Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, the thrall of stores like Abercrombie & Fitch over my childhood is impossible to deny. For a gay outsider, this store represented everything I wished I could be, as the “cool kids” were the only ones that were really allowed to shop there. I remember the distinct musk of pure masculinity that hit you like a ton of bricks if you even walked by it in the mall. I remember peering through the threshold to peek at whatever random hot guy with glistening abs was on the poster centerpiece. Who could forget the store’s iconic bags, adorned with gorgeous men and frat-guy imagery? White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch recalls so much of what I remember about the once-iconic store; furthermore, it dives into the very reason I felt so neglected by the company as a teenager. Only bullies wore these clothes from my personal experiences, and I never felt quite cool enough to wear them confidently. This fascinating documentary delves into the mysterious accidental-gay-icon and former CEO of the company, Mike Jeffries, as well as examining A&F’s white-hot journey from top to bottom.
I had never given much thought about the blatant discrimination of A&F in terms of upholding their “perfect” image. This even extends to their recruiting process, in which someone can be deemed “too ugly” to continue on to hiring. Apparently, managers were frequently forced to rank their entire roster of employees on a scale of “cool” to “rocks,” then told to permanently take those lowest ranking off the schedule entirely. This is an absolutely repulsive business practice. Worse still, there is blatant racism in terms of the image that the company was portraying. They had a literal book on what “good looking” standards to uphold, with one of the primary directives being absolutely no dreadlocks, male or female. Nearly an entire store worth of Asian-Americans was let go due to not falling in line with the majorly-white image they wanted to uphold.
The shadowy CEO behind the whole affair is wunderkind Mike Jeffries, a notoriously private man who did little press. He was the driving force behind A&F the way most people remember it, with that distinct sense of preppy youthfulness. A mixture of sex and prestige sold the brand, with Jeffries behind every marketing idea. He was known for giving intensely thorough walkthroughs of his buildings to ensure they were fully up to his standards. The explicitly homoerotic imagery behind the ads of A&F were a definite sense of fantasy fulfillment for the gay creative behind this. Jeffries wanted A&F to be “the coolest brand for 18-22 year olds,” and the name alone was enough to sell it. He was the type of person who did not filter himself accordingly, and as such became deeply embroiled in the troubles of the company.
The various talking heads in this documentary certainly do an amazing job of portraying every side of the story. We are informed early on that Jeffries refused to participate in this documentary. The shadowy man would never take responsibility for the various missteps (to put it lightly) that he made along the way. I think A&F was probably a culprit and trigger for many people that did not fit their “ideal” body shape and size, or heterosexual box. The fact that it is now steering toward inclusivity is no shock, considering the major changes we have made as a society over just ten short years. Established in 1892, A&F is no doubt an enthralling subject for a documentary. With a supercharged soundtrack and a fast-paced energy, White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch takes a searing examination on conformity and the cultural influence of pre-social-media advertising tactics.
White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch brings its “all-American” image to Netflix audiences everywhere on Tuesday, April 19th.