How Abercrombie & Fitch built a multi-billion dollar fashion empire on exclusion

Written Oscar Holland, CNN

The Abercrombie & Fitch website today is filled with Gen Z-friendly allusions to diversity and inclusion. There are people of color, sizes up to 3XL, and even a Pride-themed collection with gender-responsive rainbow t-shirts. The brand’s Instagram account, meanwhile, proudly touts wheelchair-wearing models, body-positive stories, and statements of LGBTQ solidarity.

However, barely disguised in the label’s new slogan, “This is #AbercrombieToday,” is an acknowledgment that there is a yesterday we’d rather forget.

Any chance of that happening has been dashed by Netflix’s new documentary Hot Whites: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, which chronicles Abercrombie’s transformation from a forgotten 19th century outdoor salesman to the epitome of late ’90s teen fashion. Based on interviews with former models, recruiters, shop workers, and executives, the 88-minute film shows that appearing cool, attractive, and white was not just a branding exercise: it was an active corporate strategy that was carried out at the expense of non-whites. employees and consumers.

Taxis pass in front of an Abercrombie & Fitch billboard in New York City, 2005. Credit: Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Despite all the current messages about inclusivity, millennials (and older) will remember a very different Abercrombie – the one that flooded malls and billboards with an army of attractive models and torn male torsos. The one that spread across college campuses and was mentioned in the 1999 LFO anthem “Summer Girls” (“I like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch,” sang the band’s late vocalist Rich Cronin. “I’d take her if I had there was such a desire”).

As Washington Post senior critic at large Robin Given muses in the documentary, Abercrombie’s explosive success was achieved by combining the sex appeal of Calvin Klein and the elitist preppy of Ralph Lauren, but at more affordable prices than either.

At the time, it seemed like there was little the brand could do wrong. A former merchandiser recalls a colleague telling him they “could write ‘Abercrombie & Fitch’ in dog shit, put it on a baseball cap and sell it for 40 bucks.” One of the brand’s former models put it even more succinctly: “If you didn’t wear Abercrombie, you weren’t cool.”

Shoppers hold Abercrombie & Fitch shopping bags outside a store in London, UK, 2010.

Shoppers hold Abercrombie & Fitch shopping bags outside a store in London, UK, 2010. Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty Images

But behind the aura of exclusivity was a policy of exclusivity. A forerunner of today’s influencer marketing, the label scouted attractive employees and approached college fraternities and sororities for models and store employees, a strategy only for the cool kids, backed by a tacit understanding of whose appearance is considered “everyone’s”. American”. Former employees have revealed internal rules that contain little to no explicit racial language, though describing dreadlocks as “unacceptable,” for example, made the implications clear enough for one former recruiter, who says, “It wasn’t No racist”.

The company declined to comment on specific claims made in the documentary, although current CEO Fran Horowitz told CNN in a statement, “We acknowledge and confirm that there have been exclusionary and inappropriate actions under previous management,” adding that the company is now “in place.” accessories”.

“We have changed the organization, including making management changes, prioritizing presentation, implementing new policies, reimagining our stores, and updating the fit, size range and style of our products,” she said.

Abercrombie & Fitch models at the opening of the brand's store on 5th Avenue in New York.

Abercrombie & Fitch models at the opening of the brand’s store on 5th Avenue in New York. Credit: David Pomponio/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Are we exceptional? Absolutely’

The company began facing allegations of wrongdoing around the turn of the millennium. In 2003, a group of former employees and job applicants sued Abercrombie & Fitch for discrimination. Several plaintiffs appear in the Netflix documentary to echo longstanding allegations that black, Asian American and Latino employees have had their hours cut, fired or forced to work behind the scenes because of their appearance.

Abercrombie settled the lawsuit in 2004, paying the accusers about $40 million. And while the firm never pleaded guilty in the case, it agreed to a non-binding Decree of Consent, under which the court oversaw improvements in its hiring, hiring, and marketing practices. Despite apparent diversity improvements in Abercrombie’s shops, the company later found itself in the Supreme Court after Muslim American Samantha Elauf said she turned down a job in 2008 because she wore a hijab. The court ruled 8-1 in her favor.

Samantha Elauf before the US Supreme Court, which voted in her favor in a case that Abercrombie & Fitch violated discrimination laws by refusing to hire her because she wore a headscarf, a symbol of her Muslim faith.

Samantha Elauf before the US Supreme Court, which voted in her favor in a case that Abercrombie & Fitch violated discrimination laws by refusing to hire her because she wore a headscarf, a symbol of her Muslim faith. Credit: Chip Somodeville/Getty Images

The documentary also revisits other disturbing parts of Abercrombie’s success story, including his close relationship with fashion photographer Bruce Weber, who has since been accused of sexual harassment by many models. (Weber has always denied the accusations, speaking New York Times in 2017 that he “never touched anyone inappropriately.”) Other now unthinkable solutions include offensive T-shirts that used stereotypical Asian fonts and cartoons, including one featuring the Wong brothers’ fictional laundry service and with its slogan “Two Wongs can make it white”.

What is shocking about this documentary is not only the nature of the allegations, many of which have long since become public knowledge, but also the length of time it took to pay off.

Abercrombie has made no secret of the fact that they want their clothes to be worn by people with a certain appearance. In 2006, former CEO Mike Jeffries effectively laid out his tactics in the now infamous profile on the news site Salon, saying, “We’re pursuing an attractive all-American kid with a great personality and lots of friends. Many people do not belong (in our clothes) and they cannot belong. are we exceptional? Absolutely”.
Former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries.

Former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries. Credit: Netflix

The comments at the time went almost unnoticed. It will be more than a decade before the Jeffreys quote — and the story of problematic marketing and brand advertising — becomes more of a corporate responsibility. But then, as a younger and socially aware generation of customers began to take notice, the floodgates opened.

In 2013, Benjamin O’Keeffe, an eating disorder survivor, launched petition, signed by nearly 80,000 people who called on the label to offer sizes XL and up. That same year, director Greg Karber went viral with his #FitchTheHomeless campaign and a video in which he donated Abercrombie clothes to the homeless in response to Jeffries’s isolating approach. Plus size blogger Jess Baker created a series of fake commercials in which the brand’s logo was changed to “Attractive and fat”.

The following year, Jeffries stepped down as CEO due to declining sales, paving the way for yet another rebrand. But like so many documentaries that revisit disturbing elements of our not-too-distant past, Hot Whites: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is not so much an exposé. which happened under his leadership and more reflection that we, as a society, permitted happen. As the Asian American students protesting the Wong Brothers T-shirts in 2002 can attest, there have always been objections to the brand’s behavior—it’s just that someone finally stopped listening to them.

“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 muses towards the end of the documentary. . “But they didn’t have a platform to voice it, and now they do.”

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