For those who don’t have time to watch ‘White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch’ next week, here’s a summary of the documentary: Abercrombie & Fitch is a shit company. Of course we already knew that, because since the late eighties the marketing strategy of the clothing farmer has been aimed at excluding everyone who does not belong to a select group of cool kids. And yes, that goes for more chain stores, but Abercrombie & Fitch unabashedly elevated elitism into an art form in the ’90s and ’00s. Store employees were selected for their appearance – nothing sells as well as jealousy – and explicitly instructed to treat customers as unfriendly as possible. The windows of the clothing stores were blacked out, so you couldn’t see anything from the outside and needed a flashlight inside to see what color pants you were holding. Electronic music at tinnitus volume completed the atmosphere of an exclusive disco where you can only enter with the right sneakers. That reverse psychology worked wonderfully for years, for the same reason that sorority clubs continue to attract new members with their exclusionary tactics.
As the subtitle implies, ‘White Hot’ tells the story of the rise and fall of the success chain. The company has been around since 1892, but little is said about the first hundred years. That ‘demise’ is also relative, because the Abercrombie & Fitch still exists and had a turnover of 3.7 billion dollars in 2021. The Netflix documentary really only deals with the greatest years of success, and especially the crisis that followed at the beginning of the new millennium. A procession testifies at a brisk pace talking heads on systematic racism and other mismanagement. The central figure is legendary CEO Mike Jeffries, where genius and madness were close together. With an iron hand he directed his organization to the leading position in the speed of the nations. And as clichéd and pedantic as it is told, it is shocking how far Jeffries went to stay at the top with his trade. Under his leadership, discrimination became rooted in the core of the corporate culture, at all levels of the organization. Strangely enough, that policy worked very well, because Jeffries knew better than anyone what his target group wanted: slim, white models and ditto sales staff.
Pregnant are the examples of how the company deals with criticism of stereotypical expressions. When protests erupted over printed t-shirts with mocking texts about Asians, a press release was issued expressing the expectation that Asian customers would actually love the funny. When that didn’t strike the right chord, the entire batch of t-shirts was burned. A former employee describes it as follows in the documentary: ‘We took our responsibility and put it right as soon as possible. We learned from it and moved on.’ T-shirts with jokes about Mexicans, Buddhists or people from West Virginia, however, simply remained on the shelves – after all, ballistic bullying was the business model. The instruction to the design team after the incident was, according to another former employee: ‘Don’t do that again – do something similar.’ So much for the steep learning curve.
It took years of sustained criticism and multiple lawsuits to turn the business around. Jeffries left as CEO in 2014, after which a start could slowly be made on building a new image. Thus, ‘White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch’ ends on a positive note – and you don’t have to be the biggest cynic in the world to see that the documentary is a nice commercial for the criticized subject. In 2022, Abercrombie & Fitch successfully clears its name with rainbow flags, plus size models and the slogan ‘We belong together’. whatever brings money in the drawer, right?