“White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch”: Fashion Fascism

Fashion, of course, is rarely just fashion – it tells a story about the wearer. And in the 90s and 2000s, Abercrombie & Fitch, Abercrombie & Fitch, preppy fashion store for young people, told a very big story. It was a story of where America was — or, at least, a powerful slice of the millennial demo. As the animated, sarcastic, horrifying and irresistible documentary “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” (out April 19 on Netflix) tells us, this story gets less pretty the closer you look at it, even if the models that used to market it were magnificent.

As a company, Abercrombie & Fitch had been around since 1892. Originally catering to elite athletes (Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway were loyal customers), but after falling on hard times and being a an antiquated brand, the company was reinvented in the early 90s by CEO Mike Jeffries, who fused the high-end WASP fetishism of designers such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger with the chiseled-beefcake-in monochromatic sex appeal. -underwear from Calvin Klein brand to create a you-are-what-you-wear a dreamscape of warm, clubby elitism. The models – in catalogs, on store posters, on shopping bags – were mostly male, mostly nude, and all torn, like the missing link between Michelangelo’s David and “Jersey Shore “. Rugby shirts and tough ripped jeans weren’t that special, but priced like they were. What you were buying, in many cases, was really just the logo – the Abercrombie & Fitch badge, slathered on sweatshirts and t-shirts, which meant you too were part of the ruling echelon. cool youth.

The brand was unapologetic in its insider/outsider snobbery, but the problem with it – and there was a major problem – wasn’t the clothes. It was the fact that not only the company’s advertising aesthetic, but also its hiring practices were blatantly discriminatory. Abercrombie & Fitch was selling neo-colonial jock chic imbued with a thinly disguised dollop of white supremacy. Like models, the salespeople who worked on outlet sets were all expected to conform to an “all-American” ideal — which meant, among other things, exclusive whiteness. In an Abercrombie store, the text was: We are white. The subtext was: No one else wanted.

In ‘White Hot,’ Alison Klayman, the documentary ace who directed ‘Jagged,’ ‘The Brink,’ and ‘Take Your Pills,’ shows us how Abercrombie & Fitch rose to wild popularity by taking on a certain strain of preppy. sexy right that already existed and propelling it into the stratosphere of aspirations. She charts the incredible ride the brand has enjoyed (it was iconic for over a decade, but then died out like only a white-hot fad can), and she’s interviewed many alumni. employees, including several from the management ranks, who explain how the sausage was made.

In colleges, Abercrombie reps targeted the hottest guys from the hippest fraternities to wear the clothes, thinking the image would spread from there. (You smell the start of influencer culture.) The mall’s stores were protected by closed doors, and inside they were bathed in dance club beats and musky clouds of cologne. A&F. The adverts were all about fraternity boys looking like rugby and lacrosse sportsmen, who became, in the quarterly coffee table catalogs, the stud next door. (The godfather of Abercrombie models was Marky Mark in Calvin Klein commercials.) There were also girls in commercials and celebrities before they were famous, like Olivia Wilde, Taylor Swift, Channing Tatum, Jennifer Lawrence, Ashton Kutcher and January Jones.

Bobby Blanski, a former A&F model, says, “They literally made so much money marketing clothes. But announce them without clothes. But it made sense, since “the clothes themselves were nothing special,” according to Alan Karo, fashion marketing and advertising manager at Abercrombie. It was the label, the brand, the club, the cult. Journalist Moe Tkacik recalls the first time she walked into an Abercrombie outlet, she was like, “Oh my God, they bottled this up. They absolutely crystallized everything I hate about high school and put it in a store.

There’s a dimension to Abercrombie’s story that has a perverse parallel to the movie industry. In his seminal book “Empire of Their Own,” Neal Gabler captured how the moguls who created Hollywood were forging, in large part, an on-screen identity that was the opposite of their own – a white picket fence America. of idealized WASP compliance. One could argue that on a karmic level, because these tycoons were Jewish, they envisioned this other world as some kind of dream, and thus elevated it to mythology.

