Inside the new Netflix document on Abercrombie & Fitch discrimination

If you’ve come of age between the two Bush presidencies, chances are you’ve had – or still have – strong feelings for Abercrombie & Fitch, the retailer whose logo T-shirts were once ubiquitous in high school cafeterias.

Perhaps you aspired to the brand’s narrow definition of cool. Perhaps you resented the unique identity of the company. Maybe both. But you just couldn’t be a youngster in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and avoid Abercrombie.

Now, a new Netflix documentary examines the brand and its legacy, arguing that Abercrombie’s corporate culture was even more harmful than the colony its employees zealously dispensed in malls across the country.

Premiere Tuesday, “White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie” explains how the company, founded in the 1800s as a supplier of sporting goods to elite adventurers, has become the hottest label of the “TRL” era under the leadership of CEO Michael Jeffries, who made billions in profits by aggressively chasing cool guys – and which he once proudly declared“Many people don’t belong [in our clothes]and they cannot belong. “

The strategy worked for a while, but it was unsustainable: nothing that burns hot can last forever. Especially when branding is based on exclusion.

“This is a story that anyone can settle in,” said director Alison Klayman. “People immediately start talking about their personal experiences with the brand. Quickly cut something about identity, about childhood, about adaptation. “

A pedestrian carries an Abercrombie & Fitch shopping bag.

A man carries a shopping bag from an Abercrombie & Fitch Co. store in San Francisco in 2008.

(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

The film chronicles the innovations that propelled the company’s rise in the 1990s, including A&F Quarterly, a bold catalog / magazine shot by famed fashion photographer Bruce Weber, and the store employees who were hired for their looks. rather than their customer service skills. Abercrombie’s vision came directly from Jeffries, who dictated every aspect of the company’s image, right down to the jewelry and hairstyles worn by employees. (Dreadlocks and gold chains were prohibited.)

The company’s popularity was crystallized in the 1999 hit “Summer Girls” by second-tier boy band LFO, which played in strong rotation on MTV: “I like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch,” said the refrain.

But “White Hot” also traces the controversies that ultimately turned the tide of public opinion against Abercrombie and contributed to Jeffries’ ouster in 2014, including racist merchandise, accusations of discriminatory hiring practices that led to a historic case. of the Supreme Court and Weber’s alleged predatory behavior towards the firm’s young male models.

Klayman said she was drawn to the idea of ​​making a movie about Abercrombie because she thought it was “the perfect story to make concrete seemingly abstract forces. She shows you how prejudice in society is actually formally imposed in a top-down way. How do you explain systemic racism? Well, how about people from headquarters who come to your store and tell a 20-year-old who they should hire and fire?

The director grew up in suburban Philadelphia during the retailer’s heyday. She preferred thrift store finds to Abercrombie’s preppy casual styles and felt intimidated by the local King of Prussia Mall store. “I wasn’t skinny or blonde, so I knew it wasn’t for me,” she said. “I got the message that this is what was great. And I also got the message that it wasn’t for me. “(The documentary, while complete, doesn’t have time to review all of Abercrombie’s controversial moves, such as thongs marketed to preteen girls with the words” feast for the eyes “or the decision for many years not to make women’s clothes larger than a size 10.)

“White Hot” is likely to evoke complicated emotions in millennials who grew up under the influence of Abercrombie and Fitch: nostalgia for mall culture, the pre-social media era, and the brands we longed for as teenagers, tinged with disgust for the pervasive racism, misogyny and homophobia that seemed perfectly acceptable in the not-too-distant past. (Some viewers will also feel very old when shopping malls are explained as “an online catalog that is a real place.”)

The documentary comes at a time when pop culture is embroiled in a time warp of the year 2000. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez they are engaged Britney Spears she’s pregnant and low-rise jeans are back in fashion. The TV offered inclusive depictions of women once treated like media punching bags such as Spears, Janet Jackson, Monica Levinsky, Brittany Murphy Other Pamela Anderson. “America’s Next Top Model”, a show that premiered nearly 20 years ago, was the subject of journalistic complaints and countless outstanding Twitter threads.

And recent Hulu docuseries “The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For” told the wild story of another apparel company strongly identified with the early years. As much as yuppies have endlessly relived the 60s into the 80s and 90s, millennials and Generation X youth look back on their youth and wonder: why did we ever endure this?

“Pop culture was much more hegemonic at the time, it was more of a monoculture. There were many people who thought [Abercrombie] it was ridiculous from the start, but it was the dominant culture and they wouldn’t stifle it, “said Klayman, who has spent several years thinking about this period: his previous film,” Jagged, “was centered around the 90s pop star Alanis Morissetteand is also working on a documentary about the WNBA, which was founded in 1996.

“White Hot” features interviews with reporters who covered the retailer at the height of his influence, as well as former models and employees disillusioned with the company’s exclusion policies. (A model named Bobby Blanski jokingly describes himself as “armpit guy” because of a famous announcement with its likeness.)

A man in a buttoned shirt is standing next to the Abercrombie & Fitch merchandise.

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries in “White Hot”.

(Netflix)

After graduating from Cal State Bakersfield 20 years ago, Carla Barrientos applied for a job at an Abercrombie store in nearby Valley Plaza Mall. She loved dresses and was devoted to a pair of low-rise jeans with small pockets on the front. “I’m not sure what they should have kept,” Barrientos said, laughing during a recent video chat. “At the time, everything I wore was low-rise, everything was tight. If I could show my navel, it would have been a great day. “

Although Barrientos, who is black, noticed the lack of diversity in the store, she thought, “They are looking for all Americans and I am all American.” She worked at Abercrombie for a few months, but she was soon eliminated with little explanation. When she learned that another friend, who was white, was still working 20 hours a week, she started putting things back together. But she did not intervene immediately. “I saw it as if the racism has to be blatant, almost like the KKK, right? I wasn’t called a racial slur, I wasn’t sold out of the shop,” she said.

“I think part of me didn’t want it to be a race thing,” she continued, “because there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m very proud to be a black woman. How can I fix it?”

Barrientos, now 38, eventually joined a class action lawsuit against the retailer in 2003, arguing that the company’s hiring practices excluded black people and women. The case led to a 2005 consent decree that required the company to promote diversity in its workforce, but was largely non-binding. After the deal, Abercrombie came up with a cynical solution: if he reclassified the employees who worked in front of the store as “models,” he could continue hiring them based on appearance. In a separate case a decade later, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a young Muslim woman, Samantha Elauf, who turned down a job at Abercrombie because of her veil.

The experience at Abercrombie “opened my eyes to what discrimination looks like” and how quietly insidious it can be, said Barrientos, who appears on “White Hot”. She is heartened to see the changes in Abercrombie, whose website now features models with a wide range of body shapes and skin tones. A banner on the home page reads: “Today, and every day, we are driving with purpose, supporting inclusiveness and creating a sense of belonging.”

“It’s so refreshing and good to see how inclusive the world is these days and how people want to get to know you because you’re not like them, not because you fit into this box of what’s beautiful, “said Barrientos.” I’m so glad we’re where we are, but I think you still have a long way to go. “

While he credits social media and the rise of a new generation “who were unwilling to be spoon fed” the acceleration of Abercrombie’s fall to its turn-of-the-millennium heights, Klayman also sees less stimulating forces at work: profits. declining and changing consumer habits. “It is really difficult to be on top of the youth market for many, many decades. Abercrombie had a formula that worked, but it hasn’t changed. ”

In other words, the brand has suffered the fate of every fashion: the kids got bored.

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