Towards the top of White Scorching: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, a frenetic and uneven documentary from Netflix, the historian Dr. Treva Lindsey observes that the as soon as coveted “all-American” way of life model “is illustrative, extra so than it’s distinctive” of the society during which it thrived.
The assertion, stitched right into a sequence of different comparable feedback, gestures towards an attention-grabbing query that this documentary about model ascendance, destruction and renovation ought to ask, however by no means does: Why — as a substitute of how — was Abercrombie & Fitch dedicated to its exclusionary mission?
White Scorching: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch
The Backside Line
Pores and skin-deep.
The doc circles its topic with a mixture of fascination, reverence and minor disgust. Its director and producer Alison Klayman, who most lately directed HBO’s Jagged, assembles a variety of audio system, from historians like Lindsey and journalists like Pulitzer Prize-winning vogue critic Robin Givhan to former workers and activists. (Klayman produces together with Emmet McDermott, who as soon as labored as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, in addition to with Hayley Pappas.) The themes sit earlier than the digicam and readily reveal their experiences and opinions a few model that constructed its fortunes off popularizing — or perhaps the phrase is preserving — a selected picture of white America.
Earlier than Abercrombie & Fitch represented “cool” — a phrase regularly employed all through the movie — it was a retailer of elite masculinity. It was each aspirational and sensible. The shop, based in 1892, was a spot the place males like Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway purchased fishing gear, books and shaving cream. Photos of previous catalogues present a model already dedicated to selling a concurrently genteel and rugged way of life. When the corporate fell on arduous occasions, retail mogul Leslie Wexler, whose manufacturers embody Victoria’s Secret and Bathtub & Physique Works, pulled it again from the brink. He purchased it in 1988 and employed Mike Jeffries as CEO in 1992.
This set up marked the start of a brand new period for Abercrombie & Fitch, which fell someplace between the sexiness of Calvin Klein and the extra conservative Ralph Lauren. It was provocative however down-to-earth, attractive however attainable. It narrowed the definition of “cool” and made customers really feel dangerous about not becoming it. The corporate’s advertising and marketing technique — extremely curated shops, a quarterly journal, campus ambassadors — feels acquainted on this age the place manufacturers are life marketed to you by micro and macro influencers. However on the time it was comparatively cutting-edge.
White Scorching, which strikes in roughly chronological order, considers how this promotion technique, which included hiring the notorious vogue photographer Bruce Weber, created a feverish buzz across the model. The one factor higher than proudly owning Abercrombie was working there.
Klayman strikes shortly from chronicling the model’s reputation to observing its downfall. As she and her workforce dig into the model as an employer, they uncover cracks within the pristine façade. Interviews with former workers seize the model’s attract for its goal demographic (18- to 22-year-olds) and people youthful, hinting at the way it formed conceptions of being American. However it may be arduous to maintain monitor of all of the voices and their varied narratives, which contact on totally different and equally heavy elements of the model’s failures, from hiring practices to office tradition. Tighter edits and a extra cohesive construction would have helped.
Mockingly, Abercrombie’s hiring practices and office tradition have been additionally a mirrored image of America at giant, too. Klayman investigates the factors particular person shops needed to comply with when contemplating who might signify the model. Dreadlocks have been a no, as have been gold chains. Watches needed to be understated. “Traditional” haircuts — by no means outlined — have been OK, as have been “delicate” jewellery on ladies. The workers we heard from earlier return, this time to disclose their involvement in a 2003 class motion lawsuit in opposition to Abercrombie & Fitch for discriminatory practices towards anybody who wasn’t white. The model was promoting a dream that wasn’t promised to everybody.
In 2015, the USA Supreme Courtroom would determine on one other discrimination case, this time in opposition to Samantha Elauf, a Muslim lady who was denied a job at an Abercrombie retailer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a result of she wore a headband to her interview. She seems within the documentary, too, recounting her journey to the very best court docket within the land — and noting, sarcastically, how the one dissenting opinion got here from Justice Clarence Thomas — and the tenor of each the assist and backlash she confronted alongside the best way.
Abercrombie & Fitch normally couched their racist practices in imprecise phrasing. Phrases like “cool” and “basic” have been aggressively employed, whereas their that means remained elusive. Though White Scorching payments itself as an exposé, its greatest disappointment comes from analyzing Abercrombie & Fitch by itself phrases. What have been “cool” and “basic” really codes for? What anxieties did the model faucet into with the intention to make folks settle for its explicit imaginative and prescient of aesthetic enchantment and desirability as common? The model, just like the America it sought to guard and protect, thrived on elision and obfuscation — and nonetheless does even now.
In 2017, Abercrombie & Fitch employed Fran Horowitz-Bonadies as CEO. “Transferring a model ahead shouldn’t be all the time simple,” she says in a CNBC interview from that 12 months. Decided to repair the corporate’s popularity, she provides, “we’re now not the model that we was. We might wipe clear our social channels; wipe clear the historical past.”
To “wipe clear” the historical past of the model, as Horowitz-Bonadies places it, is a chilling however unsurprising proposition. America is a rustic obsessive about remaking itself, altering with out accountability. Now that Abercrombie & Fitch stands to lose cash, now that they’ll now not be exclusionary with out scrutiny, they determine to maneuver in a special course. However what use is a future that doesn’t grapple with its previous? That, too, is a query I want White Scorching tried to reply.