‘White Hot’ Explores When Abercrombie & Fitch Embodied ‘the Worst Parts of American History’

Netflix's new documentary paints a portrait of a shifting popular culture.

‘White Hot’ Explores When Abercrombie & Fitch Embodied ‘the Worst Parts of American History’

When LFO’s “Summer Girls” was released in 1999, I was approximately a decade away from understanding the vast majority of the song’s references. Shout-outs to Alex P. Keaton and Larry Bird went right over my head, but the lyrics name-dropped one popular touchstone that, even in the early days of elementary school, I could fully grasp. “I like girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch,” rapped the group’s lead singer. At that point, I’d never stepped foot in an A&F, but the fact that a boyband member liked girls who wore it told me everything I needed to know.

As it turns out, my kid’s eye view of the brand only made me privy to a fraction of the Abercrombie story. A new Netflix documentary, White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, covers the brand during its 1990s and 2000s heyday, when it was synonymous with a very white, very preppy brand of cool. Directed by Jagged filmmaker Alison Klayman, the doc offers a portrait of a time in popular fashion when wearing a giant logo on your chest was the height of chic, and carrying around a shopping bag with a half-naked guy on it was the ticket to the in-crowd. Along the way, the company sowed the seeds of its own downfall with its determination to exclude everyone but Caucasian hardbodies. It’s a film about a single brand at a very particular cultural moment—but it’s also about the swinging pendulum of American popular values.

“When I would talk to people about the idea of doing this film, immediately they’d be sharing a really personal story,” White Hot director Alison Klayman told Jezebel. “Like, back to high school days, where they went shopping, how they thought about themselves, their family, their body in relation to other people—identity formation kind of stuff. And I thought, wow that shows this is such a cultural touchstone, and also that there would be interest from an audience to unpack this really significant touchstone in their lives.”

Abercrombie & Fitch was founded in 1892 as an outdoor apparel and sporting goods store, catering to shoppers like icons of elite American masculinity Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway before weathering a decline that found it filing for bankruptcy in the ‘70s. Two decades later, it re-emerged as a higher-end staple of the youth retail market under the leadership of CEO Mike Jeffries. During the brand’s heyday in the late nineties and early aughts, the word “Abercrombie” held a singular power: It was synonymous with all that was sexy, a bit too expensive, and, depending on your location on the high school social ladder, slightly-to-deeply intimidating.

In addition to its sartorial offerings, in 1997 the company launched A&F Quarterly, a lifestyle magazine that became infamous for juxtaposing softcore advertising with mainstream articles, all geared towards the brand’s teenage fanbase. Within its pages you might find photos of a naked football game, or copy extolling the merits of a good old-fashioned circle jerk, which the magazine described as a “pleasant and supersafe alternative” to an orgy. You might see a guy preparing to pilot a helicopter in the nude, or read the words of Slavoj Žižek.

Within the stores were larger-scale cheesecake shots, courtesy of photographer Bruce Weber (who’s since been accused of sexually abusing models), an overwhelming odor of the company’s signature Fierce cologne, and a lot of thin, white salespeople. Outside, shirtless guys with rippling six packs flanked the entrance, forcing all who’d dare enter to navigate between a glistening Scylla and Charybdis of hair gel and body spray. Inside were some pretty boring clothes.

As the documentary’s title suggests, the brand was in for a tumble. At the height of its popularity, A&F touted a kind of gleeful exclusivity, and it’s just this desire to exclude and alienate that led to its downfall. As White Hot progresses, it’s revealed that many of the film’s talking heads are actually one time plaintiffs in lawsuits against the company—people of color who were fired or forced to work in the stores’ back rooms, or only given hours that found them mopping down after closing. The company fought its battle to be able to discriminate against headscarf-wearing Muslim employees all the way up to the Supreme Court, where every justice save Clarence Thomas ruled against its bigoted policy. In the UK, a woman with a prosthetic limb successfully sued the company, which made her work in a stockroom in order to keep her out of view of customers.

