Fashion, of course, is rarely just fashion: it tells a story about the wearer. And in the 1990s and 2000s, Abercrombie & Fitch, the youthful preppy mall fashion store, told a great story. It was a story of where America was, or, at least, a powerful slice of the millennial show. As recounted in the lively, sarcastic, terrifying and compelling documentary “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” (out April 19 on Netflix), that story gets less pretty the more you look at it, even when the models that used to market it were beautiful.
As a company, Abercrombie & Fitch had been around since 1892. It originally catered to elite athletes (Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway were loyal customers), but after falling on hard times and becoming an antiquated brand, the company reinvented itself at the beginning of 90s by CEO Mike Jeffries, who fused the signature WASP fetishism of designers like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger with the chiseled monochromatic sexiness of meatloaf in Calvin Klein brand underwear to create a new you are what you are. -you-wear dreamscape of hot, clubby elitism. The models—in catalogs, on store signs, on shopping bags—were mostly men, mostly nude, and all torn, like the missing link between Michelangelo’s David and “Jersey Shore.” Rugby shirts and ripped jeans weren’t that special, but they were priced like they were. What you were buying, in many cases, was really just the logo: the Abercrombie & Fitch insignia, spread across hoodies and T-shirts, signifying that you, too, were a member of the ruling echelon of cool youth.
The brand wasn’t ashamed of its internal/external snobbery, but the problem with it, and there was a major problem, wasn’t the clothes. It was the fact that not only the company’s advertising aesthetic, but also its hiring practices were openly discriminatory. Abercrombie & Fitch sold neo-colonial chic jockstrap infused with a thinly veiled dash of white supremacy. Like models, salespeople working in retail stores had to conform to an “all-American” ideal, which meant, among other things, exclusionary whiteness. In an Abercrombie boutique, the text read: We are white. The subtext was: no one else wanted.
In “White Hot,” Alison Klayman, the excellent documentarian who made “Jagged,” “The Brink,” and “Take Your Pills,” shows us how Abercrombie & Fitch achieved incredible popularity by taking on a certain variety of preppy sexy. right that was already out there and kicking it into the aspirational stratosphere. It traces the incredible journey the brand has enjoyed (it was iconic for over a decade, but then caught fire in a way only a red-hot fashion phenomenon can), and interviews many former employees, including several from the executive ranks. They explain how the sausage was made.
At colleges, Abercrombie reps selected the hottest guys from the hippest frats to wear the clothes, thinking the image would spread from there. (The beginning of the culture of influencers is felt). The mall’s stores were protected by locked doors, and inside they were bathed in disco beats and musky clouds of A&F cologne. All the ads were about frat boys looking like rugby and lacrosse athletes, who became, in the quarterly coffee table catalogues, the stud next door. (The godfather of Abercrombie models was Marky Mark in the Calvin Klein ads.) There were also some girls in ads and celebrities before they were famous, like Olivia Wilde, Taylor Swift, Channing Tatum, Jennifer Lawrence, Ashton Kutcher, and January Jones.
Bobby Blanski, a former A&F model, says: “They literally made a lot of money selling clothes. But announcing them without clothes. But that made sense, since “the clothes themselves were nothing special,” according to Alan Karo, a fashion advertising and marketing executive at Abercrombie. It was the label, the brand, the club, the cult. Journalist Moe Tkacik recalls that the first time she walked into an Abercrombie outlet, she said to herself, “My God, they bottled this up. They’ve crystallized absolutely everything I hate about high school and put it in a store.”
There is a dimension to the Abercrombie story that has a perverse parallel to the movie industry. In his seminal book “Empire of Their Own,” Neal Gabler captured how the moguls who created Hollywood were, in large part, forging an on-screen identity that was the opposite of their own: America’s white picket fence of idealized WASP conformity. . It could be argued that on a karmic level, because those tycoons were Jews, they imagined that other world as a kind of dream and thus elevated it to a mythology.
