DrThe formula was as simple as it was profitable: She sold Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F for short) membership. “At every school there are great kids and not-so-great kids. We are after the great kids. Attractive American kids are usually with lots of friends,” Michael Jeffries, then-CEO of the fashion brand, explained in 2006. He predicted potential criticism of his statement, and more. : He reinterpreted it as something positive: “Are we marginalized? Absolutely!”
This quote is kind of a snippet of A&F’s DNA at the time and shows how the business model worked. The company determined what fit into the exclusive world of the brand, and most importantly, who did not. The Netflix documentary Hot White: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch summarizes the history of the brand: How did it become in the 1990s and early 2000s for the iconic brand? Why was her demonstrative arrogance ultimately fatal? But in the end, there is also a very objective question: can a brand that has sometimes been hated be rehabilitated?
In the 88-minute documentary, several former A&F employees had their say on company policy. Plus, zeitgeist experts of the time, such as fashion editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robin Geffan, ensured that things were set. As she said at one point, “The premise is that fashion sells us belonging, confidence, coolness, and sex appeal. In many ways, the last thing that sold is actually clothes.”
In retrospect, it appears as if Michael Jeffries, the CEO at the time, who coincidentally didn’t want to give his opinion on the documentary, aligned the entire brand strategy with that idea. Focus marketing and product on one target group: teens and young adults. Where fashion ads in the ’90s would have worked quite differently without online stores, social media, and influencers. Print advertising and direct communication in brick-and-mortar retail were the most important tools. This is why A&F stores, for example, which are found in many American malls, remind a club more than boring retail areas with loud music and minimal lighting.
In addition, there was a typical A&F aesthetic, which was heavily influenced by the advertising motifs of interior photographer Bruce Weber. He always tidy the young and beautiful in front of the camera, sometimes having fun in the garden, sometimes enjoying the sunshine on the beach. Above all, they were mostly half-naked. One of the former models, Bobby Blansky, describes himself as an “armpit guy” in the Netflix documentary. This refers to one of the most famous A&F advertising cartoons, thanks to which he became a poster boy with bare armpits, bare chest and bedroom eyes. “I used to not wear the clothes I was promoting during Abercrombie photoshoots,” remembers fellow Blansky model Ryan Daharsh.
And what did the clothes look like, which at least were not in the advertisement? A&F stands for “preppy cool”, which is a combination of the distinct “preppy look” with polo shirts on one side and youthful style on the other. Jeans were faded, skirts short, and T-shirts printed with brightly colored logos. For a while, a lot of young people in the US wanted to look like this. Unlike today, it was not about expressing individuality with the outfit – it was desirable to look like anyone who was considered “cool” at the time.
Michael Jeffries had a very clear vision and from today’s point of view definitely a problematic one. It started with the sales staff in stores. For example, there were specific instructions on how they should appear, written in the book “A&F Looks”: “Our in-store employees are an inspiration to customers,” says the book. Or also: “Golden chains are not allowed for men. Women are allowed to wear a short and delicate silver chain.” Another rule was: “Dreadlocks are not acceptable.”
The sales staff were called “models” at A&F
The company also deliberately called its employees “models” so that it could apply similar superficial evaluation criteria to model agencies. The idealistic vision of appearance led to the formula: “Natural, American, Classic – A&F Look.” Apparently, there was another minimum requirement for this look: it should ideally be white.
In the Netflix documentary, for example, an African American female employee reported how she was only assigned to out-of-hours shifts, for example cleaning. A Filipino citizen was not appointed in the first place “because there are already enough Filipinos”. In the end, nine employees joined forces in a lawsuit against the company, with A&F defending itself dubiously saying “people aren’t attractive enough for the retail space.” After an out-of-court settlement, A&F paid out a $50 million settlement — albeit without admitting guilt. In addition, the company had to create the position of Chief Diversity Director, who should strive to achieve more diversity. But nothing has changed in the composition of the senior management.
Then there was the case of Samantha Elof. She wore a black veil during the interview in 2008, and thus was turned down. A&F’s justification: It hurts the brand and its sales because it doesn’t comply with the appearance policy. Elauf publicly made the case and filed a lawsuit against the A&F with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for religious discrimination. The case moved to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the company’s behavior violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A small victory over the fashion giant.
A&F has also been criticized for its racist-print T-shirts. Allegations of sexual harassment by photographer Bruce Weber, which he has denied, and complaints about the hostile work atmosphere and lack of inclusion, further tarnished the brand’s image.
Even the public’s perception of A&F was completely reversed. As a former employee of the fashion brand, Kristen Groyce, summed it up at Netflix: “Abercrombie has lost a lot of her flair precisely because exclusion was the source of success and exclusion isn’t cool anymore.”
First up, then deep down – but how is it today with A&F? Michael Jeffries has not been part of the company since he resigned as CEO in 2014. But the question remains: Can a fashion brand create credible image change in times of body positivity and diversity if its business model was previously based on exclusion? In the documentary, fashion journalist Robin Gevan says very dramatically: “Changes usually happen when it can be shown how a company is losing sales as a result of its current actions.”
What A&F offered is simply no longer commercially attractive today – clients demand inclusion, tolerance and openness. The current CEO, Fran Horowitz, has been taking care of this since 2017. The brand’s new motto is “Anyone can be great!” An A&F spokeswoman says the brand now wants it to be “a place to belong, not a place to adapt.” Fran Horowitz “turned on the lights” and “turned off the music in the stores” so you could “listen to customers.”
What is different today?
Tangible changes can be observed, for example, in the online store, which has been around for a long time. There you can buy sizes up to 3XL – for a long time the company only offered sizes for very thin people. A&F 2022 is also a prime example of diversity on Instagram, with people of color and plus size now modeling on a regular basis. “This is #AbercrombieToday” is a slogan on social media. This is today’s A&F – which really includes the fact that everything looked very different ‘yesterday’.
In the end, according to the Netflix documentary, the success of brands like A&F has always depended on how and what people consume – and thus a mirror of society. The final dialogue in “White Hot” sums it up nicely:
Fashion journalist Robin Geffan: “The Abercrombie story is basically an incredible indictment of the state of our culture just ten years ago. (…) It was a culture very fond of excluding people.”
Announcer: “Have we solved that now?”
Robin Gevan: No.