Among the talking heads denouncing the dark period of one of fashion’s more obnoxious brands in the hit Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is veteran magazine editor Savas Abadsidis. The man’s impressive resume includes time in the nascent phase of Complex magazine, editing for the iconic comic brand Wizard Publications, and bylines on multiple cover stories for The Advocate—but he might still be best-known as the brain behind the treasured, defunct Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly.
If you were in a finer shopping mall in the late 90s or early 2000s, you may remember seeing it near the cash register as you were being ignored by A&F’s chiseled, vacant staff: that sleek, shrink-wrapped, $6 piece of branded content fantasia where whip-smart interviews with icons like Spike Lee and Bret Easton Ellis sat next to Bruce Weber’s famous photo spreads, which displayed some of the whitest guys you’ve ever seen showboating their impossible abs.
The Quarterly—25 issues of which were published between 1997 and 2003 during the peak of A&F’s reign—has an enduring legacy in media circles and gained an enviable cult-like following that remains today. I mean, look, the asking price at an eBay auction of a lot containing the entire collection is $3000. After his recent Netflix debut, Los Angeles took some time to speak with Abadsidis, who now runs the website gaynrd.com, about his time with A&F, how he became involved in Netflix’s documentary, and what the film gets wrong about the (formerly) racist preppy clothing brand.
Savas, tell us how you ended up being featured in White Hot. Do you feel the documentary accurately portrayed your role with the company and point of view on the brand and its history?
Hayley Pappas, who is a producer for director Allison Clayman, reached out in late 2019. She said they were working on a documentary about the A&F Quarterly. The way it was described was like other Netflix nostalgia projects, like The Toys That Made Us.
In the ensuing months, I helped contact and find virtually everyone that made it into the film and those that didn’t. Production was rescheduled a number of times due to Covid and they shot me and former senior editor Patrick Carone [who made that very funny IRL joke] at an estate in Mamaroneck, New York in August 2020.
That was the first time I met Allison and we spoke at length and she shot me for nearly four hours. At some point, I told her about the Mel Magazine piece that ran a few weeks earlier in July. I recall her saying something to the effect of “shit, that’s my movie.”
Part of the reason the shoot was so long was that she and the crew didn’t know a lot about A&F’s problems, which were myriad and well documented.
White Hot, however, is a film about racial discrimination.
The first and only time I watched it I felt as though someone could easily be confused about what they were watching. She opens the doc talking about the freestanding stores that didn’t exist until much later—maybe 2011—the “controversial” Two Wongs Make a White T-shirt and she even features a long segment with Angry Asian Man blogger Phil Yu juxtaposed with commentary by me.
That sequence is entirely disingenuous, as Yu knew back in 2002 that the lead design team members were Asian American. The shirt itself took its name from a laundromat his Chinese American grandparents’ owned called… Two Wongs Will Make It White. To suggest anything else is a blatant lie.
At any rate. I was not a designer and had nothing to do with the shirts.
[The film has] no context or sense of scope—the documentary covers nearly 20 years… to the uninformed, it could appear as if it all happened yesterday.
How did the Quarterly fit in within the rest of the A&F organization? Was it autonomous, or were you given directives?
It was fairly autonomous, as I had my own staff based in New York that was not at the corporate office. We were based out of, and later in proximity to, the advertising agency of record, Shahid and Company.
I was an executive at the company who reported directly to Mike Jeffries, the CEO. Mike positioned a few key people like me and our teams—almost all start-ups within the company. I had wide latitude creatively, i.e. if Mike approved, it was published. I saw it as a magazine with one advertiser. In 1996, several magazines, for example, Vanity Fair, faced headwinds from major advertisers—GM, I believe—over LGBT content. In that context [the Quarterly] was remarkably independent.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Mike was gay (I wouldn’t find out until much later). I think that was part of the reason why he and Sam—who was also gay—took me under their wing. There’s a lot of discussion over the years about this and our “gay agenda.”
It’s not like we all sat around a bonfire at Fire Island and talked about how we could make it gay.
I was gay and that dynamic dovetailed nicely with Bruce’s photography for both the brand and the Quarterly, and it certainly set the tone for what was to come.
I was, and remain, grateful to get what amounted to an unofficial apprenticeship from both Mike and Sam, and eventually, they had me doing much more involved tasks than I was hired to do.
What are your thoughts on the homoerotic nature of the A&F aesthetic? What role, if any, do you think it played in the mainstreaming of gay culture or wider acceptance of gay culture?
I think it was, because of its success and the way it penetrated youth culture, a mainstream queer trojan horse for American youth. Many people have expressed they felt it was the first gay thing that was also fucking cool to everyone.
It’s in that sense that you understand its reach and why it’s still highly regarded to this day.
You mention, in a GQ article, how the scene in Spider-Man (2001) with Peter Parker’s bully wearing full A&F was a turning point for you. What happened afterward in terms of your relationship with the company/brand?
It would go on until the beginning of 2004 when I would be fired and the Quarterly was killed.
There were many reasons—more had to do with intercompany politics and financials. By 2002, A&F was rapidly expanding. When I started, there were maybe 50 stores nationally. Up until then, same-store sales each quarter had seen exponential growth and then began to decline. There were some missteps—a denim glut in 2003, a re-correction of the women’s design—but I think it was Concept Two, as we had called Hollister Company. Hollister was a leaner, meaner, cooler version of Abercrombie at a lower price point (some compared it to Old Navy is to Gap).
There were some missteps—a denim glut in 2003
If anything resulted in Abercrombie’s fall, it was Hollister more than anything else.
Tell me, from your personal perspective, how the brand’s strength disintegrated.
Growth and success, honestly. As I said, when I began there were maybe 50 stores. And it was a social club of sorts, if you want to understand how exclusivity played to the brands’ strength. You can only scale exclusivity to a certain extent and then it no longer is.
Is there anything that people should know about the A&F empire or documentary that you’d like to get off your chest?
My friend, [screenwriter] Eddie Borey, asked me why [in the documentary] I look like they found me in the woods. He said I looked hot and tired—I didn’t even have a bottle of water, like all the other [interview subjects in the film].
At worst, the documentary positions me as a de facto representative of the corporation—which had numerous publicly known issues with race and class that existed outside of my area of influence. My purview was the Quarterly and my editorial mandates explicitly platformed work by prominent creators and thinkers of color. The film’s deceptive editing positioned me as having influence over clothing designs and hiring practices, with many of my statements juxtaposed against incidents that happened years after I was no longer editing the Quarterly and had moved on to other publications with public reputations of having a more inclusive culture.
Details editor David Keeps once complimented me for producing corporate-sponsored subversiveness.
Like I said, the initial pitch for the production radically shifted from the final product, which I believe may have been because of conversations I had with the filmmakers where I brought up the misdeeds of upper management.
To be positioned as defending those deeds is a gross and harmful distortion.
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