When Abercrombie and Fitch Ruled the Retail World
They called it “White Hot” but it was really — White Is Right.
While watching the Netflix documentary “White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch,” I realized the evils of marketing the idea of ‘being like the cool kids’ to teens can do to us, as a society. Cloaked in the word “Americana,” A&F was selling us that upper-crust world with college sports like rowing and lacrosse. As they made a white cake, with white frosting and white sprinkles — and don’t you dare try to put chocolate or rainbow sprinkles on their cake, because it’s all about that white life! As Josh Sanchez former recruiter says, “it wasn’t not racist!”
The hot guys with chiseled abdominal muscles showing, were in front of the brown shutters to entice customers to come in, as the music blasted out of the storefront. Mike Jeffries the CEO and Bruce Webber the photographer curated the store’s image with all of the nakedness that existed on the advertisements. Jeffries micromanaged every aspect of the store, down to the look of the retail employees. They called it the A&F look, as the managers were encouraged to hire fraternity and sorority members, and highlighted the “Natural, American and Classic” look next to an image of a blonde, white, young and thin woman smiling in the manual.
But what is Natural, American and Classic? I am American; both of my parents were born here, we are African-American from the southern states of Florida and Georgia — via the transatlantic slave trade. But I knew then, when I was in college and working in retail spaces like the Gap and Nine West, that Abercrombie and Fitch was not meant for people like me.
They even ranked the employees on the scale of cool to rocks and those with less than positive ratings weren’t asked back. The black and brown employees were always given night shifts so they could clean up the store in the evenings, as Carla Barrientos says she protested and was told ‘but you’re such a good window washer.’ They stopped putting her and other people of color on the schedule just because the staff needed to “look more like the white models in the store posters,” said upper management even when the store was located in an area where the population was mostly Asian- American. Therefore, a group of former employees sued Abercrombie and Fitch, which the company settled for $40 million but said it wasn’t about race it was because those employees weren’t “good-looking enough,” which we all know was code for “they weren’t white enough.’
But what about selling the Wong Brothers “Two Wongs Can Make It White” t-shirts? The defense was always that there was an Asian person in the room when they designed that t-shirt. Really because one or two Asian people are tasked with speaking up and telling a room full of people that merchandise might be considered offensive?
One of the other terms of the lawsuit was that they sign a consent decree, so the company did what was expected and hired chief diversity officer, Todd Corley a black man. However they were never really held accountable for complying with it because there were no consequences. And the company’s discriminatory behavior got worse — that was just a slap on the wrist for a company which was making billions of dollars yearly, in its hay day.
Jeffries was emboldened calling it an “exclusionary brand” and saying that he didn’t want everyone wearing their clothes. This brand was for the “cool kids,” he explained to a New York Times reporter. We could all see that a lot of people in the fashion world held those same sentiments but no one put it in print. And the idea of “exclusion,” creates an environment where at first people want that thing even more and that drove up sells but as Heidi Klum, said on every episode of Project Runway “at first you’re in, then you’re out — goodbye.”
But in the 2010’s the brand lost its clout, as social media took over the world and everyone had a platform to highlight A & F’s bad deeds. Samantha Elauf, ended it for the brand, in 2015 when the supreme court ruled in her favor. She was discriminated against during a job interview because she was wearing a black headscarf and she’s Muslim. She sued and this case went all the way to the Supreme Court because instead of settling on the state level A & F doubled down “saying she would ruin their brand”
Too much scandal killed them because they were too exclusionary and they represented “everything that we want America not to be.” It was a culture that embraced a WASP vision of the world, for such a long time but I think that America still longs for those “good old days” that’s why half of the country were MAGA voters in the 2020 election.