“I remember walking in and thinking that everything I hated about high school had been bottled up in a store.” What happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s with Abercrombie & Fitch exceeds the worst precepts of fashion and capitalism. It was a phenomenon that permeated many countries, including Spain, but especially in the US. It is summed up in the feeling that opens the article and describes the journalist Moe Tkacik in WhiteHot, the new Netflix documentary about a brand that was a proud ambassador of a classist, racist and discriminatory philosophy. Tkacik witnessed this during his investigation for The Wall Street Journal, the first outlet to put Abercrombie in the spotlight.
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The history of Abercrombie & Fitch is so obvious that it seems absurd. Her brand originated from an idea of beauty that had three pillars: natural, American and classic. Until then, it is not far from any other posh American firm, such as Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger. But Abercrombie assumed that this market was covered and wanted to differentiate itself in two ways.
First, they dropped prices a bit to target teens and 20-somethings. Second, they took the ads to their stores and recreated them with real people. Boys and girls weren’t just supposed to be spotless in pictures, they were also spotless if they were folding t-shirts in the store, cleaning shop windows, or serving customers at the checkout. At that time, natural, American and classic became synonymous with Caucasian, muscular for men and slender for women. Everything else was left out.
One of the characteristics of the store is that it had no windows. The clothes were the least of it. At the entrance, two guys in their 20s were waiting, bare-chested, who greeted the customer with a smile. Inside, the lights were low, the disco music was loud, and the employees wore only basic clothing: a white T-shirt and blue jeans. They were projected to be aspirational. “The people in our stores are the inspiration for the customer”, repeated the bosses of Abercrombie.
WhiteHot It shows the fall of the clothing firm, but also a boom that few brands have experienced in such a short time. The miracle was wrought by Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch from 1992 to 2014, who took the company public in 1996 for $112 million. The change was remarkable. It went from being a musty-smelling men’s goods store to a place of pilgrimage for America’s posh boyhood. “They represented sex, youth, American spirit and the outdoors,” explains a fashion expert in the documentary. “They were the kind of posh that has a Golden Retriever and drives a Jeep,” another former worker points out.
Jeffries was nearly 50 years old when he arrived at Abercrombie, but he made it a point to take the pulse of youthful yearnings. Or what he intended them to be. “They wanted us to be irreverent, very funny and to appeal to teenagers and college 20-somethings,” recalls a former graphic designer at the firm. To make the philosophy sink in his workers, Jeffries drafted some commandments in the form of a guide and created a campus that imitated the university sororities. There the staff worked from sunup to sundown, but they made up for it by partying almost every night.
Homoeroticism and sexual abuse
In promotional images, the Abercrombie & Fitch campus was a dream location. But according to what some workers and invited journalists verified, it was after all the theme park of Mike Jeffries, brain of the project, and Bruce Webber, brain of the aesthetics. They walked around, scared the workers and made their “traditional conception of masculinity and femininity” very clear, reveals a reporter. “Once he came into the workshop and blurted out: ‘Who the hell are you designing for? For Bolleras sin Fronteras?’. He explicitly told us that we should make clothes for sexy, straight men and women, not boleras”, recalls one of those in charge of the collection.
Ironically, both Jeffries and photographer Bruce Webber were gay. “There were a lot of gay men involved. And the brilliance of the brand was that it went unnoticed by young shoppers in the late ’90s,” says an artist who was commissioned for gigantic murals filled with muscular men for stores. The designer acknowledges that much of Abercrombie’s iconography was based on “homoeroticism,” a philosophy that carried over to campuses and photo shoots: “That was testosterone fest at its most basic.”
Not everyone can wear our clothes because we don’t want everyone to wear our clothes
— CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch
“Bruce Webber was able to take advantage of his power because he was so famous and eccentric. He invited you to his house to play with his dogs and then he tried to get his hands on you ”, reveals Bobby Blanksi, one of the first models of the brand and whose image lying on the beach went around the world. He refused and as a consequence was fired, but the same did not happen with others. He cornered young people during photo sessions and often did so accompanied by the CEO. Although Webber has always denied the allegations of sexual abuse, in 2021 he closed several out-of-court settlements with some of his alleged victims.
