The recent past often seems more bizarre to us than the distant past. You can have a more disorienting feeling looking at photos of people from the 1990s, as opposed to the 1890s, because of the shock of the clothing that’s worn. The true past is antique; the recent past is an eyeball-rolling, embarrassing journey to, “what were we thinking?”
White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch (new on Netflix) is a fast-paced but ultimately furious documentary about the clothing line that once was the fashion zeitgeist. It takes you back to the early days of MTV and music videos, to the naked male chests on shopping bags and to the pre-Internet period of glamour found at suburban shopping malls.
Today, we can see that what the chain-store sold was weird. Back then, it looked like genius. As one of its former executives says, the idea was to create an aspiration: “I wish I had that Abercrombie thing.” But the “thing” was not a T-shirt or jeans. It was an attitude, a laidback “preppy with money” vibe. For a time, it worked brilliantly. The money rolled in.
We now look at the phenomenon of the Abercrombie & Fitch of the 1990s and early 2000s and see something approaching a campaign for white supremacy. Fashion, even mall fashion, is about affiliating, an attachment to a group; Abercrombie was unsubtly selling attachment to a privileged, white male culture.
Not everyone was enchanted by it all, when the company was at its height. Writer Moe Tkacik remembers the first time she walked into an Abercrombie outlet, her thought being, “Oh my God, they’ve bottled this. They have absolutely crystalized everything that I hate about high school and put it in a store.”
The iconography was all about white, entitled jocks and their white, sylphlike girlfriends who seemed to exist as decorations. There was, of course, an intense homoerotic quality to it all. Photographer Bruce Weber had done ad campaigns for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, but with Abercrombie & Fitch he found his forte – intensifying the gaze on the male body. As one former executive says about the homoeroticism, “It went straight over the heads of the preppy white bro’s who consumed it.”
Much of the brand’s success was the work of chief executive officer Mike Jeffries who had been hired to turn around an old-school company that mainly sold hunting and “country” attire to rich white men. Jeffries doesn’t appear in the doc, but his famous remark is included: “We hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”
Therein lies the problem. The principle of “good-looking” did not include racialized people. Very few were employed, and those who were found themselves working in the stock rooms, where customers never saw them, or working late shifts that meant they were doing more cleaning and tidying than selling. It was all so overt and casually discriminatory that, in 2003, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Abercrombie.
Then there was the matter of Abercrombie’s “joke” T-shirts that caricatured Asian men. One had the slogan, “Wong Brothers Laundry Service – Two Wongs Can Make It White.” Asian-Americans protested outside the stores, 60 Minutes did a report and the internal culture of the chain was examined. It wasn’t long before the brand was poison.
There are many funny and elucidating segments in the doc. A male model for the company explains that he was drinking in a bar in Nebraska when a woman approached and invited him to come for a photo-audition. Three weeks later he was in Brazil, just doing jock stuff for the camera. He’d never been out of Nebraska before that. Bobby Blanski, a former model, says with amusement, “They literally made so much money marketing clothes, but advertising them with no clothes on.”
Abercrombie & Fitch did survive, but barely. As recently as 2013, there was a petition that went viral, calling on the company to sell clothing for teens of all sizes – not just the jocks and their sylphlike girlfriends.
As anyone who studies fashion knows, there is so much to extrapolate from the arena. And there is a vast amount to learn here. Writing in Variety, reviewer Owen Gleiberman said, “As a fashion brand, Abercrombie & Fitch was a bit like the Republican Party – fighting to hold onto the hegemony of a white-bread America that was, in reality, losing its power and influence.” That’s the most astute assessment of this well-told tale about T-shirts and jeans.
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