discrimination lawsuits. It later became a symbol for everything wrong about the company. It was not just that Jeffries built Abercrombie on this point of view, but that he saw nothing wrong with calling his company “exclusionary” even though the company settled lawsuits for its exclusionary practices.

Jeffries had also a close relationship to Bruce Weber the photographer who was a long-time collaborator with Abercrombie and helped create its advertising and marketing images. He was known for his black-and-white photographs of half-naked men, which were featured on Abercrombie bags and advertisements. Weber was accused multiple times of misconduct and sexual harassment. In 2018, Weber became the victim of a lawsuit for sexual harassment. Former models of Abercrombie, as well as other brands, also accuse him of indecent behavior during shoots. Weber was indicted for sexual harassment and misconduct multiple times. In 2018, Weber became the subject of a sexual harassment and sexual misconduct lawsuit, with former models from Abercrombie and other brands accusing him of inappropriate behavior on shoots. White Hot, one former model recalls being cut from a photoshoot after rejecting an offer to spend the night at Weber’s house. Another former model said, “it was very well-known with Bruce that he liked young men.”

Another employee says in the documentary that Jeffries, as the CEO, “fetishized the all-American boy.” This obsession with a narrow standard of beauty is what helped make the store so popular in the first place, but it’s ultimately what led to Abercrombie’s downfall, too.

The end of the beginning

For years after he said it in 2006, Jeffries’ “we go after the cool kids,” declaration barely made a splash (Initially commissioned by the the New York Times MagazineThe interview was later published in a magazine that also featured him. Salon). His words stayed under the radar in part because it was still the early days of the internet, and a web-only article just wasn’t that big a deal.

In 2013, activist Benjamin O’Keefe stumbled upon the article and started an online petition addressing Jeffries after realizing he had never faced any consequences for the statement. “Stop telling teens they aren’t beautiful; make clothes for teens of all sizes!” the petition read. O’Keefe says in White HotAbercrombie did not make clothing for his size so he could never wear it. He also says he dealt with anorexia in high school, and felt especially sensitive to the store’s exclusivity.

O’Keefe’s petition spread widely, garnering responses ranging from a teen YouTube vlogger calling him an “old hag” to the Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb mocking him on the Today Show.

Abercrombie was again in legal trouble after Samantha Elauf, a Muslim teenage girl claimed that she was denied a job at Abercrombie’s store because of her headscarf. Abercrombie stood firm and in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled in Elauf’s favor.

“Discrimination was not just a blip,” O’Keefe says in White Hot. “They rooted themselves in discrimination at every single level.”

Jeffries’ 2006 quote about “cool kids” was the beginning of the end for the brand in its most successful form. As one former employee put it in the documentary, “exclusion itself stopped being quite so cool.”

In 2017, Abercrmobie’s current CEO Fran Horowitz joined the company and gave it a physical and moral makeover. Visit the store’s website homepage and there is a graphic directing you to a page called “This is Abercrombie today,” with a quote from Horowitz about the brand’s “inclusive and equitable spirit.” The models featured on the website are more diverse in ethnicity and size. Abercrombie, like all modern clothing brands, sells merch in support of Pride Month and Black History Month. Abercrombie, instead of inventing the fashion trends, is following the example of other fashion retailers.

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