Jeffries and Webber’s inappropriate behaviors were just the tip of the iceberg. While this was happening in the highest levels of the company, the hundreds of stores were committing a crime without knowing it, or knowing it and hiding it very well. Not only did they “show off” their discriminatory values on T-shirts (they had to withdraw a consignment containing racist jokes against Latinos and Asians or phrases like “Do you feel fat next to me?”), but the hiring manual designed by Abercrombie was an encyclopedia of malpractice and discrimination. “Not everyone can wear our clothes because we don’t want everyone to wear our clothes,” said Jeffries.
Black clerks stayed in the store or cleaned the windows at night, and several Asians were dismissed out of hand after a high-ranking visit to their stores. Five of them were encouraged to file a complaint. “They said that it was not racial discrimination, but that we were not handsome enough, that we were ugly,” says one of the African-American girls who betrayed the brand. The matter reached the US Supreme Court, which investigated a hundred cases. “Discrimination was not something isolated, it was their brand, it was their identity,” says one of the plaintiffs.
Abercrombie ended the class action lawsuit with a $50 million award and a settlement: they promised to change their recruiting, hiring, and marketing from that moment. In 2011, they hired a chief diversity officer and six years after his arrival, workers of color increased by 53% in the US. But there was still a lot of washing work ahead.
Discrimination was not something isolated, it was his brand, it was his identity
Racialized former Abercrombie worker
Against body shaming
Another renewal strategy was to open stores in other countries for the first time. One of them was in Spain, where the same North American philosophy was replicated in the heart of the Salamanca district in Madrid. At the entrance, two shirtless guys greeted customers with: “Hey, what’s going on?”. The ones in charge of recruiting “models” – that’s what the clerks were called to the public – wandered through universities and libraries hunting for people with an attractiveness according to the brand. Work experience didn’t matter.
“I didn’t wear Abercrombie because I couldn’t. He was a poor, fat, gay kid, the perfect triad of bullying”, explains an activist about the body positive and eating disorders. Once the racial bias was overcome, the extreme physical canons that the Jeffries brand preached were less and less in keeping with the new times. It was not something that affected only workers, it was a philosophy that people in pop culture like Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Lawrence or Taylor Swift had embraced. The activist launched a campaign that received thousands of signatures for the brand to include a larger range of sizes, something he initially refused.
“In every college there are cool kids and not-so-cool kids. We went after the former, the typical handsome American guy with lots of friends. Are we exclusive? Absolutely,” CEO Mike Jeffries defended. His figure was constantly ridiculed in the media and the scandals he was involved in were wearing down Abercrombie’s image inside and outside the US. In 2013, it became one of the most hated stores in North America according to shoppers.
I didn’t wear Abercrombie because I couldn’t. He was a poor, fat, gay kid, the perfect triad of ‘bullying’
Expert activist in eating disorders
In addition, another of the bosses of its management committee, businessman Les Wexner, called the “Merlin of shopping centers” and creator of the interior design of Victoria’s Secret stores, was accused of collaborating with pimp Jeffrey Epstein and of facilitating young girls for your network. Abercrombie & Fitch had bottomed out. In 2014 Jeffries resigned as CEO of the company and it was time to reinvent it. Since then they have tried to get it out with values much closer to those accepted today. “They didn’t invent evil or classism, they just packaged it,” explains Moe Tkacik.
Abercrombie’s story is not just that of a clothing brand. It is that of a sexist, classist and exclusivist philosophy that has done explicit damage to society and that luckily is no longer in fashion, as the recent Roxy or Dove campaigns demonstrate. “Getting a broad spectrum represented and included in your brand is acting smart. There will be those who do business with discrimination, because there are always people who want to consider themselves cool. But it’s fascinating to see how many brands are trying to make anyone feel cool”, summarizes Ohio University professor Treva Lindsey.