The retailer’s controversial past is the subject of a new Netflix documentary.
In elementary school, my sense of style relied entirely on my desire to fit in. Back then, that meant wearing Ugg boots, skinny jeans, and a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of a tween-approved brand. And if I was lucky, that brand would be Abercrombie & Fitch.
Walking into an Abercrombie & Fitch store in 2010 was an assault on all your senses. First you had to walk past the half-naked mannequins that sometimes guarded its doors. Inside, the dim lights made it difficult to see, the music was loud and disorienting, and the scent permeating the store was so strong you could almost taste it.
On special occasions like my birthday, I would choose a few variations of Abercrombie tops for my teenage wardrobe. As a sheepish teenager shopping there with my mother, I felt out of place. But as I walked through the mall, the store’s recognizable shopping bag — adorned with photos of shirtless male models — felt like bargaining chip in my hands.
Known for its preppy aesthetic, it was no secret that Abercrombie & Fitch prioritized a certain demographic: “cool” kids. This extended to its teenage salespeople, who had to adhere to a physical appearance rulebook dubbed the “Look policy.”
In 2013, a 2006 interview of then-CEO Mike Jeffries resurfaced. In it, he said Abercrombie hired employees they found attractive because they only wanted “good-looking people” to shop at their stores.
“In every school, there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Frankly, we chase the cool kids,” he continued. “We are looking for the attractive American kid with a good attitude and lots of friends.” In other words, young, thin and white.
“A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they cannot belong. Are we exclusive? Absolutely,” he continued. That same year, Business Intern reported that Abercrombie & Fitch’s size range for women did not exceed one big.
During the 2000s and 2010s, Abercrombie faced several trials around discrimination and labor rights violations. These controversies, along with a lost interest in its unimaginatively oversized logos, led to the brand’s downfall. In 2014 Jeffries retired and soon after a new brand started.
Almost a decade later, Abercrombie & Fitch has completely reinvented itself. But on April 19, Netflix is releasing a documentary that will explore its infamous legacy as a cultural phenomenon. White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch will delve into the company culture during Jeffries’ tenure, including the brand’s racist hiring and firing policies.
Following the trailer’s release on March 31, Abercrombie released a statement on Instagram. “We want to be clear that [these] are actions, behaviors and decisions that would not be allowed or tolerated in business today,” it reads.
Scrolling through the brand’s e-commerce site in 2022 is a decidedly more inviting experience than the dimly lit stores of yore. On its homepage, a banner reads “This is Abercrombie Today”. It leads to a page outline the company’s social justice initiatives, with a quote from current CEO Fran Horowitz saying, “Abercrombie isn’t a brand where you have to fit in — it’s a brand where everyone really belongs.”
Now marketed to young adults, Abercrombie has swapped preppy clothes for high-end casual wear. The clothes are presented on various models and are notably devoid of logos. The brand has nearly five million followers on Instagram, and on TikTok, videos with #AbercrombieHaul have over 56 million views. Abercrombie’s social revival has been somewhat of a success. But his name change does not erase his legacy of racism and grossophobia.
Looking back, I can see how glorifying Abercrombie & Fitch set back my relationship with style. My motivations to blend into my clothes continued through high school, even after I stopped buying from the brand. Abercrombie taught me that fashion was synonymous with assimilation. Now I know it’s actually the exact opposite. I just wish I could go back and tell my younger self.