Fashion, of course, is rarely just fashion — it tells a story about whoever’s wearing it. And in the ’90s and 2000s, the preppy youthquake mall-fashion outlet Abercrombie & Fitch told a very big story. It was a story of where America — or, at least, a powerful slice of the millennial demo — was at. As recounted in the lively, snarky, horrifying, and irresistible documentary “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” (which drops April 19 on Netflix), that story gets less pretty the closer you look at it, even as the models who were used to market it were gorgeous.
As a company, Abercrombie & Fitch had been around since 1892. It originally catered to elite sportsmen (Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway were loyal customers), but after falling on hard times and kicking around as an antiquated brand, the company was reinvented in the early ’90s by the CEO Mike Jeffries, who fused the upscale WASP fetishism of designers like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger with the chiseled-beefcake-in-underwear monochromatic sexiness of the Calvin Klein brand to create a newly ratcheted up you-are-what-you-wear dreamscape of hot, clubby elitism. The models — in the catalogues, on the store posters, on the shopping bags — were mostly men, mostly naked, and all ripped, like the missing link between Michelangelo’s David and “Jersey Shore.” The rugby shirts and fussy torn jeans weren’t all that special, but they were priced as if they were. What you were buying, in many cases, was really just the logo — the Abercrombie & Fitch insignia, splayed across sweatshirts and Ts, which signified that you, too, were a member of the ruling echelon of youth cool.
The brand was unabashed 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 just the company’s advertising aesthetic but its hiring practices were nakedly discriminatory. Abercrombie & Fitch was selling neo-colonial jock chic infused with a barely disguised dollop of white supremacy. Like the models, the sales people who worked on the retail outlet floors all had to conform to an “all-American” ideal — which meant, among other things, an exclusionary whiteness. At an Abercrombie boutique, the text was: We’re white. The subtext was: No one else wanted.
In “White Hot,” Alison Klayman, the ace documentarian who made “Jagged,” “The Brink,” and “Take Your Pills,” shows us how Abercrombie & Fitch rose to an insane of popularity by taking a certain strain of sexy preppy entitlement that was already out there and kicking it up into the aspirational stratosphere. She traces the incredible ride the brand enjoyed (it was iconic for well over a decade, but then flamed out the way that only a white-hot fashion phenom can), and she interviews many former employees, including several from the executive ranks, who explain how the sausage was made.
At colleges, Abercrombie reps targeted the hunkiest dudes at the hippest fraternities to wear the clothes, figuring that the image would spread from there. (You feel the start of influencer culture.) The mall stores were shielded by shuttered doors, and inside they were bathed in dance-club beats and musky clouds of A&F cologne. The ads were all about frat boys with the look of rugby and lacrosse jocks, who became, in the quarterly coffee-table catalogues, the stud next door. (The godfather of Abercrombie models was Marky Mark in the Calvin Klein ads.) There were some girls in the ads, too, 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 advertising them with no clothes on.” But that made sense, since “the clothes themselves were nothing special,” according to Alan Karo, an Abercrombie fashion marketing and advertising executive. It was the label, the brand, the club, the cult. The journalist Moe Tkacik recalls that the first time she walked into an Abercrombie outlet, she said to herself, “Oh my God, they’ve bottled this. They have absolutely crystalized everything that I hate about high school and put it in a store.”
There’s a dimension of the Abercrombie story that has a perverse parallel with the movie industry. In his seminal book “Empire of Their Own,” Neal Gabler captured how the moguls who created Hollywood were, in no small part, forging an onscreen identity that was the opposite of their own — a white-picket-fence America of idealized WASP conformity. You could argue that on a karmic level, because those moguls were Jewish, they envisioned that other world as a kind of dream, and thus elevated it into a mythology.
