When I was a teen in the early ’00s my father would take me shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch for my birthday. It was December and the mall was replete with tinsel, holly, bows and glitter, somehow making the shopping experience feel even grander. It was the highlight of my year. We were not a wealthy family, but resided in a very preppy, extremely well-off, lacrosse-playing town. A ripe feeding ground for A&F.
I was not immune to Abercrombie’s charms or teenage pressure. My birthday was the one time of year I could peruse A&F with abandon. Grab a pair of $89 ripped, low-rise jeans and those $49 tees with Abercrombie down the sleeve. I wasn’t the most popular kid, but when I wore Abercrombie & Fitch, I could telegraph to others that I belonged. And who doesn’t want to desperately belong in high school?
White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch
“I feel like I’m going to unearth all my insecurities if I watch this Abercrombie & Fitch documentary,” I thought to myself before pressing play on the newest hit out on Netflix.
What I expected from the documentary and what I got are two different things.
Ultimately the story I thought would be told was that while A&F was kinda a “mean girl,” she eventually matured and grew to advocate for a more inclusive society. I was desperately hoping for a company that had changed along with me. A storyline I could feel good about.
Let’s be honest, that “mean girl” is just hawking diet shakes now and slipping into your DMs out of the blue to get you on her downline. She’s “changed” if it helps her checking account. Abercrombie is “reformed” insomuch as any company can be in a capitalist society. It’s probably not out of the goodness of their hearts (where a white moose once sat when overt branding was still popular).
Abercrombie & Fitch: Selling Exclusion
Abercrombie tapped into something in our culture in the late ’90s/early aughts; exclusion. Our desperate need to see and be seen as part of this small contingency of popped collars. The idea that if you purchased an overpriced polo, you too were cool, or at least cool adjacent. I wasn’t the target audience for Abercrombie (too young, not cute enough). But I desperately idolized the target audience: college kids. If you think about it, this really planted the seeds for the influencer marketing we see on social media today.
Abercrombie wasn’t selling some revelatory, cutting-edge fashion. It was never really about the clothes. Why wasn’t it a major red flag when all of the posters around the stores were of shirtless (typically white) boys with washboard abs? Why did a naked male torso cause me to save up my babysitting money and purchase a button-down shirt with a moose on it? (Aside: Through research I’ve discovered people sell the shirtless A&F paper-bags on Ebay for upwards of $29.99 and I died a little inside that this is now a retro commodity).
I don’t know, but I was also 14 and not well-versed in the complexities of capitalism and the patriarchy. Plus I desperately wanted the cute Irish Catholic Boy with a smattering of freckles across his face to like me and here was Abercrombie telling me, “It’s all in the popped collar, that’s the secret to boys with muscles.”
It was never about a particular product being pushed. The message was clear: Buy any of our clothes and you too can “belong” (and maybe get invited to a house party).
Abercrombie & Fitch: The Fall
What confused me about the documentary was the title: White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch. Did they really fall? Wouldn’t a rebirth have been more apropos?
It’s a tale as old as time: man takes over company (Mike Jeffries) in ’92 and, with a focus bordering on obsessive, transforms the fledgling outdoors/preppy apparel company that is part of Les Wexner’s conglomerate of retail stores into a powerhouse. They grow at a staggering rate and make a boatload of money. First comes love, then comes discrimination, sexual assault allegations and eventually the introduction of Jeffery Epstein because OF COURSE. Was this man not involved in all that was evil over the past few decades?
A shift begins in 2003. Flash Thompson, the foil to Toby McGuire’s Spider-Man, wears Abercrombie the entire movie and suddenly it’s synonymous with “bully”. Leaks of illegal hiring practices come out. The internet makes it easier to spread information and connect people with harrowing experiences working for Big Moose. A Consent Degree forces A&F to stop discriminatory hiring practices. A Black man is hired to lead the Diversity & Inclusion initiative and BIPOC hires among in-store employees increases. But that change isn’t reflected in the upper echelons at A&F. The company gets around discriminatory hiring practices by labeling customer-facing employees as “models.” Things change, but not really.
So we’re clear; this is not just an A&F problem. Brands have had their hand forced to reform their ways and/or have increasingly tapped into the desire from customers to see inclusivity, antiracism – their values basically – reflected where they shop.
Can it be considered “brave” to take a social stand and rebrand when everyone else is doing it and your sales are tanking anyway? Did they change their tune because it was the “right” thing to do or because they realized they were leaving money on the table? Could there be elements of both? How do we determine what we’re willing to accept from any company that wants our coin?
The Abercrombie & Fitch of Today
The A&F of today looks nothing like its predecessor. The rollout of “some plus-sizes” in women’s clothing came in 2014. Jeffries stepped down as CEO in 2015 and Wexner soon followed suit. Fran Horowitz – a white female – was named CEO. The “Curve Love” line launched in 2019. Abercrombie’s website and social media gives no indication of their checkered past. Gone are washboard abs, in are models and “non-models” of all shapes, sizes, races. There are campaigns for social issues and merch tied to what you value. The old kitschy graphic tees now rebranded with calls for equity, pride, love is love, etc.
A&F then and now
And it’s smart business. Inclusion is in. Exclusion is out. Everyone is a “cool kid” if they want to be.
Is that why moms like me are interested in A&F again? Because we’re told we are cool and there is still some deep-seated desire among all of us to belong especially when in the throws of motherhood, which can be an incredibly isolating experience?
I really can’t pinpoint what drew me back to Abercrombie & Fitch a year ago after a decade+ hiatus. Was it the fact the brand of my youth looked so different? Clean, minimalist website, models of every size (and non-models), extended sizes, a Curve Love line and barely a peep of a brand logo. It was almost like they were trying to erase the icky parts of their past. Maybe we all are in a way.
White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is an excellent documentary and worth a watch. It made me consider my complicity in supporting brands purporting to have “changed.” Even while writing this, I easily saw a dozen different commercials on TV; from car manufacturers, beauty lines, fast food chains, big box stores, fashion companies, oil companies, all clearly looking to tap into our altruism by highlighting what they stand for and what they are doing about it. And by purchasing their product, you can too. Drive x car to show your support for lower emissions. Buy x brand and show your support for gay rights. Shop at x big box store because they are introducing solar panels to their stores by x date. It’s everywhere.
Would companies run these commercials and rebrand to show their support for social issues unless they had proof it would move the needle on sales? Am I expecting too much from companies? Where is my complicity in accepting the changes a company puts forth at face value without digging deeper before deciding where to spend my money?
Should we all be a little more discerning?
Maybe the title refers to the fact that the documentarians do not consider this phase of Abercrombie a “rise.” Maybe they see it as more of a continuation of the same, just dressed up with popular buzzwords. We see it all over the “health & wellness” industry (Maintenance Phase is a great pod on that), why not fashion?