Something comparable happened in the United States with youth fashion. Preppies and the preppy look had been around for decades. But the preppy as a signifier, as an advertising icon, as an image of who everyone wanted to be it didn’t come to light until the 1980s. The counterculture had been a scruffy, literally hairy affair; the 80s, leaving behind all that moralistic revolt against the system, would be smooth, shaved and beige. The new rebel, like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” or Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street,” was a rebel precisely because of how connected he was to the system: military equipment, finance, luxurious living. (He drove a fucking Porsche.) The WASP preppy culture that became a new symbol of cool was spearheaded, on the fashion front, by that trilogy of giant designer moguls, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger. Two of them were Jewish, as was Bruce Weber, the legendary photographer who created the signature image of youths frolicking in nature with an Abercrombie “Triumph of the Will” golden retriever and Chippendale aesthetic.
Were the Abercrombie & Fitch ads homoerotic? Yes and no. Weber, like Calvin Klein, was gay (and so was CEO Mike Jeffries), and somehow the ads were permeated with homoerotic sentiment. But it’s not like its effect is limited to that look. What was more important to the essence of Abercrombie was that by the late ’90s, the preppy-as-icon had become a significant one percent. This is part of what he aspired to when he joined the Abercrombie lifestyle, which promised a golden ticket out of the gridlock that defined everyone else.
What Klayman captures in the documentary, from its cheery cropped opening credits and bubblegum punk, is that much more than the fashion brands that paved the way, Abercrombie & Fitch he turned pop culture. And I could trace his rise and fall through pop culture. The ultimate sign that the brand had become larger than life came when LFO referenced it in their 1999 hip-hop nostalgia hit “Summer Girls” with the line “I like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch”, who did for A&F what the designer of Sister Sledge screams in “He’s the Greatest Dancer” in 1979 (“Halston, Gucci… Fiorucci”) did for the 1980s fashion revolution. There was some silly misogynistic poetry in the LFO line, which should have said “I like girls.” WHO use Abercrombie & Fitch.” But by continuing to refer to women as “that,” the line inadvertently captured the essence of the A&F mystique. Namely: I like objects that carry objects.
Yet three years later, in Tobey Maguire’s first “Spider-Man” movie, Peter Parker’s high school bully nemesis Flash Thompson was dressed in Abercrombie, like a John Hughes villain from the 1980s. 80. The brand was still on top, but one of its market managers, interviewed in the document, says he immediately saw this as an ominous sign. People were beginning to understand what Abercrombie stood for, and this had consequences. That same year, one of his joke T-shirts, which featured old-fashioned slogans displayed ironically, sported Chinese cartoons wearing rice hats with the slogan “Wong Brothers’ Laundry: Two Wongs Can Make It White”. This sparked protests from Asian-Americans, who picketed outside stores, and at the time 60 Minutes was putting the spotlight on that kind of thing, you had a PR mess.
Klayman shows us records from the shop guide for The Look: what was acceptable for their salespeople to wear and, more importantly, what they shouldn’t wear (dreadlocks, men’s gold chains). The company employed very few people of color, and those it did have were mostly confined to the back room or on night shifts where their job was to clean. These practices were so blatantly discriminatory that a class action lawsuit was filed against Abercrombie in 2003. The company settled the lawsuit for $40 million, not admitting guilt but signing a consent decree in which they agreed to change their recruiting, hiring and marketing practices. Todd Corley, who was hired to oversee diversity initiatives, is interviewed in the film; He made some progress, but in other ways he was the symbol the company needed to try to change without changing too much.
As a fashion brand, Abercrombie & Fitch was a bit like the Republican Party, struggling to cling to hegemony in a white-bread America that was, in reality, losing its power and influence. However, as the documentary makes clear, Abercrombie’s demise as a cultural force was not due solely to the exposure of his racist practices. This was also Total Mall Culture’s pre-internet last gasp: the mall as the place you hung out and went to buy whatever was hot, after hearing about it on MTV. That now sounds as strangely distant as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” But what has never gone away, and may only have gained influence, is the hateful youth cult aristocracy that Abercrombie embodied: the idea that the cooler, sexier, more expensive you look, the more jerk it invites you to be.