Movies & TV

Abercrombie and Fitch Reduced Male Aspiration to a Set of White, Chiseled Abs

Netflix's White Hot recounts how the sprawling brand made a mockery—and a multimillion dollar marketing concept—of masculinity.
IMAGE TIMOTHY A. CLARY
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The high school jock is an enduring symbol of classic Americana. He's as star-spangled as any dusty gas station, any box of Girl Scout cookies, any small-town church where people writhe on the floor under His Almighty Power. He represents excellence. But it is a specific sort of excellence; handsome, athletic, and almost always white. Lily white. 'You betcha', country club, lacrosse-playing, The OC white. It is this strain of whiteness—and the ensuing problematic template for excellence—that built the foundation of Abercrombie and Fitch. For a time, it was one of the most successful American retail stories. Then, it collapsed, and the subsequent downfall has been captured in new Netflix documentary White Hot.

Upon the film's open, it's easy to laugh at the basicness of it all. Chiseled guys play ball and grin and laugh to Noughties chyeah bro rock. Frenzied teens queue to drop their parents' wages in cavernous stores. 'Summer Girls', a 1999 single released by American pop trio LFO, even name-checked the brand in a song that reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100, a remarkable feat at a time when people still bought music. "I like girls that wear Abercrombie and Fitch" the lead whined to the musical equivalent of a K-hole by a campfire. But at its peak, the brand was making an absurd amount of cash. An official sales report released by Abercrombie in 2003 posted sales of $1.708 billion.

The clothes were unremarkable. The brand's bread and butter consisted of polo shirts, hoodies, ill-fitting jeans, and anything else you'd find in the most exciting place of an unexciting town. So powerful was the logo that White Hot recounts the induction of one head office employee who was told that they could spell 'Abercrombie' in dogshit on a baseball cap and still sell it for $50. But homogeneity wasn't just a bug with Abercrombie & Fitch. As the Netflix documentary chillingly tells us, it was the feature.

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Typical store models at one of Abercrombie and Fitch's outlets
Photo by DAVID POMPONIO.

The brand sold clothes by selling sex. And the models—the focus of this sex—sold these clothes despite being shot in very little clothing. In campaigns, upon store murals and in a quarterly catalog, young and conventionally handsome men became Abercrombie's biggest commodity. That trickled down to the in-store staff, who all fit the mould dreamt up by a suspect architect in former CEO Mike Jeffries, an American retailer that had found moderate success in womenswear before landing the gig at Abercrombie. "He signed off on everything," says the brand's former VP of merch, exerting control so deep and far-reaching as to even create a Bible—or a 'look policy'—for the hiring process of future employees. "This is what good looking was," says one former in-store staffer. "We literally had a book."

It was racial profiling for the retail age. "Dreadlocks are unacceptable for men and women," it noted, thus clearly and succinctly communicating Jeffries' narrow view on beauty. Anecdotal tales from employees of African-American and Asian-American heritage told of how they were kept in the back of stores in stock rooms, or confined to night shifts despite requests for more manageable working patterns. This resulted in several lawsuits and widespread protests. Abercrombie's ambassadors were to follow a preset idea of perfection. Handsome men were to be white, athletic, and young—and Jeffries was unashamed of this worldview. In a 2006 interview for a New York magazine piece that was killed and found a second life with Salon, the CEO unashamedly makes the inference: "A lot of people didn't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong."

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This lack of nuance in its approach to sex shows just how toxic the Abercrombie brand was. Unless one fit the mold of hot, they were of no value to the company. Bruce Weber, the photographer behind Abercrombie's infamous campaigns, worked in tandem with Jeffries to build this image that "fetishized the all-American boy" as one former employee puts it. Past models describe Weber's inappropriate methods on-set, including touching labeled as 'breathing exercises' and invitations to dinner that, if rejected, saw the would-be campaign model banished from the shoot back to the small town from which they were plucked. Weber has since been accused of sexual harassment and misconduct in multiple lawsuits and cases filed by former models, all of which the photographer has denied. Several have been settled out of court.

There was an undeniable queer streak to Weber's work, and Abercrombie effectively commercialized this queerness that went straight over the heads of its customer base. It cemented a Eurocentric, quasi-Olympian ideal of masculinity that is still pervasive not just in the gay community, but within pop culture at large. Where we were once pummelled with rippling torsos in the darkened corners of an Abercrombie store, we now face them 24/7 from the bright corners of an iPhone. Instagram and TikTok are awash with abs from their respective userbases, even as companies push for more body inclusion and diversity in their outputs.

White Hot is no masterpiece. Its tone is often jarring, and the documentary struggles to thread together Abercrombie's many, many problems in a meek 88 minute runtime. But it is effective at illustrating the boiling down and bottling up of masculinity as a selling point. Charmless neo-Americana was the brand here. White athleticism was the brand. If the mothers buying the stuff for their families were the Stepford Wives, then these were their android sons; beautiful people that filled campaigns and listlessly shuffled on each foot to objectively bad Europop in the pseudo-club stores. There is more to a man than skin color and abs.

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Of course, Abercrombie isn't the root cause of vanity and its ills. "They didn't invent evil, they didn't invent class," says a former head office staffer. "They just packaged it." It's a past they've tried to rehabilitate. A diversity and inclusion team was founded to resolve issues of workforce hiring practices, which did indeed change the complexion of Abercrombie and Fitch. But former employees on the team lament the problems the company still faced with an overwhelmingly white C-suite. Such problems cannot be remedied overnight.

For now though, 'Everybody Belongs' at Abercrombie. The plain white tees even say so in rainbow typeface (what else?). But just as A&F cannot be blamed for branded, corporate sexualization, it was by no means ahead of the curve for inclusivity. It wasn't an early supporter. As the concept of masculinity moves into something more fluid and more open-minded, a quick browse of Abercrombie's webstore shows that the high school jock wears boxy sweater vests, shorts with five inch inseams, and even Pride hoodies that are on par with the diversity ranges of every other middle bracket brand. He has come a long way. Or, perhaps, he's just been repackaged once more.

FromEsquire UK

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