New Netflix Doc Explores Abercrombie & Fitch’s Downfall

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In 1999, pop group LFO released the song “Summer Girls”, whose thirsty first verse featured the immortal verse: “I like girls wearing Abercrombie & Fitch, I’d take it if I had a wish.”

At the time, the Abercrombie & Fitch clothing brand was ubiquitous in malls, high schools and college campuses, combining all-American preparation with a not-so-subtle undercurrent of sex. But beneath that enticing image lurked a corporate culture that weeded out both potential employees and customers based on their race and physical appearance.

Netflix’s new documentary ‘White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch’ both dissects the brand’s ambitious nature and lifts the curtain on the lawsuits and PR disasters that have tarnished its otherwise immaculate image. . According to employees, journalists and activists who appear in the film, the overriding theme is that the discrimination was actually a feature rather than a bug.

“That’s why people loved that brand,” says Benjamin O’Keefe, an activist who mobilized an Abercrombie anti-discrimination campaign in 2013 and is featured extensively in the film. “Exclusion is part of our society.

Benjamin O’Keefe, who started an online petition after reading a Salon interview with CEO Mike Jeffries, is featured in “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.”

Courtesy of Netflix

It might surprise many to learn that A&F’s roots go back far beyond the glory days of the suburban mall. The company began as an outdoor Americana brand worn by Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. It fell into disuse but in 1988 it was acquired by clothing chain operator The Limited, whose CEO Les Wexner has been dubbed “The Mall Merlin” for his marketing tactics on brands like Victoria’s Secret. Wexner tapped Mike Jeffreys as CEO of A&F, who found a formula for success described in the documentary.

“He found a way to tie together Abercrombie’s legacy as it was established in 1892, catering to the privileged elite. And combined with that very sexy sexual imagery,” the business reporter said. from the New York Times, Sapna Maheshwari.

A&F’s promotional ploy was relatively simple: hire conventionally good-looking people. Recruiters tracked down the most attractive fraternity guys at each college and enlisted them as store employees. The vast majority of these employees were white. Several black employees recounted in the documentary how they were relegated to night shifts stocking shelves.

Former CEO Mike Jeffries in "White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch."

Former CEO Mike Jeffries in “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.”

Courtesy of Netflix

A second important element was advertising. Jefferies hired Bruce Weber, a famous fashion photographer with a signature style of capturing the eroticism of the male physique. The overwhelming motifs of the advertisements were groups of scantily clad men playfully interacting, which the documentary notes have homoerotic undertones.

“It was clear to anyone paying attention that there were a lot of gay people involved in all of this. The genius of the brand is that it went over the head of their target customer, the straight brother of university fraternity,” said journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis.

Shoppers walk past an Abercrombie & Fitch store in San Jose, California.

Shoppers walk past an Abercrombie & Fitch store in San Jose, California.

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

Throughout the 90s, the brand’s cultural cache grew, with stars like Heidi Klum and Ashton Kutcher appearing in its advertisements. The company built a huge campus, where employees happily spent sleepless nights and called the environment “13th grade.”

Jeffries took the company public in 1996 and A&F left the shadow of The Limited’s retail empire three years later. Sales exploded, with revenue rising from $165 million in 1994 to $1.04 billion in 1999.

A still promotional image from the Netflix documentary "White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch."

A promotional image from the Netflix documentary “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch”.

Courtesy of Netflix

The first backlash against the brand began with the content of its irreverent graphic t-shirts, the cornerstone of its offerings sold at an 85% margin. Teen-style humor has often crossed the line with explicitly racist themes. The shirt that broke the retail giant’s back was for a fictional laundry service called Wong Brothers with the slogan “two Wongs can make it white”. Groups of Asian American students began protesting in 2002, leading A&F to literally burn all the remaining shirts.

Soon after, employees began speaking out against the company’s racially discriminatory hiring practices. A former manager told a Wall Street Journal reporter that he had to rate employees’ appearance on a scale from ‘cool’ to ‘rocks’, and if they didn’t fit that range, they would be removed of the schedule despite their sales. Numbers.

Phil Yu, an early critic of Abercrombie's graphic T-shirts, is featured in

Phil Yu, an early reviewer of Abercrombie’s graphic tees, is featured in “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.”

Courtesy of Netflix

A group of nine former employees of color then filed a class action lawsuit against the brand, which made national news.


In 2004, A&F settled the lawsuit without admitting guilt, but signed a consent decree agreeing to change its hiring practices and report to a court-appointed diversity officer for six years. However, a semantic shift to calling its employees “role models” covered A&F’s hiring practices, and sources in the documentary state didn’t change much.

Additionally, A&F models began to report photographer Bruce Weber and filed lawsuits. Although he was never convicted of a crime (one case was dismissed, two were settled without an admission of guilt), several of the models in the documentary go into great detail about how they were coerced into sexual activity.

Jeffries himself was at the center of several other scandals. He used words like “butch” to describe women’s clothing that wasn’t feminine enough, was obsessed with narrowly defining an all-American aesthetic, and openly admitted the brand’s exclusionary intentions. Plus sizes weren’t even offered.

Carla Barrientos, one of nine plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit against Abercrombie, is featured in "White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch."

Carla Barrientos, one of nine plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit against Abercrombie, is featured in “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.”

Courtesy of Netflix

“He’s not the only one in the fashion world to believe these things. But he was apparently the only person to say that out loud,” Denizet-Lewis explains in the film. This attitude, evident in a profile Denizet-Lewis wrote for Salon, was not out of place in the mid-19s. However, seven years later, Jeffries’ shameless quotes about his deliberate exclusion came back to haunt him, with a campaign demanding Jeffries’ resignation.

Another controversy involved a case in 2008, when fashion blogger Samantha Elauf showed up for an interview wearing a black headscarf. When the interviewer brought up the subject with a hiring manager, the manager said headscarves weren’t allowed. Elauf contacted the Council for American-Islamic Relations, and the story made national news.

A&F didn’t back down, and eventually the case landed in the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Elauf 8-1.

On top of all the scandals (which include a close relationship between Wexner and accused pedophile Jeffrey Epstein), the clothes themselves just seemed to stop being cool.

Former A&F merchandiser Kjerstin Gruys in "White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch."

Former A&F merchandiser Kjerstin Gruys in ‘White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.’

Courtesy of Netflix

“At some point, these kids who learned it was uncool to be bullied grew up and decided they didn’t want to spend money somewhere that made them feel uncomfortable. “Exclusion was the foundation of their success. And exclusion itself stopped being so cool,” said former A&F merchandiser Kjerstin Gruys.

Today, neither Wexner nor Jeffries are involved in the business, and Abercrombie’s current management has made efforts to shed the label’s discriminatory past, hiring more diverse employees and emphasizing the body positivity. However, despite another PR blitz, some “White Hot” sources question whether the progress the company has made is enough.

The documentary ends with the filmmakers asking black fashion editor Robin Givhan of The Washington Post if Abercrombie — and American culture as a whole — had managed to turn away from exclusionary tactics.

She laughs, then replies with a simple “no”.




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