While I did somehow come into possession of an Abercrombie and Fitch shopping bag, I was never under the Abercrombie & Fitch spell. And that must mean something because during the 1990s and even prior to that, I spent a lot of time at malls. I have worked retail at boutique and even a major department store, but I don’t think I’ve ever entered an A&F store. “White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” doesn’t give as much context as one would like about the fashion industry and failing to get an interview with the main instigator of the rise, director Alison Kayman’s documentary also fails to get people within the industry to give a proper assessment.
Like the re-branding campaign led by Mike Jeffries, the documentary is interested in the visual and if these collages of shredded men’s torsos doesn’t prove that women are just as visually stimulated as men, nothing will.
The documentary starts with a man sitting down. Don’t worry, he keeps his shirt on. “Recruiting is everything,” Jose Sanchez confesses. He was a recruiter for Abercrombie & Fitch. Then we hear from people who were fans and learn how Abercrombie & Fitch was “aspirational” in its thin female and muscular male whiteness. It was selling preppy with money.
The problem was how it was selling and how people were selling out. A&F was founded in 1892 in New York City by a wealthy lawyer, Ezra Fitch (1865-1930), and David T. Abercrombie (1867-1931), an outfitter for high end outdoorsmen like Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) or explorer Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957). Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was one of their customers. After filing for bankruptcy in 1976, the company name was eventually bought and revived by The Limited. The Limited (now LBrands) CEO, Leslie Wexner, hired Mike Jeffrees in 1992 and specifically tasked him with A&F.
Jeffries rebuilt the brand as an upscale apparel retailer for young adults, but he also courted controversy.
The documentary attempts to take us back to the A&F heyday, when mall culture was a thing. This was before the internet, social media and Amazon, and obviously before the pandemic. During this passage, I’m not even sure why there’s a clip from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Notably, the documentary mentions how MTV and its “House of Style” (1989-2000; 2012 revival) were showing fashion to a nation, helping styles move across the country more quickly, but TV had been part of the cultural landscape for decades.
In trying to give us the feel of the times, there’s plenty of name dropping, but not enough follow up. Future stars like Olivia Wilde and Penn Badgley were wearing A&F. A&F used people like Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum, Ashton Kutcher, Heidi Klum, and January Jones, before they were more than models and yet we never hear from these people.
There’s also name dropping of fashion houses and fashion brands: Ralph Lauren (1939) , Nautica, Calvin Klein (1942) and Tommy Hilfiger (1951). We’re told A&F was trying to be sexy like Calvin Klein but preppy like Ralph Lauren. But Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger are real people; they are fashion designers and we never know how they felt about the fashion brand A&F. Further Nautica was founded by Taiwanese American fashion designer David Chu and that’s important for the controversy that later plagued A&F.
A&F came under siege by activists for its usage of Asian stereotypes on its T-shirt designs (e.g. “Wong Brother’s Laundry Service: Two Wongs Will Make It White”), sexist T-shirt slogans, questionable hiring and employee evaluation standards and personal employee working conditions. Some of these resulted in lawsuits such as Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman who was not hired because of her headscarf (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, 575 U.S. ___ (2015)). Getting Chu’s reaction to the A&F slogans that brought out protests would have been worth hearing. We do get to hear from Angry Asian Guy Phil Yu, but Yu isn’t in the fashion business. A&F noted that when the offensive slogans were developed and finalized, there were Asian American team members. While there’s supposition to why these unidentified people didn’t protest, there’s nothing concrete. We don’t know who these people were and how they felt about their place in the company. Of course, A&F wasn’t the only company with controversial T-shirts.
Jeffries left the company in 2014. That’s the same year that American Apparel publicly suspended its CEO, Canadian Dov Charney. Charney, who opened up his first store in LA’s Echo Park isn’t in this film, and his presence might have given the film context. Like A&F, American Apparel didn’t use professional models. While the ads for A&F were by professional American fashion photographer Bruce Weber, who also shot ad campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Revlon and Gianni Versace, Charney shot many of the ad campaigns for American Apparel. While Weber’s photos for A&F were perfect and airbrushed, there was a touch of amateurish honesty that was, at the time, lauded in American Apparel’s ad campaigns. However, American Apparel’s ads were also banned as pornographic in some regions. Like Weber, Charney was accused of sexual harassment and abuse. An article in Gawker also indicated that employees for American Apparel were judged on looks.
It’s also worth considering that in prior to Jeffries’ A&F and Charney’s ad campaigns, there was a fashion trend known as “heroin chic” that was also seen in Calvin Klein ads, but more strongly associated with Halston. Kate Moss is considered the model who epitomized the look.
Should we see the A&F erotic male images and the amateur porn feel of Charney’s American Apparel as a natural development from the edginess of Heroin Chic? If we were examining the ad campaigns as reactionary societal indicators or as streams of art movements, surely we would. Kayman doesn’t give us the context within the fashion industry and commercial advertising.