Something comparable happened in America with youth fashion. Preppies and the preppy look had been around for decades. But the preppy as a signifier, as an advertising icon, as an image of who everyone wanted to be only came into its own in the 1980s. The counterculture had been a scruffy, literally hairy affair; the 80s, throwing above all that moralistic rebellion against the system thing, would be smooth, shaved and beige. The new rebel, like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” or Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street,” was a rebel precisely because of how he was connected to the system: military hardware, finance, high life. (He drove a fucking Porsche.) The WASP preppy culture that became a new symbol of cool was led, on the fashion front, by this trilogy of design giants, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Two of them were Jewish, as was Bruce Weber, the legendary photographer who created the exclusive image of youngsters frolicking in nature with a golden retriever from Abercrombie’s ‘Triumph of the Will’ that meets aesthetics of Chippendale.

Were Abercrombie & Fitch’s additions homoerotic? Yes and no. Weber, like Calvin Klein, was gay (as was CEO Mike Jeffries), and on some level the ads were steeped in homoerotic feel. But it’s not like their effect is limited to that look. What was more important to the essence of Abercrombie was that by the end of the 90s, the preppy-as-icon had become a signifier of the one percenter. It’s part of what you aspired to when you embraced the Abercrombie Lifestyle, which promised a golden ticket out of the doldrums that defined everyone.

What Klayman captures in the documentary, right from its cut-out, punk-bubblegum opening credits sequence, is much more than the fashion brands that paved the way, Abercrombie & Fitch became pop-culture. And you could trace his rise and fall through pop culture. The definitive sign that the brand had grown larger than life came when LFO referenced it in its nostalgic 1999 hip-hop hit, “Summer Girls,” with the line, “I like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch.” , who did for A&F what the Sister Sledge creator shouted in “He’s the Greatest Dancer” in 1979 (“Halston, Gucci…Fiorucci”) did for the fashion revolution of the 80s. There was stupid misogynist poetry in the LFO line, which should have read “I like girls WHO wear Abercrombie & Fitch. But by sticking to designating women as “that,” the line inadvertently captured the essence of A&F mystique. Namely: I like objects that carry objects.

Three years later, however, in Tobey Maguire’s directorial debut “Spider-Man,” Peter Parker’s nemesis Flash Thompson was dressed in Abercrombie, like an ’80s John Hughes villain. the wind in its sails, but one of its market managers, interviewed in the doc, said he immediately saw this as a bad omen. People were starting to understand what Abercrombie stood for, and that had consequences. That same year, one of their humorous T-shirts, which featured outdated slogans displayed ironically, displayed cartoon Chinese in rice paddy hats with the slogan “Wong Brothers Laundry Service – Two Wongs Can Make It White”. It drew protests from Asian Americans, who picketed stores, and by the time this sort of thing was brought to light by “60 Minutes,” you had a public relations disaster.

Klayman shows us recordings from The Look store guide: what was acceptable for his sales associates to wear and, more importantly, what not to wear (dreadlocks, gold chains for men). The company employed very few people of color, and those it did have were mostly confined to the back room or late shifts where their job was cleaning. These practices were so overtly discriminatory that in 2003 a class action lawsuit was filed against Abercrombie. The company settled the lawsuit for $40 million, admitting no guilt but entering into a consent decree in which it agreed to change its recruiting, hiring and marketing practices. Todd Corley, who was hired to oversee diversity initiatives, is interviewed in the film; he made some breakthroughs, but in other ways he was the symbol the company needed to try and change without changing too much.

As a fashion brand, Abercrombie & Fitch was a lot like the Republican Party – struggling to retain hegemony of a white bread America that was, in effect, losing its power and influence. Yet, as the documentary makes clear, Abercrombie’s demise as a cultural force wasn’t just about exposing his racist practices. It was also the last pre-internet breath of Total Mall Culture: the mall as where you hung out and went to buy what was cool, after hearing about it on MTV. It now seems as oddly distant as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. But what never went away – and perhaps only grew in influence – was the obnoxious aristocracy of the cult of youth that Abercrombie embodied: the idea that the cooler you look , hotter, more expensive, the more it invites you to be.

Luz W. German