‘Discrimination was their brand’: how Abercrombie & Fitch fell out of fashion (2023)

If you’re a millennial or have parented one, you know the look: advertisements with shirtless men, sculpted abs above low-cut jeans, a melange of thin and tan and young white bodies in minimal clothing. A store at the mall mostly obscured by heavy wooden blinders, music pulsing from within. Faded jeans and polo shirts in middle and high school, all featuring the ubiquitous moose.

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White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, a new Netflix documentary on the ubiquity of a once zeitgeist-y brand’s limited vision of “cool” and its culture of discrimination, is easy catnip for adults re-evaluating the influences of their youth. The brand of barely there denim miniskirts and graphic T-shirts was “part of the landscape of what I thought it meant to be a young person”, the film’s director, Alison Klayman, told the Guardian. (Klayman, a millennial, grew up in Philadelphia.) That’s true for many US adolescents in the late 90s through the 2000s, as Abercrombie stores anchored most mainstream malls across America, including my hometown middle school hangout in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Anytime Abercrombie comes up in conversation, “you immediately cut right to stories about people’s identity formation”, said Klayman. How much money you could or could not spend on clothing, body insecurities, memory imprints from hangouts at the mall. The overpowering smell of its cologne, Fierce, liberally applied to every surface. The messages one received on what was cool, on whose bodies met the right standards and whose did not.

As White Hot traces through a succinct and wide-ranging survey of the brand’s evolution and sales tactics, Abercrombie & Fitch, a company hinged on a vision of “preppy cool”, kept those messages pretty overt. To quote former CEO Mike Jeffries, who oversaw the brand’s precipitous rise in the late 90s and 2000s, in a now infamous interview from 2006: “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.”

Translation: a brand that was “white hot” not only in a financial sense, during a period of cultural ubiquity at the turn of the millennium, but also one that promoted, internally and externally, an exclusively white vision of beauty and style. That “all-American” is doing a lot. (The brand also famously refused to carry plus sizes for years, until after Jeffries departed in 2014.) As White Hot recounts through first-person interviews with several former staff members and cultural academics, this is a brand that once sold graphic tees branded with a racist depiction of Asian people and the words “two Wongs can make it white”. The brand that, in corporate materials, banned store staff from having dreadlocks, that ranked employees on appearance and skin tone, faced a class action racial discrimination case in the early 2000s and argued before the supreme court in 2015 that it was legal to deny employment to a woman with a headscarf because the religious garment violated its “look policy”. (The company lost in a 8-1 ruling.)

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The 88-minute film offers its fair share of nostalgia bait – the opening sequence plays alongside Lit’s My Own Worst Enemy, and the signature scent is subject to plenty of good-natured ribbing – but focuses on taking scalpel to the company’s finely tuned, if now stale, image. “We wanted to focus on the everyday people who were affected by this company,” said Klayman.

Taking a more objective look at Abercrombie offered the opportunity to examine “abstract forces that impact us in life, things like beauty standards or structural racism”, and peek behind the curtain to see “exactly how this was a top-down system that relied on existing biases”.

That system, the film explains, was both a reflection of American culture and executed under the exacting watch of Jeffries, who took over as CEO in the early 1990s. The Abercrombie & Fitch name was established (as the shirts often boasted) in 1892 as an elite sportsman’s store (think a Teddy Roosevelt-esque gentleman hunter). It became the famous moose polo version after retail magnate and Jeffrey Epstein financier Les Wexner purchased it, moved its headquarters to Columbus, Ohio, and handed the reins to Jeffries.

‘Discrimination was their brand’: how Abercrombie & Fitch fell out of fashion (1)

It was Jeffries – a mercurial and reclusive figure who declined to participate in the film – who masterminded Abercrombie’s transformation into a clothing brand that united Calvin Klein sexy and Ralph Lauren Americana, sold at aspirational but accessible prices, marketed primarily to adolescents. Jeffries was, by numerous accounts from former corporate employees in the film, demanding, obsessed with youth and a micro-manager who emphasized appearance – as in, thinness, whiteness and Eurocentric features – at the company’s stores. In 2003, under Jeffries, the company faced a class action racial discrimination lawsuit from California which alleged that the company turned down minorities for sales positions, relegated them to stockrooms, and had their hours reduced when managers heard their looks weren’t Abercrombie enough. (Three of the class-action plaintiffs testify to such discrimination, and its emotional damage, in the film.) The company settled the lawsuit for $50m without admitting wrongdoing.

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As part of the deal, Abercrombie & Fitch was subject to a consent decree and required to hire a diversity officer – Todd Corley, who appears in the film but defers from revealing his full opinions on the brand’s controversies. As White Hot explains, the consent decree had no enforcement mechanism, and though representation increased behind the scenes, the brand’s exclusionary vision under Jeffries continued. “Discrimination was their brand,” says Benjamin O’Keefe, who started a viral petition to boycott the brand in 2013 until they made their clothing for teens of all sizes. “They rooted themselves in discrimination at every single level.”

