The new Netflix documentary, White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, takes an unfiltered look at the upscale outdoor and sporting goods retailer-turned fashion icon as it reached peak popularity amongst young adults, then collapsed under the weight of legal woes and changing consumer preferences.
Founded in 1892, Abercrombie ascended the retail clothing ranks between the 1990s and 2000s due in large part to then CEO Mike Jeffries’ unorthodox playbook. Under Jeffries, the retailer established a reputation for an unabashed public image synonymous with attractive, physically fit, preppy-looking people. Equating Abercrombie and its moose logo with an “aspirational lifestyle” became his raison d’etre.
Abercrombie wielded scantily clad, sometimes fully nude, models—largely white, as the documentary points out – on posters displayed at its retail shops, on its shopping bags, and in its advertising like the A&F Quarterly. The print magazine became notorious for its glossy, “soft porn,” images. Male models weren’t the only ones bearing it all.
In a narrow sense, Jeffries’ strategy for selling the “All American look” to young adult consumers, paid off. For most of his tenure, Abercrombie saw consistent years of multi-billion dollar revenue growth, while launching new stores in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. Yet the good times masked serious trouble brewing below the surface.
One look at the company’s historical stock chart and it’s telling how profitable Abercrombie became in the early 2000s. In just four years starting in January 2003, the company’s stock rocketed up the New York Stock Exchange from just over $21 a share to $84.51 by October 2007. Before the 2008 global financial crisis, Abercrombie, by 2007, was valued at close to seven billion dollars – a testament to its “white-hot” popularity and status amongst young adult consumers.
I was one of those consumers with an affinity for the brand; the quality and style of the clothing suited my tastes. In 2004, during my sophomore year of high school, I joined Abercrombie as a part-time sales associate at one of its Los Angeles stores in the Northridge Fashion Center. At high schools around the country, Abercrombie, like its sister brand, Hollister, was hugely popular. Stereotypically, though not exclusively, at my high school I found that good-looking athletes, popular kids, and all-around attractive people wore Abercrombie.
During my employment, however, I never once witnessed or heard rumors of discriminatory hiring practices by management, who happened to be of Asian descent. My colleagues’ ethnic backgrounds, like the customers, were as diverse as Los Angeles. Photographs of chiseled Abercrombie models on the store’s walls didn’t match the average staff physique. The sensational aspirational lifestyle Jeffries peddled to consumers didn’t match the reality I experienced as a retail employee.
While there’s something to be said about the creative tactics Abercrombie employed that differentiated its clothing line, and brand, from its competitors, including American Eagle Outfitters, H&M, and Gap – and the PR methods used to achieve those goals – Jeffries’ exclusionary vision, and short-sided decision making, became Abercrombie’s Achilles heel.
By 2014, amidst a hail of class action lawsuits that embroiled the company for racially discriminatory hiring practices at its stores and allegations of sexual assault by its famed photographer, Bruce Weber, on several male models – Jeffries retired. His departure came just as the company’s stock was buckling after several years of declining sales at its U.S. brick and mortar stores.
Notably, in 2015, the retailer was taken to the Supreme Court for religious discrimination and promptly lost. But by then public opinion had already soured on the brand just as young adults’ fashion tastes were changing away from the hallmarks of Abercrombie’s expensive style.
While its luster has greatly diminished, the Abercrombie of today is not the same as the brand I worked for that catapulted to “white hot” fame in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Gone are the photographs of shirtless, semi-nude models that adorned store walls. In recent years, the brand has become more racially diverse in its hiring practices at its stores, corporate headquarters, and models representing an inclusive, “All American look.” Its clothing line now incorporates more body types, not just designs for slim waists.
The 130-year-old American brand continues its turnaround.