Fashion for the Few: The Success and Scandal of Abercrombie & Fitch

Eva Fischer

If you have been to a mall, you might have seen a storefront that is, or once was, an Abercrombie & Fitch. How would you know? The stores were characterized by dark shutters on the exterior, the heavy scent of cologne, and, at one time, muscular, shirtless men flanking the entrance.

A shopper enters an Abercrombie & Fitch Co. store at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center in Denver, Colorado, U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011. Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is scheduled to release earnings on Nov. 16. Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

However, this was during the 90’s, the height of business for the retailer. It’s hard to imagine that the store began in 1892 as an outdoor outfitters. The new Netflix original documentary, White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, details the company’s evolution from outdoor retailer, to cultural staple, to the company it is today. 

Most of the documentary centers around former CEO Mike Jeffries’s involvement which began in the 1990’s following the company’s file for bankruptcy; a fact the Netflix film left out. Jeffries is entirely to blame for the success and downfall of the company from the minute he took over as CEO, to his subsequent retirement. Upon acquiring the company, he set out to turn the brand into fashion for the few. Through the use of racy ad campaigns, courtesy of Bruce Weber, aspirational, yet achievable prices, and the idea of selling a “lifestyle,” Abercrombie & Fitch solidified its reputation for being “white hot,” financially and in its promotion of an exclusively white centered idea of style. Jeffries is quoted as saying, “In every school, there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

The company was well known for its discriminatory recruiting practices. For example, the company handbook stated that hairstyles must be “neatly combed, attractive, natural, classic,” and goes on to explain that a white woman with straight hair as appropriate and a black woman with dreadlocks as unacceptable. If employees at any time didn’t fit the aesthetic, they were removed from the schedule and essentially fired. White Hot shares three personal testimonies of former employees who were discriminated against and later joined a group of six more to sue Abercrombie. The company settled this lawsuit without admitting to wrongdoing and agreed to “make changes.” This meant creating the Chief Diversity Officer position and dividing the employees into two groups, “impact” and “models.” The “impact” employees were mostly members of minority groups and worked in the back of the stores whereas “models” were primarily white and worked the floor. Despite several lawsuits on related subjects, Mike Jeffries never changed his viewpoint. In an interview he said, “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.”

In the late 2000’s, sales began to drop as a result of company controversy, change in public interest, and decrease in mall popularity. In 2014, Mike Jeffries retired as CEO and left the company entirely. Sales continued to decline and Abercrombie struggled to find footing in public favor. In 2015, the company removed many of its defining features including the dark store interiors, shirtless greeters, and many of the rules on appearance for employees. As of 2017, the CEO is Fran Horrowitz. Under new leadership, the company has begun to downsize and rebrand, trying to correct years of discriminatory marketing. Abercrombie now has a focus on inclusivity, positivity, – specifically body positivity – and diversity.

The Netflix documentary offers a fair share of nostalgia mixed with a timeline of Abercrombie’s numerous scandals and successes. Hardly any of this information is new material, however, the way it is presented is most successful in displaying how the culture of this company was able to not only exist, but thrive. The documentary consistently drives home the idea that what Abercrombie & Fitch accomplished in the 90’s could never be replicated in the modern world. 

White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is available to stream only on Netflix.