You might not be aware of who Moe Tkacik is. She’s is Maureen “Moe” Tkacik, a senior fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project and as a journalist worked for the Wall Street Journal and the co-founder of the website Jezebel (with Anna Holmes). Of A&F, she says during the documentary, “They have absolutely crystallized everything that I hate about high school.”
Dr. Treva Lindsey is an associate professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies who specializes in Black feminism, hip hop studies, critical race and gender theory, sexual politics, African diaspora studies, Black popular and expressive culture and African American women’s history.
Phil Yu is a Korean American blogger with a bachelor degree of science in radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and a Master in Critical Studies from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, but he is not a professor nor does he have a Ph.D. The Asian American protests, particularly in light of the anti-Asian hate crimes of the pandemic, might have been better contextualized by an academic to accompany the voice of an activist writer like Yu.
Yu is a writer, but Kayman also uses a fashion blogger (Samantha Elf) as well as journalists from The New York Times magazine (Benoit Denizet Lewis), Bloomberg (Lindsey Rupp), Bloomberg News (Susan Berfield), and the Washington Post (senior critic-at-large Robin Given).
Inclusion versus Economics
I didn’t buy or patronize either American Apparel or A&F, and I still don’t shop A&F. But my size (Children’s 12) and my original college major, studio art, precluded that. I thought art students generally strived to be anti-establishment, unless they were commercial artists. My go-to brands are Gap Kids, Landsend, Nordstrom and Mini Boden.
I rolled my eyes when the issue of inclusion came up on the documentary “White Hot” because inclusion issues rarely include me. And the economic issues of inclusion are also glossed over easily enough for a feel-good activism. As someone who regularly shops in the girls and boys sections of Nordstrom, I can cut my clothing costs. But let’s look at the economics. I recently bought two XXXL men’s shirts as well as a small (men’s) from a high end retailer. The cost is the same. The cost for the manufacturer is not. If I fit a size small shirt to fit me, I might have enough to make a hair ribbon or bow. However, if I re-size an XXXL shirt, I can make a dress and if I don’t re-use the sleeves and use a contrasting fabric, I have enough material for four face masks. The person who gets the raw end of the deal for inclusion through pricing is the person who is the small or extra small. Some retailers will add an additional amount to the larger sizes and that makes it seem fairer. There are other technical problems with making clothes for larger sizes resulting from high BMI numbers that I won’t go into.
According to the CDC, the height of the average US woman is 5-foot-3.5 and 170 lbs. with a 38.7 waist. Under five-foot-four is considered a petite size and with a 39 inch waist, the size would be a petite size 20 or a petite XXL. The waist for a petite size 2 is 24 inches. A healthy weight range for that height would be 108 to 145 and yet this weight (170 lbs.) is not yet obese (BMI is 29.2 where 30 is considered obese).
A&F currently carries women’s XXXL (size 24) and XXL (size 20 and 22). The waist size is 47.5 for XXXL. Their models for the clothing on their websites include Black men and men of East Asian descent. The children’s clothing features Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Stitch as well as other franchises such as Sponge Bob and Star Wars.
For the main landing page, a Black man and woman are prominently featured. Plus size models are also highlighted. However, there doesn’t seem to be petite sizing.
While American Apparel has definitely fallen, Abercrombie & Fitch is currently under American businesswoman Fran Horowitz-Bonadies and has not totally fallen out of the retail business. The documentary is more about the rise and fall of Jeffries and, unfortunately, Jeffries refused to be interviewed.
On the current A&F website, there’s a specific page for “Diversity & Inclusion.” The links on that page include one that (“Our Initiatives”) that includes the “UK Gender Pay” and the “France Gender Pay.” There’s definitely more to the A&F story than Jeffries.
Kayman’s debut feature was about Chinese activist artists Ai Weiwei, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” and won a US Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance when it premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. That film was focused on the battles of one man.
Likewise, “White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” is focused on one man, but suffers since unlike the former, this documentary didn’t get the cooperation of the main subject, Jeffries. The documentary lacks commentary from people in the same business but outside of A&F and doesn’t provide context in the sense of the fashion world and advertising of contemporary businesses like American Apparel.
For Asian Americans, the documentary provides a strong activist voice via Phil Yu, but not an academic one. The East Asian caricatures seemed to target only East Asian men and we are at a time when the East Asian American forever foreigner status is an issue. Nor does the documentary question or note that despite being “White Hot” there doesn’t seem to have been insensitivity toward the Black community in its graphic T-shirt designs although there was racism in its hiring practices toward both African Americans and Asian Americans as well as Muslim Americans. The documentary does show that Asian Americans have not been silent in issues that arose before the pandemic and that’s an important point. The documentary also disproves the saying, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” There is and it can be bad for business.
“White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” is streaming on Netflix as of 19 April 2022.