For a period of time in the late 1990s and early aughts Abercrombie & Fitch was the height of cool. And yes, even typing that sentence IS embarrassing. But if you were anywhere from a tween to a 20-something around the turn of the millennium, chances are you know the head-to-toe Abercrombie uniform: cargo pants, t-shirts with “funny” (and often racist) slogans, puka shell necklaces and polo shirts with the collars popped.
The stores were dark and featured soft-core porn imagery of shirtless male models alongside actual shirtless, jean clad male models. And who could forget the pervasive and horrible smell of the A&F signature cologne?
That whole sexed up marketing plan that made Abercrombie what it was at the time was the brainchild of Abercrombie’s then CEO Mike Jeffries – and it worked, at least for a while. But with a little distance, the whole escapade comes across as the male version of Girls Gone Wild (not coincidentally from the same era as Abercrombie's time at the top).
The brand reached its peak in the cultural zeitgeist in 1999 when LFO released the song “Summer Girls,” with the lyric “I like girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch, I’d take her if I had one wish.”
On the outside, the store – ever present in nearly every mall – sold preppy, All-American style. But as the new Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch reveals, on the inside, it served up a slate of racism and exclusivity.
Here’s the story of how Abercrombie & Fitch reached the heights and why it tumbled back down.
Abercrombie & Fitch’s first rise and fall
Abercrombie & Fitch became known for its muscular shirtless models in Jefferies’ heyday, but that iteration of the company is far from where it started in 1892 when David T. Abercrombie opened a store selling gear for hunters.
Ezra Fitch, an attorney, invested in the company in 1904 and it officially changed its name to Abercrombie & Fitch. The hunting gear store was popular, and it counted Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway among its fans.
The store enjoyed success in the mid part of the 20th century. However, by 1976, the company was filing for bankruptcy and closing its flagship store in New York City.
In 1978, Abercrombie & Fitch was acquired by Oshman’s Sporting Goods for $1.5 million (equal to about $6.6 million today). Oshman’s kept the focus of the store’s product on hunting clothing and gear, and it turned Abercrombie & Fitch into a mail-order catalog with just a handful of retail locations.
Sex sells: the Mike Jeffries era
After a decade, Oshman’s failed to find success with their concept for Abercrombie & Fitch and so The Limited founder Leslie Wexner swooped in and bought the ailing brand for $47 million (equal to $114 million today) in 1988. He set out to figure out what Abercrombie & Fitch had been doing wrong, just as he had done with another major mall brand, Victoria’s Secret.
Wexner hired Mike Jeffries as CEO in 1992, and the store’s transformation into the mall’s center for the cool kids began.
Jeffries created a line of clothing for teenagers, and sold the preppy, casual clothing with a side of sex appeal. He also introduced the A&F catalog, which featured mostly naked male models in, as the documentary notes, homeo-erotic poses shot by photographer Bruce Weber. Even the store’s shopping bags featured the brand’s shirtless male models. And the live versions were considered a status symbol in the malls of that era.
Back then, malls were the nexus of teenagers’ social lives and Abercrombie was a must stop shop for teens.
Jeffries took A&F public in 1996, and the company spun off from Wexner’s Limited empire. Sales then skyrocketed from $165 million in 1994 to $1.04 billion five years later.
In an interview with Salon Jefferies made no secret of the fact that being exclusionary was part of what he saw as the brand’s appeal. Jefferies said he wanted to “hire good looking people” to sell clothing to the “cool kids.” When asked why the brand didn’t sell size XL or hire overweight salespeople, he said “a lot of people don’t belong in our clothes.”
Abercrombie’s recruiters found the most attractive kids on local college campuses and hired them. The brand’s estimation of who was considered attractive meant that these employees were almost always white. In the Netflix documentary, Black and Asian former employees of Abercrombie & Fitch recounted how they were relegated to the back room or to cleaning and restocking the store after it closed for the night.
Abercrombie & Fitch managers were given a book that outlined what “good looking looks like,” and it frequently targeted non-Caucasian features as unattractive. The documentary reveals that this manual stated: “Our people in the store are an inspiration to the customer. A neatly combed, attractive, natural, classic hairstyle is acceptable. Dreadlocks are unacceptable for men and women. Gold chains are not acceptable for men. Natural, American, Classic: The A&F look."
Beyond the book, store managers were required to rank their employees on their looks in weekly reviews on a scale of “cool to rocks.” Anyone defined as a rock was removed from the schedule permanently with no notice.
If Jeffries or other executives were visiting a store, the best looking employees would be on staff that day to impress them. And, if the store wasn’t making its sales numbers, executives simply said, “You gotta get some more good looking people in there,” according to the documentary.
Sex certainly sold at Abercrombie for a while, but eventually the lack of inclusivity started to catch up to the brand. In 2002, the store released a t-shirt featuring a logo for a fictional laundry service called Wong Brothers with the tagline: “two Wongs can make it white.” The racist imagery and slogan prompted Asian American groups to protest the store.
Abercrombie apologized and burned all the remaining offensive t-shirts, but the floodgates seemed to open after the incident. Employees started speaking out about the racially discriminatory hiring at Abercrombie & Fitch. Nine former employees of color filed a class action lawsuit against the store in 2003.
Abercrombie & Fitch settled the lawsuit for $40 million without admitting any wrong doing. Instead, it signed a consent decree that declared it would change the recruiting, hiring, and marketing of the brand. A court-appointed monitor followed the brand for six years, according to the documentary.
Not much changed, however, as the brand started calling store employees “models” or “impact.” Models worked the sales floor while those deemed impact were relegated to the back room.
Then, in 2009, Samantha Elauf filed a lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch after she was not hired and told her hijab violated the brand’s “look policy.” The store compared her religious garment to a baseball cap and said hiring her would hurt Abercrombie & Fitch’s sales.
The company fought Elauf’s case all the way to the Supreme Court, which found in a 8-1 decision that Abercrombie had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Discrimination was part of the store’s brand identity,” Benjamin O’Keefe, an activist who started a campaign to highlight the discrimination inherent in the company’s hiring practices, says in the documentary. “They rooted themselves in discrimination at every single level.”
Jeffries stepped down from the helm of Abercrombie & Fitch in 2014 after 11 consecutive quarters of sales declines, and has not had much of a public persona since.
Over the years, the brand's clothes also just stopped being cool to the “cool kids” the brand marketed to. Exclusion is no longer cool with GenZ, Millennials, or GenX.
Today, the companny is led by Fran Horowitz and claims to be all about inclusion.
It might even be on a bit of an upswing as the company plans to open more stores in 2022 than it will shutter for the first time since 2008. It had a profitable year in 2021 despite the pandemic.
However, not everyone is convinced that things have really changed. Netflix’s documentary ends with Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan being asked if Abercrombie has successfully moved beyond its exclusionary tactics. She laughs and says “No.”