‘Discrimination was their brand’: how Abercrombie & Fitch fell out of fashion (2)

Jeffries certainly meets the “eccentric bad CEO” criteria now popular in TV shows, from WeCrashed to The Dropout to Super Pumped, and its depictions of millennial hustle culture (“Abercrombie was definitely doing work hard, play hard,” said Klayman.) But as titillating as it can be to focus on his oddities (his comically exaggerated plastic surgeries, for example), such focus can end up being “exculpatory”, said Klayman. “It kind of lets all of us, the collective, off the hook, not to mention the entire company that was facilitating this exclusionary vision for decades.

“It’s really convenient to put all the sins on Mike [Jeffries] and that era because he was so closely associated with the company’s rebirth in the 90s and early aughts,” she said. “And he definitely deserves real criticism, but it takes more than one guy to do what A&F did.”

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(Video) White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch | Official Trailer | Netflix

Since Jeffries left in 2014, the company has changed tack. Under CEO Fran Horowitz, appointed in 2017, the company’s sales have rebounded from its mid-2010s nadir and a rebrand of its image to one of inclusivity, one more in line with the politics of Gen Z. “We run a company very focused on diversity and inclusion,” Horowitz has said. The company has developed a cult following for its Curve Love jeans in a range of sizes.

Their marketing now “puts them in line with what good business looks like today”, said Klayman. But “it’s important to talk about it holistically, and I don’t know how much they’ve truly reckoned with their past”. That reckoning, the film ultimately argues, goes beyond a corporate rebrand; the brand was not so much exceptional as illustrative. It was not the pioneer of exclusivity nor whiteness but, for a time, one of the best at profiting on it – which, to be fair, is pretty classically all-American.

FAQs

What caused the fall of Abercrombie and Fitch? ›

Abercrombie was hit with multiple lawsuits over its discriminatory practices. A lawsuit filed in 2003 alleged discrimination against Asian, Black, and Hispanic employees.

When was the downfall of Abercrombie and Fitch? ›

Abercrombie & Fitch's first rise and fall

The hunting gear store was popular, and it counted Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway among its fans. The store enjoyed success in the mid part of the 20th century. However, by 1976, the company was filing for bankruptcy and closing its flagship store in New York City.

What ever happened to Abercrombie and Fitch? ›

Yes, Abercrombie & Fitch is still in business and the clothing it sells hasn't gotten stuck in the early 2000s. Its website has a ton of basics like t-shirts, bodysuits, and more. Plus, there's always a pair of faded, light-washed jeans with rips in the knees.

Why did Abercrombie change their style? ›

The company needed to transform essentially every element of its branding — from its product range to the in-store experience to its marketing content. And, perhaps more importantly, its core values. Abercrombie clothes now have a much more understated, looser-fitting look — without loud logos.

Is Abercrombie unethical? ›

Its unethical practices of discrimination lead to protests and lawsuit that saw the company pay to the former workers and the prospective employees who missed employment in the company. The latter is also in a raw with the public over racial and discrimination sentiments.

Did Abercrombie lose their lawsuit? ›

The clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has agreed to make religious accommodations and allow workers to wear head scarves as part of a settlement of discrimination lawsuits filed in California, lawyers announced Monday.

What does Abercrombie hope to gain by losing the logo? ›

While the company has said it plans to close 60 stores this year after leases expire, Jeffries is hoping that Abercrombie's back-to-school clothing line and logo-free options will allow it to escape the climate of declining popularity and earnings that is also being faced by rivals like American Eagle and Aéropostale.

When did Abercrombie stop having models out front? ›

So, Abercrombie slowly made changes. In 2015, they announced they'd be ending their practice of having shirtless men stand at the entrance of their stores, and more significantly, no longer hire based on looks at all.

Did Abercrombie and Fitch get in trouble? ›

In the early 2000s, some A&F store workers filed a class-action lawsuit for racial discrimination, which they won. Despite the ruling, which showed that Abercrombie & Fitch had violated the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, the company never acknowledged that they had been racially discriminatory.

What happened Abercrombie clothes? ›

But Abercrombie's reign eventually came to an end.

The brand endured multiple controversies in the early 2000s, and teens began preferring brands like Forever 21 and Nike as both fast fashion and athleisure became trendier. As sales continued to fall in the 2010s, the brand began rebounding.

Why has style changed so much? ›

Why do fashions change? The answer is probably as simple as the fact that people change. Over time, the new replaces the old. People are influenced by popular culture, including athletes, musicians, movie stars, social media, and royalty.

How did Abercrombie change? ›

Abercrombie has worked to significantly upgrade the quality of the product with better fabrics, zippers and buttons. The mix now features more down-to-earth looks and refined basics, replacing the oversize logos and low-rise jeans of the past. Extended sizes have been added for a more inclusive approach.