Something comparable went on in America with youth fashion. Preppies, and the preppy look, had been around for decades. But the preppy as signifier, as advertising icon, as the image of who everyone wanted to be didn’t come to the fore until the 1980s. The counterculture had been a scruffy, literally hairy affair; the ’80s, throwing over all that moralistic rebellion-against-the-system stuff, would be sleek, 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 wired he was into the system: of military hardware, of finance, of high living. (He drove a fuck-you Porsche.) The WASP preppy culture that become a new symbol of cool was spearheaded, on the fashion front, by that trilogy of designer-mogul giants, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger. Two of them were Jewish, and so was Bruce Weber, the legendary photographer who created the exclusionary youths-romping-in-nature-with-a-golden-retriever image of Abercrombie’s “Triumph of the Will” meets Chippendale’s aesthetic.
Were the Abercrombie & Fitch adds homoerotic? Yes and no. Weber, like Calvin Klein, was gay (and so was CEO Mike Jeffries), and on some level the ads were suffused with homoerotic sensation. But it’s not as if their effect was limited to that gaze. What was more important to the Abercrombie essence is that by the late ’90s, the preppy-as-icon had become a signifier of the one percent. This is part of what you were aspiring to when you bought into the Abercrombie lifestyle, which promised a golden ticket out of the doldrums that defined everyone else.
What Klayman captures in the documentary, right from its jaunty cut-out-and-punk-bubblegum opening-credits sequence, is that far more than the fashion labels that paved the way for it, Abercrombie & Fitch became pop culture. And you could chart its rise and fall through pop culture. The definitive sign that the brand had become larger-than-life arrived when LFO referenced it in its 1999 hit of hip-hop nostalgia, “Summer Girls,” with the line “I like girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch,” which did for A&F what Sister Sledge’s designer shout-out in “He’s the Greatest Dancer” in 1979 (“Halston, Gucci…Fiorucci”) did for the fashion revolution of the ’80s. There was a dumb-lunk misogynistic poetry to the LFO line, which should have read “I like girls WHO wear Abercrombie & Fitch.” But by sticking with referring to women as “that,” the line inadvertently caught the essence of the A&F mystique. Namely: I like objects wearing objects.
Three years later, though, in the first Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” film, Peter Parker’s high-school bully nemesis, Flash Thompson, was dressed in Abercrombie, like a John Hughes villain of the ’80s. The brand was still riding high, but one of its market managers, interviewed in the doc, says that he immediately saw this as an ominous sign. People were starting to get onto what Abercrombie stood for, and this had consequences. That same year, one of their joke T-shirts, which featured antiquated slogans displayed ironically, flaunted Chinese caricatures in rice-paddy hats with the slogan “Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make It White.” This drew protests from Asian-Americans, who picketed outside the stores, and by the time that kind of thing was being given a spotlight by “60 Minutes,” you had a PR disaster.
Klayman shows us records of the store’s guide to The Look: what was acceptable for its sales people to wear and, more important, 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 to late shifts where their job was to clean up. These practices were so overtly discriminatory that in 2003, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Abercrombie. The company settled the suit for $40 million, admitting no guilt but entering into a consent decree in which they agreed to change their recruiting, hiring, and marketing practices. Todd Corley, who was hired to oversee diversity initiatives, is interviewed in the film; he made a few inroads but in other ways was the symbol the company needed to try to change without changing too much.
As a fashion brand, Abercrombie & Fitch was a bit like the Republican Party — fighting to hold onto the hegenomy of a white-bread America that was, in reality, losing its power and influence. Yet as the documentary makes clear, the fade-out of Abercrombie as a cultural force wasn’t only about the revelation of its racist practices. This was also the last pre-Internet gasp of Total Mall Culture: the mall as the place you hung out and went to buy what was cool, after learning about it on MTV. That now sounds as quaintly distant as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” But what has never gone away — and may have only gained in influence — is the obnoxious youth-cult aristocracy that Abercrombie incarnated: the idea that the cooler, the hotter, the more expensive you look, the more of a lout it invites you to be.