White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch
WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Abercrombie & Fitch conquered malls in the late '90s and early '00s with gorgeous models, pulsing dance beats and a fierce scent. But while the brand was running white-hot, its popular "all-American" image began burning out as controversy came to light surrounding its exclusionary marketing and discriminatory hiring.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
I'll be honest. I initially thought Abercrombie & Fitch was a fragrance. I first heard the name used in a song that I didn't even know the name of but sang along to.
I've since learned that Abercrombie & Fitch is more of a clothing brand, which according to Business Insider US, is "cool again," and that the song is called Summer Girls by a pop boyband from the '90s called LFO.
After watching a documentary about how the brand rose in popularity and then crashed and burned, I am mostly relieved that my parents' frugal shopping habits and hand-me-downs from my sister saved our family from wasting money on a company that was so blatantly racist.
I was totally baffled by White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, and yet not baffled at all.
Director Alison Klayman tracks how the store, which thrived on promoting beauty standards that idealised thinness and whiteness, began to fall apart after employees started calling out what made it so toxic.
The company not only glorified the 'beauty' of the thin, white models presented in its ads but deliberately hired employees that fit that mould to represent the front of house and fired or 'hid' those who strayed outside its lines.
This documentary explains the history of Abercrombie & Fitch and its inner culture very well. With a runtime of 1 hour and 28 minutes, the doccie starts by reminding viewers what made the store so intoxicating to youths and so nauseating to parents in the first place. From shuttered store windows, photos of shirtless models selling shirts and a scent as potent as a skunk to dimmed lights and excessively loud music.
The doccie then moves into the scandals behind how the business exploited homoerotic imagery to their desired heteronormative audience while packaging an "all-American look" under the definition of explicit whiteness.
It features interviews with former company executives, retail employees, models, and cultural critics and activists who helped bring the brand's troubling practices to light. Furthermore, it is informative about how disgraced former CEO Mike Jeffries perfected selling sex and popularity branded as the "all-American look" to teens.
Klayman put a clear emphasis on the non-white narrative throughout the film. Whether it's Asian Americans like Phil Yu, from Angry Asian Man, commenting on the company's racist graphic tees, or former employee Samantha Elauf who took a case to the Supreme Court regarding her wearing a hijab while on duty. An important takeaway from the way this story is structured is that these perspectives always existed but didn't have a standard outlet until social media came into play, regardless of the news coverage it did get.
The doccie ends with ten or so minutes dedicated to what happened after Abercrombie & Fitch lost its allure. Jeffries walked away with a fat retirement package in 2014, and new CEO Fran Horowitz came on board in 2017, totally rebranding the retail store.
One thing that bothered me was the lack of elaboration on how consumer mentality changed after the late '90s. In the 21st century, youth cool is about individuality, rather than opting for whatever the 'cool kids' are wearing to the mall.
We very clearly see that between 1996 and 2004, Abercrombie & Fitch ruled the mall. But something changed in the mid-2000s, and I don't feel like the factors that converged to make the brand go stale are focussed on enough.
All that I was left with after watching the film is one question: Why did they even bother rebranding because, honestly, with Abercrombie & Fitch's checkered past, it's hard to see how it will give them the clean slate it is looking for.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: