When only beauty was allowed to be white, athletic, and young

Anyone who went to a gay party in the late 1990s and early 2000s would encounter no fewer than six men wearing an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt. Those who wore the brand wanted to point out: I’m sexy, athletic, fit, good-looking, famous—a kind of “all American guy.”

A new Netflix documentary, White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, details how the brand became a multibillion dollar company, but then initially crashed.

Gay porn catalog

Movie poster: “Abercrombie & Fitch: The Rise and Fall” has been on Netflix since April 19, 2022

The success of the fashion company is due to a marketing concept that has been thought through to the last detail. Half-naked men were photographed in black and white by gay photographer Bruce Weber – and not only were they engraved on advertising posters, but also on Abercrombie & Fitch bags. In addition, a catalog was published every three months, the design of which was reminiscent of gay porn.

Nothing was left to chance in the shops either: the loud music was so loud and it was so dark that even the younger crowd found it hard to find their way at times. And the scent of Abercrombie & Fitch smells everywhere. Handsome, well-trained men roam the entrance and into the store, who may have encouraged some customers to buy more than they wanted.

“Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

The concept sounded great, but it cracked at first. Because the well-trained men, all white, also pointed out: If you’re brown, fat, poor, or unpopular, you don’t lose anything in Abercrombie and Fitch.

CEO Mike Jeffries, who is gay, once said in an interview, “In every school there are cool, popular kids, and then there are not-so-cool kids. And frankly, we go after the cool kids. We have a target of the handsome American boy with great behavior and many more Friends. Many people don’t belong, they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Sure.”

Racism, lawsuits and protests

The Netflix documentary by Alison Kleiman describes what that means in everyday life: Neither blacks nor less attractive people were ever employed in stores—or only in the warehouse or on the night shift. Tattoos, jewelry, dried-out guides and other things were also taboo. A small blemish on their face could result in someone not being hired. A Muslim woman is suing the US Supreme Court to ban her from wearing the hijab.

Since the designers of Abercrombie & Fitch also made T-shirts with funny sayings, another scandal erupted when one T-shirt wrote “Wong and Wong do it in white” – a reference to Asian Americans, who often worked in laundries in earlier times. The figures on the T-shirts are painted with slit eyes – a hateful racial cliché that has led to protests in front of branches.

Image damaged: Drawing from the documentary (Image: Netflix)

No quotes from senior management

Unfortunately, senior management wasn’t available for the Netflix documentary, but several employees were available to answer questions, some a little embarrassed about their role on the set today. “Obviously the concept was not non-racist,” someone says in the film. Another employee describes the company’s hiring practices and photos as representing “the worst parts of American history.” There were class-action lawsuits that even Abercrombie & Fitch managed to solve by paying millions.

But the picture was destroyed. And despite the appointment of a new diversity director, little has changed. Despite the increase in the number of non-white employees in the stores, everything remained the same in the upper management. Allegations that star photographer Bruce Weber, who also declined to be interviewed, reportedly sexually harassed several models during the shootings, didn’t exactly contribute to making Abercrombie and Fitch more famous again.

The erotic “must have” photo disappeared

“Fashion sells us affiliation, confidence, calmness, and sex appeal,” says Robin Jevan, Washington Post fashion critic, in the documentary. “In a way, the last thing that was sold was the actual clothes.” A good sentence, above all also applies to “Abercrombie & Fitch”. Today the group has a much smaller number of stores, including in Germany. There are no more half-naked models, the lights have been turned on and there are sizes for the not-so-skinny customer too.

Despite all the scandals, the group is still successful and has sales of more than three billion dollars in 2020. However, the sensational “must have” image is gone. Today the brand is just one of many.

In the words of reporter Jeevan, the skyrocketing rise of the fashion chain is “an incredible indictment of our culture, which only a decade ago enthusiastically embraced an exclusively white view of the world. It was the culture that defined beauty as thin, white, and defined youth. And it was a culture that liked to exclude People “.

Information about the movie

Abercrombie and Fitch: The Rise and Fall. documentary. USA 2022. Director: Alison Klayman. Show duration: 86 minutes. Languages: The original English version, the dubbed German version. Subtitle files: German (optional). On Netflix since April 19, 2022

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