Caitlin Ariel ’24
“A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” This 2006 comment from former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries summarizes Netflix’s latest exposé, White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, quite nicely. For many 90s kids, Jeffries’s words are hardly shocking, but for 2000s babies such as Providence College students, this blunt admission probably comes as a bit of a surprise.
From the prominent cologne smell that seemed to follow shoppers out of the store to the absurdly loud clubbing music and posters of shirtless men on the walls that made moms antsy as their kids inched towards the entrance, the Abercrombie & Fitch shopping experience was a collective core memory for American youth in the late 90s and early 2000s. A&F clothing was the encapsulation of being “cool.” Customers were not merely buying overpriced pants or button-down shirts, but an image, one that screamed, “Look at me, I’m cool!”
But while middle schoolers were focused on finding the shirt with the biggest A&F-signature moose logo that they could show off in their school hallways, older teenagers and adults began to notice a startling brand trend: nearly all models and employees were white, blonde, and skinny.
In White Hot, award-winning director Alison Klayman walks viewers through how Abercrombie & Fitch’s exclusionary image of the “all-American teen” led to both its rise and fall before undergoing a major rebranding in the early 2000s. Klayman spoke to journalists as well as former A&F retail staff, corporate employees, and models about their experiences with the company and how being a part of an organization rooted in exclusion impacted them.
One particularly eye-opening portion of the film dove into the store’s “look,” or what was deemed acceptable for salespeople to wear. Dreadlocks and chains were strictly prohibited, and when people of color were employed, they were very rarely allowed to work the floor, relegated to the stock room or closing shift. This blatant discrimination led to a class-action lawsuit against A&F in 2003.
Notably, the documentary also spotlights the unsettling story of A&F photographer Bruce Weber. As male models interviewed for the documentary explained, Weber took an inappropriate interest in them, resulting in a sexual misconduct lawsuit in the early 2000s.
To Abercrombie & Fitch’s young audience, being cool and popular was worth more than any pair of skinny jeans. However, the brand’s exclusionary vision facilitated classism, racism, homophobia, and fatphobia. This injustice is at the center of White Hot. However, the documentary also recognizes that many of the people who were bluntly excluded from A&F in the early 2000s are those who are making changes in the fashion industry today, with many brands, including A&F, taking steps to be more inclusive. Needless to say, exclusion in fashion is far from a thing of the past.