Damning new documentary on Netflix explores the controversial history of fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch
Abercrombie & Fitch was America’s fashion brand of the 1990s – they were cool, their clothes were expensive and had mass appeal and their advertisements featuring nearly naked models certainly grabbed attention.
But beneath the glamor lies a host of controversies and legal issues.
The Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, delves into the company’s use of exclusion to build its brand.
Documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman, who directed Take Your Pills and The Brink, spoke to former employees at all levels of Abercrombie & Fitch to piece together this exposé.
What is Abercrombie & Fitch?
Abercrombie & Fitch is a luxury casual wear retailer that was founded in 1892. The company also owns Hollister Co., which was founded in 2000.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, the company focused on the young adult demographic and was known for its provocative advertising campaigns using nearly nude models.
In just over a year and partly due to the Great Recession, the company’s value plummeted from 2007-2008.
Struggling to compete with fast fashion companies, Abercrombie & Fitch shifted focus, toned down sexually explicit advertising and rebranded itself as a pro-diversity inclusive retailer.
Today the company is worth over £1.3billion and has carved out a niche as a fashion brand somewhere between H&M’s cheap fast fashion and more expensive designer luxury like Ralph Lauren.
What was controversial at Abercrombie & Fitch?
As the Netflix documentary shows, Abercrombie & Fitch has been embroiled in several legal issues over the years.
In 2004, a lawsuit was filed against the company for discriminating against African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and women by giving preferential treatment to white men.
The company was accused of favoring white men by offering sales and floor management positions – the class action lawsuit was settled for $40 million.
Other poor employment practices included moving a staff member with a prosthesis from the workshop to the warehouse out of sight of customers and telling a woman who was wearing a hijab to take it off – in both cases, employees were told they had violated the company’s “look policy”.
More broadly, the documentary explores allegations that Abercrombie & Fitch had an exclusionary policy – one interviewee for the documentary said, “Abercrombie is rooted in discrimination at all levels”.
Other issues include an investigation which was launched after it was suspected that the company mainly hired staff under the age of 25 and offered a bonus to male models who worked shirtless.
Who was Mike Jeffries?
Mike Jeffries was CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch from 1992 until his resignation in 2014.
It was Jeffries who spearheaded exclusionary marketing techniques, including hiring young, attractive staff to work on the sho floor.
Additionally, the company only offered clothing in limited sizes – shirts stopped out large and pants only came up to size 10.
Jeffries had said while CEO of the company that his clothes were only for cool people – he later said he didn’t want overweight or unattractive people wearing his clothes. He apologized for the comments in 2013.
What does Abercrombie & Fitch look like today?
As a result of these legal issues, Abercrombie & Fitch underwent a dramatic rebrand – the company’s website claims they “stand for inclusivity and create a sense of place”.
The Abercrombie Equity Project was launched to help advance social and racial justice – a marked difference in Abercrombie & Fitch’s values from 20 years ago.
When is White Hot on Netflix?
The documentary will be released on Netflix on April 19.