Is Abercrombie still fashionable? ›

Abercrombie's Comeback

Abercrombie is back on our radars, with the hashtag #abercrombiehaul garnering 72 million views on TikTok. With those numbers, it's no secret that shoppers are obsessed with the throwback brand. However, Abercrombie is still considered a fast fashion brand.

Is Abercrombie and Fitch discrimination? ›

Case: Abercrombie & Fitch Employment Discrimination

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, charged that in addition to selling so-called “classic” looks, Abercrombie also practiced a classic form of discrimination against Black, Latino, and Asian American applicants and employees.

Does Abercrombie use child Labour? ›

A&F will not tolerate the use of child labor by its vendors.

What is so controversial about the Abercrombie clothes brand? ›

Abercrombie & Fitch got into hot water for various reasons. The brand's racist designs and hiring practices, as well as its overall focus on whiteness and thinness to the point of extreme exclusivity, drew massive criticism. There were also sexual misconduct allegations against the brand's most famous photographer.

Why are Abercrombie stores so dark? ›

The low lighting aims to give the shops a casino or VIP club-like feel, bathing their teenage customers in luxury. But parents are less impressed, complaining of bumping into tables, not being able to see colours or prices and - in at least one case - losing a child in the dark.

What is target audience of Abercrombie? ›

The target market for Abercrombie & Fitch shifted, too. Instead of focusing so much on younger teens, the brand moved its attention to the young adult demographic (18 to 25).

Why does fashion go out of style? ›

Why do fashions change? The answer is probably as simple as the fact that people change. Over time, the new replaces the old. People are influenced by popular culture, including athletes, musicians, movie stars, social media, and royalty.

Whats out of style right now? ›

What is out of style for 2022? High waisted jeans, high waisted pants, high waist tennis skirts, skater skirts, knit pants, skinny jeans, hoodie sets, short blazers, leggings, fur coats, cropped leather jacket, A-style mini dresses, and cold shoulders tops are some of the clothes that are not in anymore.

Why do some outdated clothes become trendy again? ›

Fashion trends are cyclical because we are constantly being influenced by the fashions before us, nostalgia for eras past, the economy, social media, and so much more. But ultimately, what you buy for your closet should reflect your style, what you like to wear, and what you feel most beautiful in.

Is Abercrombie still popular 2022? ›

Abercrombie now expects net sales to decline mid single digits in fiscal 2022, compared with its earlier forecast of flat to 2% growth. It also forecast full-year operating margin in the range of 1% to 3%, lower than previously estimated at 5% to 6%.

What brands are out of style? ›

Top brands no longer worn among upper-income teens
Spring 2020 (Male)Spring 2020 (Female)Spring 2021 (Male)
AdidasAeropostaleAdidas
NikeAmerican EagleGap
GapHollisterNike
ReebokVictoria's SecretPuma
6 more rows

Is Abercrombie better now? ›

Abercrombie has worked to significantly upgrade the quality of the product with better fabrics, zippers and buttons. The mix now features more down-to-earth looks and refined basics, replacing the oversize logos and low-rise jeans of the past. Extended sizes have been added for a more inclusive approach.

What was one of Abercrombie & Fitch's main claims against American Eagle? ›

A&F claimed that American Eagle impermissibly copied the designs of certain articles of clothing, in-store advertising displays, and a catalog. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of American Eagle, reasoning that A&F had sought protection for something that did not constitute trade dress at all.

How did Abercrombie violate the law? ›

This represents the final resolution of EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, which was first filed in 2009. The case involved Abercrombie's refusal to hire Samantha Elauf, a Muslim, because of her religious practice of wearing a hijab. Elauf filed her charge with the EEOC in 2008.

Why did Abercrombie not sell black? ›

Abercrombie & Fitch confirmed that it didn't sell black apparel, too. Here's what the company told Business Insider in 2013: Abercrombie & Fitch does not sell black clothing and discourages wearing it at our home office and in our stores, because we are a casual lifestyle brand and feel black clothing is formal.

How much did people get for suing Abercrombie? ›

Abercrombie & Fitch Trading Co. agreed to pay $9.6 million to settle claims that its retail scheduling practices violate a California law that mandates pay when an employee reports to work. About 61,500 employees would receive payouts.

Videos

1. Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Explains Why He Dislikes Fat Girls
(David Pakman Show)
2. Abercrombie and Fitch's Disturbing Secrets | Corporate Casket
(iilluminaughtii)
3. Abercrombie & Fitch Refused To Hire Muslim Woman
(The Young Turks)
4. How Fitching! The Fetishisation of White Beauty and the Erosion of the Black Face
(The ClearOut Podcast)
5. Netflix's "Abercrombie & Fitch" Documentary/My Racist Experience Working at Hollister
(Julian Laro)
6. 097 Racist Abercrombie & Fitch w/ Dane Cook, Jay Mohr, Nick Di Paolo, Ellen Cleghorne
(MaTeOWaNnA CoMeDy ReMaStErZ)
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