‘Discrimination was their brand’: how Abercrombie & Fitch fell out of trend | Documentary films

If you are a millennial or have parented just one, you know the seem: adverts with shirtless adult men, sculpted abs previously mentioned small-lower denims, a melange of slim and tan and younger white bodies in negligible outfits. A retail store at the shopping mall largely obscured by significant wood blinders, audio pulsing from in. Faded jeans and polo shirts in center and significant school, all showcasing the ubiquitous moose.

White Incredibly hot: The Rise & Drop of Abercrombie & Fitch, a new Netflix documentary on the ubiquity of a at the time zeitgeist-y brand’s restricted vision of “cool” and its lifestyle of discrimination, is easy catnip for adults re-evaluating the influences of their youth. The model of barely there denim miniskirts and graphic T-shirts was “part of the landscape of what I imagined it meant to be a youthful person”, the film’s director, Alison Klayman, advised the Guardian. (Klayman, a millennial, grew up in Philadelphia.) Which is correct for many US adolescents in the late 90s through the 2000s, as Abercrombie stores anchored most mainstream malls throughout The usa, together with my hometown center university hangout in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio.

At any time Abercrombie arrives up in dialogue, “you right away cut suitable to stories about people’s identity formation”, stated Klayman. How significantly income you could or could not commit on clothes, overall body insecurities, memory imprints from hangouts at the shopping mall. The overpowering smell of its cologne, Intense, liberally utilized to each and every floor. The messages a person gained on what was amazing, on whose bodies satisfied the ideal specifications and whose did not.

As White Hot traces by a succinct and large-ranging survey of the brand’s evolution and sales practices, Abercrombie & Fitch, a organization hinged on a eyesight of “preppy cool”, saved those messages really overt. To quotation previous CEO Mike Jeffries, who oversaw the brand’s precipitous rise in the late 90s and 2000s, in a now infamous interview from 2006: “We go just after the great youngsters. We go just after the desirable all-American kid with a great angle and a ton of close friends. A large amount of folks don’t belong [in our clothes], and they just cannot belong. Are we exclusionary? Totally.”

Translation: a brand name that was “white hot” not only in a economical perception, in the course of a period of cultural ubiquity at the convert of the millennium, but also a person that promoted, internally and externally, an solely white vision of elegance and style. That “all-American” is carrying out a whole lot. (The model also famously refused to carry plus sizes for a long time, until eventually soon after Jeffries departed in 2014.) As White Warm recounts via initially-man or woman interviews with numerous previous employees associates and cultural lecturers, this is a model that the moment marketed graphic tees branded with a racist depiction of Asian persons and the phrases “two Wongs can make it white”. The brand name that, in corporate products, banned store staff from obtaining dreadlocks, that ranked workforce on appearance and pores and skin tone, confronted a class motion racial discrimination case in the early 2000s and argued in advance of the supreme courtroom in 2015 that it was legal to deny work to a female with a headscarf due to the fact the religious garment violated its “look policy”. (The firm lost in a 8-1 ruling.)

The 88-minute movie presents its fair share of nostalgia bait – the opening sequence plays along with Lit’s My Very own Worst Enemy, and the signature scent is topic to a lot of superior-natured ribbing – but focuses on using scalpel to the company’s finely tuned, if now stale, image. “We desired to aim on the daily men and women who ended up impacted by this corporation,” reported Klayman.

Having a a lot more goal glance at Abercrombie offered the possibility to analyze “abstract forces that impact us in life, factors like splendor benchmarks or structural racism”, and peek behind the curtain to see “exactly how this was a best-down method that relied on existing biases”.

That technique, the movie clarifies, was both equally a reflection of American lifestyle and executed below the exacting observe of Jeffries, who took about as CEO in the early 1990s. The Abercrombie & Fitch name was established (as the shirts typically boasted) in 1892 as an elite sportsman’s keep (feel a Teddy Roosevelt-esque gentleman hunter). It turned the famed moose polo variation immediately after retail magnate and Jeffrey Epstein financier Les Wexner acquired it, moved its headquarters to Columbus, Ohio, and handed the reins to Jeffries.

Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirts are displayed in one of its stores December 8, 2003 in Chicago, Illinois.
Photograph: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

It was Jeffries – a mercurial and reclusive figure who declined to take part in the movie – who masterminded Abercrombie’s transformation into a clothes brand that united Calvin Klein captivating and Ralph Lauren Americana, sold at aspirational but accessible prices, promoted generally to adolescents. Jeffries was, by various accounts from previous company personnel in the movie, demanding, obsessed with youth and a micro-manager who emphasised look – as in, thinness, whiteness and Eurocentric functions – at the company’s shops. In 2003, underneath Jeffries, the company confronted a class action racial discrimination lawsuit from California which alleged that the corporation turned down minorities for profits positions, relegated them to stockrooms, and had their hours minimized when professionals heard their looks weren’t Abercrombie more than enough. (Three of the course-motion plaintiffs testify to these discrimination, and its emotional problems, in the film.) The firm settled the lawsuit for $50m devoid of admitting wrongdoing.

As section of the deal, Abercrombie & Fitch was subject to a consent decree and demanded to use a range officer – Todd Corley, who seems in the movie but defers from revealing his total views on the brand’s controversies. As White Warm points out, the consent decree experienced no enforcement mechanism, and however representation elevated behind the scenes, the brand’s exclusionary vision under Jeffries continued. “Discrimination was their model,” claims Benjamin O’Keefe, who began a viral petition to boycott the manufacturer in 2013 right until they manufactured their clothes for teens of all sizes. “They rooted on their own in discrimination at each and every single level.”

Mike Jeffries.
Mike Jeffries. Photograph: Netflix

Jeffries definitely meets the “eccentric bad CEO” standards now common in Television reveals, from WeCrashed to The Dropout to Super Pumped, and its depictions of millennial hustle culture (“Abercrombie was definitely performing operate tough, play tough,” explained Klayman.) But as titillating as it can be to concentration on his oddities (his comically exaggerated plastic surgical procedures, for example), these concentration can conclusion up remaining “exculpatory”, claimed Klayman. “It type of allows all of us, the collective, off the hook, not to point out the full business that was facilitating this exclusionary eyesight for a long time.

“It’s actually handy to set all the sins on Mike [Jeffries] and that era since he was so carefully linked with the company’s rebirth in the 90s and early aughts,” she said. “And he certainly deserves genuine criticism, but it will take extra than one guy to do what A&F did.”

Since Jeffries left in 2014, the corporation has changed tack. Below CEO Fran Horowitz, appointed in 2017, the company’s revenue have rebounded from its mid-2010s nadir and a rebrand of its impression to a single of inclusivity, one particular more in line with the politics of Gen Z. “We operate a firm incredibly focused on variety and inclusion,” Horowitz has claimed. The corporation has developed a cult pursuing for its Curve Enjoy denims in a range of dimensions.

Their internet marketing now “puts them in line with what superior business seems like today”, mentioned Klayman. But “it’s critical to communicate about it holistically, and I really do not know how substantially they’ve definitely reckoned with their past”. That reckoning, the film in the end argues, goes over and above a company rebrand the model was not so much excellent as illustrative. It was not the pioneer of exclusivity nor whiteness but, for a time, a person of the best at profiting on it – which, to be good, is rather classically all-American.