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”).
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. 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. 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. Credit: Chip Somodeville/Getty Images
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.
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.
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.”