Fashion, of course, is rarely just fashion: it tells a story about the wearer. And in the 1990s and 2000s, preppy youthquake fashion outlet Abercrombie & Fitch told a very important story. It was the story of where America was – or, at least, a powerful slice of the millennium demo -. As told in the lively, irreverent, horrifying and irresistible documentary “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” (to be released April 19 on Netflix), that story gets less beautiful the more you look at it closely, even if the the models that were used to marketing it were gorgeous.
As a company, Abercrombie & Fitch had existed since 1892. It originally aimed at elite sportsmen (Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway were loyal customers), but after falling through tough times and kicking like an outdated brand, the company is was reinvented in the early 1990s by CEO Mike Jeffries, who fused the luxury WASP fetishism of designers such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger with the monochromatic meat pie chiseled sensuality in underwear from the Calvin Klein brand to create a new you- you are what you are wearing a dream landscape of hot, club-like elitism. The models – in catalogs, on shop posters, on shopping bags – were mostly men, mostly naked, and all torn, like the missing link between Michelangelo’s David and “Jersey Shore”. Rugby shirts and ripped jeans weren’t all that special, but they were priced as if they were. What you were buying, in many cases, was actually just the logo – the Abercrombie & Fitch insignia, scattered across sweatshirts and T-shirts, which meant that you too were a member of the ruling rank of cool youth.
The brand was unflappable in its insider / outsider snobbery, but the problem with it – and there was a big problem – wasn’t the clothes. It was the fact that not only the company’s advertising aesthetics but also its hiring practices were patently discriminatory. Abercrombie & Fitch sold neo-colonial jock chic imbued with a barely disguised hint of white supremacy. Like the models, the salespeople working in the retail outlets all had to conform to an “all-American” ideal – which meant, among other things, exclusive candor. In an Abercrombie boutique, the text was: We are white. The subtext was: No one else wanted.
In “White Hot”, Alison Klayman, the ace of the documentary filmmaker who made “Jagged”, “The Brink” and “Take Your Pills”, shows us how Abercrombie & Fitch has gone mad with popularity by taking a variety of sexy preppies. right that was already out there and that pushed him into the aspirational stratosphere. He retraces the incredible ride the brand enjoyed (it was iconic for over a decade, but then went up in smoke as only a glowing fashion phenomenon can) and interviews many former employees, including many from the executive ranks, which he explains. how the sausage was made.
In colleges, Abercrombie reps targeted the heaviest dudes in the hippest fraternities for clothes, figuring the image would spread from there. (Feel the beginning of the influencer culture.) The mall’s shops were screened by barred doors and inside were immersed in the rhythms of the nightclubs and musky clouds of the A&F colony. The ads featured frat boys looking like rugby and lacrosse athletes who became the stallion next door in quarterly coffee table catalogs. (The godfather of Abercrombie’s models was Marky Mark in the Calvin Klein ads.) There were also some girls in the ads and celebrities before they got 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 selling clothes. But advertising them with no clothes on.” But that made sense, since “the clothes themselves were nothing special,” according to Alan Karo, a fashion marketing and advertising executive at Abercrombie. It was the label, the brand, the club, the cult. Journalist Moe Tkacik recalls that the first time she walked into an Abercrombie store, she said to herself, “Oh my God, they bottled it. They absolutely crystallized everything I hate about high school and put it in a shop. “
There is a dimension to Abercrombie’s story that has a perverse parallel to the film industry. In his landmark book “Empire of Their Own,” Neal Gabler captured how the moguls who created Hollywood were, in large part, forging an on-screen identity that was the opposite of their own: a white-fence America of idealized. WASP compliance. It could be argued that on a karmic level, since those tycoons were Jews, they imagined that other world as a kind of dream and thus elevated it to mythology.
Something similar happened in America with youth fashion. Preppies and the preppy look have been around for decades. But the preppy as a signifier, as an advertising icon, as an image of who everyone wanted to be it didn’t come to prominence until the 1980s. The counterculture had been a scruffy, literally hairy business; the ’80s, throwing away all that moralistic rebellion stuff against the system, would have been smooth, shaved and beige. The new rebel, like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” or Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street”, was a rebel just as much as he was connected to the system: of military hardware, of finance, of social life. (He drove a fucking Porsche.) The preppy culture of WASP that has become a new symbol of cool was driven, on the fashion front, by that trilogy of giant designer-tycoons, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Two of them were Jewish, as was Bruce Weber, the legendary photographer who created the unique image of young people romping into nature with a golden retriever from Abercrombie’s “Triumph of the Will” meets Chippendale aesthetics.
Were the additions by Abercrombie & Fitch homoerotic? Yes and no. Weber, like Calvin Klein, was gay (and CEO Mike Jeffries too), and somehow the ads were suffused with homoerotic sensations. But their effect wasn’t limited to that look. What was most important to the essence of Abercrombie is that by the late 1990s, the preppy as an icon had become a one percent signifier. This is part of what you aspired to when you bought the Abercrombie lifestyle, which promised a golden ticket out of the stasis that defined everyone else.
What Klayman captures in the documentary, right from his saucy sequence of punk-bubble gum opening credits, is much more than the fashion labels that pioneered, Abercrombie & Fitch. became pop culture. And you could trace its rise and fall through pop culture. The definitive sign that the brand had gotten larger than life came when LFO referenced it in its 1999 hip-hop nostalgia hit, “Summer Girls”, with the phrase “I like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch.” , who did for A&F what the Sister Sledge designer shouts in “He’s the Greatest Dancer” in 1979 (“Halston, Gucci … Fiorucci”) made for the fashion revolution of the 1980s. There was a stupid misogynist poem in the LFO line, which should have read “I like girls WHO wears Abercrombie & Fitch. But sticking to the reference to women like “That,” the line inadvertently captured the essence of A&F mystique. Namely: I like objects that wear objects.
Three years later, however, in Tobey Maguire’s first film “Spider-Man,” Peter Parker’s bully villain Flash Thompson was dressed in Abercrombie, like an 1980s John Hughes villain. The brand was still in vogue, but one of its market managers, interviewed in the document, says he immediately saw this as a disturbing sign. People were starting to understand what Abercrombie stood for and that had consequences. In the same year, one of their joking t-shirts, which featured antiquated slogans displayed ironically, sported Chinese caricatures with paddy hats with the slogan “Wong Brothers Laundry Service – Two Wongs Can Make It White”. That drew protests from Asian-Americans, who staked out the shops, and when that sort of thing was brought up in “60 Minutes,” you had a PR disaster.
Klayman shows us the store guide recordings at The Look: what was acceptable for his salespeople to wear and, more importantly, not to wear (dreadlocks, gold chains for men). The company employed very few black people, and those it did have were mostly confined to the back room or shifts where their job was to clean up. These practices were so overtly discriminatory that a collective action was filed against Abercrombie in 2003. The company settled the lawsuit for $ 40 million, not admitting any fault but by 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 efforts, is interviewed in the film; he made a few forays but in other ways he 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: it struggled to maintain the egenomy of a white bread America that was, in reality, losing power and influence. Yet, as the documentary makes clear, Abercrombie’s demise as a cultural force wasn’t just about revealing its racist practices. This was also Total Mall Culture’s latest pre-internet gasp: the mall as the place you went out and went to buy what was cool, after learning about it on MTV. Now it sounds strangely distant like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. But what has never gone away – and may have only gained influence – is the hateful aristocracy of youth cults embodied by Abercrombie: the idea that the more beautiful you look, the hotter, the more expensive, the more it invites you to be.