White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch (2022)

| April 20, 2022

I was a white teenager in the late 80s and early 90s, but I never went to Abercrombie & Fitch.  Beyond a black Member’s Only jacket that followed me from the eighth grade through the tenth, I never wore labels – inside or out.  I was more into self-expression, creating my own words, wearing my own ensemble (usually a pair of old jeans and a Star Wars T-shirt) and never worrying about being trendy.  I was part of the mall culture but my destinations were usually the book store, the computer store or the music store.  The Gap, Chess King, Merry-Go-Round, Abercrombie & Fitch?  They were all the same to me.  And too expensive for my blood.

Yet, I have to admit that whatever was going on over at Abercrombie & Fitch seemed interesting.  I can remember passing by the place one night in the late 90s, there were strobe lights flashing and smoke from a fog machine was billowing out the door.  There were no windows so you had to go inside to see what was happening.  As I learn from the new Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, this was part of the design.  It was meant to create an heir of mystery and intrigue.  What was happening in there?  

What was happening in there might have seemed perfectly suited to to the times – an exclusionary business model that all but blatantly said that it was marketing clothes aim exclusively at the most beautiful white people with perfect bodies, and the documentary emphasizes the most troubling issues with creating that kind of brand.  It was only after the turn of the millennium that several employees and former employees began to publicly cry foul by calling out that the company, headed by CEO Mike Jeffries, not only pressed their ads toward beautiful white people but deliberately set hiring practices that kept beautiful white employees up front for the peak shifts and minorities in the back room working night shifts – if they weren’t fired for how they looked.

But director Alison Klayman does a good job of balancing the story of Abercrombie & Fitch by slipping into the story of why the company was so toxic inside but so intoxicating outside.  How did it draw in customers?  What set it apart?  Through interviews with cultural critics, activists former executives and models we are taken into the world of the consumer who saw the appealing ads, the music, the cologne smell, the fog machine, the strobe lights.  It looked like a place both fascinating and forbidden, far from the blandness of a store with clothes on a rack.  One almost expected to be served champagne just for walking through the door.

But its enticing façade outside was matched by it’s ugly interior that the consumer might have missed.  An African-American women remembers being permanently banished to the night shifts and complaining that all she did was clean windows.  She was told “But you’re a good window washer.”  Asian-American employees remember having to work in the stockroom away from the customers, and that the only representation for Asians was a T-Shirt sold in the store with a racist logo on the front eluding the old stereotype of a Chinese laundry.  The company’s excuse was that they really thought that Asians would be flattered.

The aggravation began to grow and it became a public issue in the form of protests, boycotts and bad press.  It didn’t help when Jefferies began making unwise public statements about “Fat chicks” in response to the complaint that A&F blatantly tried to keep plus-sized people from wearing their product.  This bad press began to work its way into the culture in the form of “MAD TV’ sketches, SNL jokes, and at least one mention of the fact that Flash Thompson in 2002’s “Spider-Man” tries to beat up Peter Parker while wearing clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch.  


Of course, the idea of an image-focused company is not exclusive to A&F.  You could probably find fault in almost any clothing retailer for not being rather thoughtless and exclusive about their brand.  But Klayman wants to make it clear that this was the house upon which A&F was built, that it was deliberately building a brand marketed at beautiful young white people and the rest could just go to Walmart.  “Discrimination was not just a blip,” activist Benjamin O’Keefe says, “They rooted themselves in discrimination at every single level.”

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized