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THE DARK SIDE OF ABERCROMBIE & FITCH’S AMERICAN DREAM! | THE LANCESCURV SHOW | PODCAST EPISODE 10

It’s said that scent is the sense most powerfully linked to memory, which might be why Abercrombie & Fitch, decades removed from its position at the top of the mall fashion landscape, remains an unusually prominent part of the fashion conversation. For suburban millennials, and their parents, is there any scent that evokes memories quite like A&F’s signature Fierce cologne? The smell welcomed shoppers into Abercrombie’s stores during the brand’s heyday in the nineties and aughts; employees were rumored to spritz it into the air conditioning system. A 2014 study found that a whiff of Fierce inspired anxiety, bringing up memories of the shop’s dark, dank stores, with their made-in-a-lab shirtless welcome models outside and its thumping electronic soundtrack within. As the new Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch explores, the brand’s legacy is complicated for a number of reasons: its run as the prom king of the mall was characterized by overwhelming store designs and overly strong cologne, but also by discriminatory hiring practices and racist T-shirts. What the documentary makes clear is that Abercrombie’s uniquely toxic blend of exclusivity and prescriptive fashion could not exist in today’s world or style landscape—but also that those qualities were central to making it an enormous brand in the first place.

In 1931, E.B. White described Abercrombie’s wares as “the clothes men want to wear all the time and don’t; they carry the residual evidences of what men used to be before they became what they are.” In other words, it represented some masculine fantasy, even back then when it was primarily selling to outdoorsmen. At one time, Abercrombie’s clientele included such manly men as Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt. By the late ‘90s and 2000s, CEO Mike Jeffries was busy imagining this all-American man as jacked, popular, and white. Under Jeffries, Abercrombie wasn’t just a popular brand and logo—it created a totally dominant aesthetic with its preppy vision of American high schools and colleges. For many high schoolers of a certain age, a moose-printed polo could feel like the dividing line between popularity and social outcast.

White Hot charts that ascent, as well as the brand’s eventual crash landing. Featuring interviews with former A&F models and employees, including those who were involved in a class-action suit against the retailer, the documentary intends to shed light on how Abercrombie engineered its immense popularity and why it burnt out so quickly.

The film spends a great deal of time recounting Abercrombie’s endless list of scandals, from the discriminatory hiring practices it maintained to the closet’s worth of racist graphic T-shirts it released. One of the most offensive examples features a faux advertisement for “Wong Brothers Laundry Service,” with the tagline “Two Wongs Can Make It White.” Since this happened before the advent of social media, the shirt’s release led to actual in-person protests—but Abercrombie employees in the doc recount how it passed with barely a slap on the wrist. It quickly became just another punchline, joked about by Tina Fey on SNL’s Weekend Update. It’s almost as if customers expected the brand made for the cool kids to act like the rude, popular high schoolers it dressed.

No one was more responsible for Abercrombie’s rotted core than its CEO Jeffries. The former employees interviewed in the film credit Jeffries for every decision made in A&F stores, from the way a pair of pants sat on a mannequin to the types of necklaces store employees were allowed to wear. (Gold chains, for instance, were verboten.) But Jeffries’ control extended in darker directions, too. The former CEO was apparently obsessed with keeping the image of the store exclusive and almost entirely white. Unsurprisingly, this policy landed Abercrombie in court several times. The most high-profile case went all the way to the Supreme Court after A&F refused to hire a woman wearing a hijab because it violated the brand’s “look policy.” (Abercrombie lost.) In hindsight, seemingly more banal corporate activities, too, look shocking: owner Les Wexner was a close associate of Jeffrey Epstein, while Bruce Weber, the photographer responsible for creating A&F’s sensual image, is accused of sexual harassment by the male models he worked with.

The Dark Side of Abercrombie & Fitch's American Dream

One takeaway is that it’s surprising that Abercrombie held on as long as it did. The opportunities to “cancel” Abercrombie during its heyday were endless, but consumers lacked the firepower to get it done. One Salon article caused an uproar in 2013—a full seven years after its original publication date. The climate was simply different. “There were probably just as many people as there are now who hated what we were doing, who were completely offended, who didn’t feel included, who didn’t feel represented,” one former employee says in the documentary. “But they didn’t have the platform to be able to voice it, and now they do, so maybe it’s not, like, this massive societal new awareness. It’s just now we’re hearing everyone and we have to pay attention.”

What White Hot truly makes clear is that, company culture aside, what Abercrombie accomplished in the ‘90s and 2000s couldn’t happen today. Personal style just doesn’t operate that way any longer, with one brand or style able to take such a dominant position. Today, popular retailers like Zara, H&M, and Shein dominate by offering their takes on every possible trend, rather than trying to define a single manner of dress. Outside of the controversies, this is what’s most jarring about White Hot: seeing how much power has been drained from the mall. Retailers like J.Crew or the remade Abercrombie no longer have the authority to prescribe—they’re merely trying to fit in. If Abercrombie used to throw the illest and most exclusive parties, it is now simply trying to be a good friend in hopes of scoring an invite. The current iteration of Abercrombie is repentant. But it’s still serving up a different kind of American fantasy—one with a focus on diversity, inclusivity, and an acceptance of all body types.

It’s not entirely clear who White Hot is for. The documentary plays out like a TikTok explainer, going beat-by-beat through Abercrombie’s endless scandals while pausing to add context around them. But few of these screw-ups, if any, will come as a surprise to practically anyone who went to a mall in the 2000s. Ultimately, the documentary is most successful in the portrait it paints of a brief moment in time when something like Abercrombie could thrive. Luckily, we don’t live in that world anymore.

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About The Author

LANCESCURV IS A MASTER STORYTELLER | SOCIAL MEDIA PROVOCATEUR | ILLUSTRATOR/CARTOONIST | PODCASTER | CULTURE CRITIC | DIGITAL NOMAD | BLOGGER | EXTROVERTED RECLUSE | FOCUSING ON THE INTRICACIES OF HUMAN NATURE, TRENDING NEWS & THOUGHT-PROVOKING TOPICS OF INTEREST. CONTACT: [email protected]

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