A New Netflix Documentary Reveals The Discrimination At The Core Of Abercrombie & Fitch - Men's Health Magazine Australia

A New Netflix Documentary Reveals The Discrimination At The Core Of Abercrombie & Fitch

White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch illustrates the highs of the fashion brand that came to dominate pop culture and the generation that came of age during its hey-day.

In the early 2000s, it was all anyone could do but cast their eyes away from someone outfitted in Abercrombie & Fitch. From girls wearing the babydoll dresses and skinny jeans, to guys decked out in the branded hoodies and polos, those who wore Abercrombie & Fitch seemed to exude a level of style that wasn’t just fashionable, it also screamed aspirational, too. To walk into a store was to be presented with youthful faces behind the counter and hanging clothes, all of whom looked like they’d just stepped off a catwalk, sporting model good looks and strong jawlines. It made the dim lighting and soundtrack you’d envision being played in a basement gym somewhat tolerable. 

But just a few decades on, and Abercrombie & Fitch has been pushed to the margins. Rarely do we see the branded logos or head to the website for a look at the latest campaign with its gym-honed physiques. This sudden fall from grace is something Netflix’s latest documentary takes as its subject. White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch reveals the side of the fashion brand that few of its adoring wearers knew; one grounded in a vision of “cool” that was extremely limited and gave way to a culture of discrimination. 

It’s hard not to watch the documentary and be reminded of youth, and that highly impressionistic age where the images we are presented with and the media we consume has a profound impact not just on our perception of self, but in the way we wish to curate an identity for ourselves. And when it comes to this fashion company, its graphic T-shirts and faded jeans were very much part of the uniform of what it meant to be a young person. As the film’s director, Alison Klayman, explained to The Guardian, when Abercrombie comes up in conversation “you immediately cut right to stories about people’s identity formation,” complete with body insecurities, money troubles, and whose bodies met the right standards. 

But central to the company’s success was a dark form of marketing which saw its former CEO Mike Jeffries go after a limited aesthetic. As he explained in a now infamous interview from 2006: “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.” 

The brand famously refused to carry plus sizes for years and the all-American aesthetic it was grounded in was one that promoted an exclusively white vision of beauty and style. In corporate materials, staff were branded from having dreadlocks and employees were ranked on appearance and skin tone. Not surprisingly, the company faced a class action racial discrimination case in the early 2000s where it argued before the supreme court in 2015 that it was legal to deny employment to a woman with a headscarf because the religious garment violated its “look policy”. There was also a class action racial discrimination lawsuit from California in 2003 in which it was alleged that the company turned down minorities for sales positions, relegated them to stockrooms, and had their hours reduced when managers heard their looks weren’t Abercrombie enough. 

Since Jeffries’ departure and perhaps in reckoning with the cultural times they now find themselves in, Abercrombie & Fitch have rebranded and now present an image of inclusivity, one which now features Curve Love jeans in a range of sizes. But while this new image of Abercrombie & Fitch is more in keeping with the politics of younger generations today, White Hot serves to remind us of its past and how it profited off exclusivity and whiteness – something the company may not have pioneered, but still exemplified the benefits of. As the documentary seems to make clear, Abercrombie & Fitch still has a lot to answer for in terms of its past. 

By Jessica Campbell

Jess is a storyteller committed to sharing the human stories that lie at the heart of sport.

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