Abercrombie’s internal racism very literally made its way into its products, which included graphic tees featuring anti-Asian and anti-Latino slogans and imagery. In 2002, the brand released a jaw-droppingly racist tee advertising the fictional “Wong Brothers Laundry Service,” which included the slogan, “Two Wongs Can Make It White.” (“We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt,” a company spokesman said at the time.)

“We all kind of knew that this is a store where you know, people who work there are hot, people who work there tend to be white—like this wasn’t necessarily news,” says Klayman. But the extent to which “top-down” discrimination was at the core of the brand as an institution hadn’t yet been fully explored. “I just thought that was an incredible and shocking story and a chance to take something that people often think of as abstract, like systemic racism or beauty standards in our society, and really be able to chart how they were weaponized for profit.”

While White Hot hones in on the company’s racismthere’s more than enough of it to fill the film’s 90-minute runtime and then some—Abercrombie also courted other forms of controversy. 2002 also saw the brand releasing children’s thongs with the words “Eye Candy” printed on the front, and other notable product slogans included women’s T-shirts with phrases like “Do I make you look fat?” and “Who needs brains when I have these?” written across the chest.

Abercrombie & Fitch greeters in 2002. Image:Kathryn Scott Osler (Getty Images)

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its analysis of the company’s aesthetic. Despite these slogans sexualizing women and girls, the brand’s advertising imagery was largely focused on men. It was half-naked men, not women, on the bags and Fierce bottles, and shirtless guys standing outside the doors to A&F and its sister brand, Hollister. The company cultivated a signature look that fit within the lineage of erotic gay art, like the photos of Robert Mapplethorpe, all while positioning itself as the go-to outfitter of straight bros during a particularly homophobic period in American culture.

Sex and fashion have long gone together—Calvin Klein was among A&F’s forebears; American Apparel, which doused its raunch in a hefty dose of downtown grime, peaked later on. Yet in retrospect, what seems most remarkable about Abercrombie’s success was its ability to dominate popular culture by expressing nothing but disdain for the vast majority of its potential customers. Once you made it into one of their dark and windowless stores, hopefully you didn’t mind being gassed with eau de Fierce. You had to tolerate the blaring music and fit into their narrow size ranges, then, and only then, would you have the opportunity to purchase some unremarkable clothing. “If anything, it represents the worst parts of American history, in terms of the cost, the hiring practices, the images” says one employee-turned-plaintiff in White Hot. “It’s everything we want America not to be.”

In an era in which brands often adopt a posture of inclusion, it’s hard to wrap your head around how the Abercrombie approach ever worked. These days, even institutions that have exclusivity at the very core of their identities are trying to downplay it. Colleges that were once called “highly selective” are now often termed “highly rejective,” and some of those same bodies of learning no longer want to reveal just how many new rejects they’re creating each year. Abercrombie too, now downplays its former openly elitist reputation, offering clothing in a wider range of sizes and displaying them on racially diverse models of differing body types. The brand has abandoned its aggressively preppy look in favor of basics and athletic wear geared to millennial shoppers, rather than the teenagers who once made up its base. They even took the headless naked guy off of their cologne bottles.

At Abercrombie’s peak, “it was possible for there to be a more monoculture-like dominant culture, especially when it comes to fashion,” says Klayman. “That’s just very much not the flavor right now. People still figure out how to define themselves through their clothes and their taste and things they buy. But I think there’s much more of an idea that there is a unique style for every single person and that you’re not necessarily going to walk around and just be like, ‘I am a cardboard cutout of X brand.’”

Ironically, just as Abercrombie seems to have caught up to the culture, the pendulum is swinging once more. Low rise jeans, micro-minis, and all things Y2K are all back in style. These are not necessarily value-free aesthetic propositions. Does the return of 7” rises mean the return of fretting over muffin tops, a renewal of cultural mandates that demanded flat stomachs and flatter asses? Will skinny, churlish, white kids—never far from the center of American style—return to their former all-encompassing pop-culture dominance? If so, Abercrombie is still around, ever poised for reinvention.

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