When it hit Spain at the beginning of the last decade, the international Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) phenomenon was embodied in its palatial store in Salamanca, an upmarket neighborhood in Madrid. Here, customers were received at the door by perfumed, shirtless young models with the physique of Greek gods – incarnations of the rich, white, athletic young men at the center of the US company’s then marketing strategy, with which it built an empire of basic t-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with their logo.
How the brand got there, and what happened next, is revealed in the Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, created and directed by Alison Klayman.
As Washington Post critic Robin Givhan tells the camera: “What Abercrombie did was create a middle ground between the sex being sold by Calvin Klein sold and the posh American style of Ralph Lauren.” Givhan is joined by former employees of the brand – its models and sales clerks –, as well as journalists and activists who have closely followed its trajectory over the late 1990s and early 2000s when it emerged as a pop phenomenon, advertised by half-naked Adonis types in print media and on billboards and of course, inside the stores. With windows closed to the outside, anyone drawn to the party lights and disco music inside was forced to enter to find out what was going on.
The architect of the A&F aesthetic was photographer Bruce Weber, who had worked at the time for brands such as Calvin Klein. Guys hammering biceps hanging from a tree, guys doing push-ups in unexpected places, half-naked guys having a great time.
Anyone who was paying attention would see that there were a lot of gay men involved in defining that aesthetic, says journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis. “But it was done in a way that went unnoticed by the target audience, the typical cool, straight college guy.”
“Bruce Weber wasn’t the first to recreate these homoerotic, pretty-boy scenes that date back to Ancient Greece,” he says. “But that fashion and definition of masculinity caught on with gay guys in the late 90s.”
When asked what the brand was looking to sell, the documentary’s interviewees inevitably say “class,” helped by the company’s 1996 IPO that put it on Wall Street. In an early prototype of today’s hustle culture, where the boundaries between work and life are barely discernible, A&F built a giant campus in Ohio where workers trained in pilot models of the stores and meetings merged with regular parties and team outings.
The bubble burst when customers started to question what A&F was selling and how they were selling it. It turned out that not all their target audience in the US was exactly as they had profiled it, that is, Caucasian and affluent. Customers began to flag the racist nature of some of the slogans on those basic t-shirts and it became clear that many of the brand’s potential consumers were members of racialized communities. The matter came to a head after the release of an A&F advertising campaign for a t-shirt bearing the slogan “The Wongs make everything white,” featuring two Asian men in a laundromat.
Asian-American students protested on the doorsteps of stores across the country and Abercrombie not only withdrew the t-shirts but CEO Mike Jeffries, who took the helm of the company in 1992 and spearheaded the brand’s frat-boy marketing strategy, made sure that every single one of the offensive items was set on fire.
Still, it was clear the company had a bigger problem than just that one t-shirt design and advertising campaign, as other racist prints remained on sale, such as a shirt depicting a donkey wearing a Mexican hat and eating a taco with the epithet “eating on the street is cool.”
Indeed, the problem was structural, and started with its stores. Recruits for floor staff were, according to a company manual, to have “clean, clean-cut hairstyles” while other styles, such as dreadlocks, were “unacceptable.”
Reports began to emerge of former employees being told things like, “we can’t hire you back because we already have too many Filipinos working in the store,” while one store’s only Black worker was always put on the night-time cleaning shift so that they would not be in public view. In the early 2000s, some A&F store workers filed a class-action lawsuit for racial discrimination, which they won.
Despite the ruling, which showed that Abercrombie & Fitch had violated the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, the company never acknowledged that they had been racially discriminatory. Their response instead was to hire a chief diversity officer, working under the supervision of an external agent who would arbitrate on inclusion, and they began to hire racialized people in its stores. Within five years, the non-white workforce was 53%, a dramatic shift from a workforce where 90% of staff were white.
Whiteness, still, continued to dominate the company’s management and public-facing activities. Black and brown recruits worked mostly in the backroom and warehouses while floor staff and models were still mostly white, and white men accounted for most administration and management roles.
While this was going on, in 2006, the company’s CEO, Mike Jeffries, made the following statement, which journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis published in Salon: “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. "
In 2009, sales had already fallen considerably in the US by 17%, but this did not stop the brand – which also included the Hollister brand – under the same aspirational model, from continuing to open its famous flagship stores full of shirtless young men in low-waisted jeans and sandals all over Europe: in Spain, it opened in Madrid in 2011 – and closed in 2021.
Activist Ben O’Keefe came across Jeffries’ statements in 2013. Noting how little the brand had changed over seven years, O’Keefe started a petition demanding that Abercrombie & Fitch include more diverse sizing.
“If 60% of your potential customers wear plus sizes, why not include them?” said O’Keefe, whose petition turned into a boycott by young people, in rejection of the narrow body image it promoted. The activist was invited to A&F’s offices to present the complaint, along with experts and representatives of organizations working with people with eating disorders, and to consider ways the company could change.
Mike Jeffries did not show up for that meeting. He resigned from his position a year later, in 2014, and disappeared from the map.
Now helmed by Fran Horowitz, Abercrombie & Fitch has continued to struggle with its identity, as young people continue to turn their backs on brands associated with racism and sexism. A report published by UniDays last March showed that 87% of its ”Generation Z” respondents believe there should be greater gender equality and inclusion in fashion.
Meanwhile, allegations continue about inappropriate behavior within the company over the years. In 2020, photographer Bruce Weber was acquitted of charges of sexual abuse. He faced trial for the same reasons in 2021 and the case was settled out of court. The former owner of A&F’s parent company L Brands, Les Wexner, has also been accused of collaborating with Jeffrey Epstein, putting the pedophile in contact with young models to invite to his parties. Now vanished from public life, Mike Jeffries lives on as the representative of everything that the fashion of today is under pressure to reject.
At the end of the documentary, critic Robin Givhan reflects that “the Abercrombie story is basically an incredible indictment of what our culture was like just 10 years ago. It was a culture that enthusiastically embraced a white, upper-class view of the world ..., that defined beauty as ‘thin, white, young,’ and was okay with excluding others.”
Asked if the culture has completely solved the problem of exclusion, though, the critic replies: “No.