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Abercrombie & Fitch told a generation who it was

The director of the new Netflix documentary says the clothes are only half the story.

A collage image featuring the torso of a young woman holding an Abercrombie & Fitch bag with an image of a young man’s abs on it.
White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch set out to explore how one brand was so dominant for so long — and why.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

For a long stretch there around the turn of the millennium, Abercrombie & Fitch wasn’t just another mall brand, like American Eagle or the Gap. It was an aura, a lifestyle, a representation of everything that most of us were never going to be: sexy, thin, rich, carefree, and white. In some ways, it was the last gasp of mall monoculture, and it went out with a bang. For those of us who were just coming of age back then, the things we absorbed about our own inadequacies from Abercrombie’s marketing, their controversial catalogs, and their intimidating stores have been hard to shake.

That’s what Alison Klayman set out to explore in White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch. The documentary is less about a company than a culture — both the store’s culture of exclusion and the broader sense that a brand could dictate what beauty looked like.

In some ways, things (including Abercrombie itself) have changed a lot since the aughts; in others, they haven’t changed at all. But Klayman — whose previous films include deep-dive profiles of Alanis Morissette, Steve Bannon, and Ai Weiwei — found the brand to be a perfect encapsulation of those cultural shifts and, more importantly, what they mean. We talked about the film, the company, and what she thinks about corporate responsibility now. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

I was born in 1983.

I was born in ’84.

So we’re the same age. And I remember, very distinctly, going to the mall as a teen and being way too scared to go into Abercrombie.

I didn’t shop at Abercrombie. The mall near me was the King of Prussia Mall, and I think I once ventured in. My mom waited outside. I was kind of confused, which just shows how not cool and not the target customer I was. I think I went in to see if there was even a sale rack, and there wasn’t. It was dark. There was loud music, and I left because I was like, “I don’t feel comfortable.”

Abercrombie wasn’t a big factor in the social scene of my school; I went to a small Jewish day school, and we all wore, like, baggy T-shirts and sweatpants, and went to thrift shops. That was just what was cool for us.

Abercrombie & Fitch Store Opening on 5th Avenue in New York City
A group of Abercrombie & Fitch models at the opening of the Fifth Avenue store in New York City in 2005.
David Pomponio/FilmMagic for Paul Wilmot Communications

But all that said, I know exactly what Abercrombie & Fitch signified to me at the time. It loomed large in the culture. And I certainly got the message that it was what was cool. It was aspirational. I really relate to [blogger] Phil Yu’s line in the film; he talks about getting the catalog and being like, “Is this what college will be like for me?” But I know that this isn’t for me. The clothes don’t fit me. The models don’t look like me. I got that message very clearly.

In retrospect, that seems like a crazy way to market clothing! You always market based on aspiration, but to market clothing based on the idea that this is not for you seems counterproductive. Today’s Abercrombie is all about inclusive sizing. So that seems like a real indicator of how our culture has shifted in a relatively short period of time.

Yeah. We tried to convey at the end of the film, where we bring you up to today, that [the changes in marketing from then to today are] all just about selling you things. So maybe today’s Abercrombie has just tapped into a different strategy that is now the prevailing strategy of good business in order to sell you a V-neck.

The appeal of doing Abercrombie & Fitch as a documentary was twofold. One, it really touched almost every single one of us in several consecutive microgenerations. It cuts to the core and is so personal — where you grew up, how much money your family had, or how you felt about your body or your social standing. All of that makes it, to me, an incredible topic.

But the second is that there was a chance here to really unpack how a company did this—not just why, but how. It’s tapping into these big, seemingly abstract concepts that completely touch all of our lives, like structural or institutional or systemic racism, and beauty standards. [The Abercrombie story] makes them incredibly concrete — not only the harm that was done, which I think is a big focus and what we wanted to center in the film, but also the way it was implemented and enforced from the top down.

That was what really blew my mind from the beginning, and remained the main thing that shocked me throughout. We all knew, to varying degrees, that this was an exclusionary story because a lot of us felt excluded. But to really understand the mechanism by which it was enforced, and how top-down it was! There was some reporting at the time, but it was before social media. A lot of us, I think, just have this vague understanding of it all.

So I thought that was really the opportunity of the film. There’s no one book or one article that puts this 20-year period all in one timeline as well. And so it’s really a study of a system, which is fascinating.

Honestly, it was really trippy to watch. I was in my late teens when Abercrombie was at its peak, and watching the doc I kept thinking about how much about body image and the way we’re supposed to look I carried over from that time. If you watch TV from the turn of the century, it’s really wild to see the way young women were supposed to dress and how thin they were supposed to be. Now we are approaching middle age, and I feel like I haven’t gotten rid of a lot of that even if the culture supposedly has. Did you bring that into the making of the film?

When I look at photos of myself when I was young — meaning high school, I guess — I never thought I was skinny. And I look at pictures now, and I’m like, I was totally skinny, by an objective definition. I think I knew at the time, but obviously it doesn’t change anything. My perception of myself was completely based on a comparative standard, either to whoever the skinniest people were in my social settings, and then also in media. Even so, I was at best wearing the top of the Abercrombie sizes or I was sized out, which has to do with the size of your hips. I think that that stays with you, for sure.

It’s fascinating to me how there’s been these scripted series that all came out at once about companies. I didn’t see this film as being part of a trend while we were making it at all. One of the big differences with this one is that it hits everyone personally. Maybe we all have Uber on our phones and it changed our lives, but that’s different from how it made you feel about your body when you were a child or a teen. It cuts to identity formation. The Abercrombie story does share a lot of the traits of other stories — a decadent CEO who was treated like a genius, a twisted company culture of “work hard, play hard.” It has all the hallmarks. But the film, I think, is much more focused on how it made us feel about ourselves and the harm that was done.

In that way, it reminds me a little more of cult documentaries. Needing to be part of something, finding your identity, and trying to mark yourself off from other people.

So is that off the table for young people today? It probably manifests in a very different way.

If you go on Tik Tok, now the kids are talking about what their aesthetic is. It’s supposed to be more inclusive, but it’s still very much about the things you surround yourself with, what you wear, what you listen to, where you get your coffee. All of which sounds very familiar to me.

That was what we talked about a lot [on set], too. Nobody on the film team was 20 or under. But even our parents’ generation remembers Abercrombie, mostly, as something they thought was weird and awful. They knew it was important, but they didn’t pay that much attention. But it’s different for a young audience, which is why there’s a bit in the documentary about what a mall was. It’s not really to remember malls to each other. To a young person today, the idea that a brand could be that influential, that there was an era in which we could have a true dominant, almost monoculture type of entity — it doesn’t really apply today. We wanted to set the stage for that so that you can understand how people could feel this way about one clothing brand.

Abercrombie & Fitch Accused Of Discrimination
Images at an Abercrombie & Fitch store in 2003, shortly before the company agreed to remove its 2003 Christmas catalog, which was criticized for sexually provocative images.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

I have such specific memories of people being angry about the catalog. I don’t think I saw the inside of one till I was watching this film.

Parents thinking it was inappropriate! That was a huge thing for the catalog. Even Moms Against Drunk Driving were upset about one issue, and there were all these decency-based objections.

There’s another thing I think is important to point out. I have all the copies that we managed to find for relatively cheap — they actually go for a lot of money on eBay, the old ones. But the ones we got for research are at my house, and sometimes when people come over, I bring them out. When they see the catalogs, all of my close friends who are gay men instantly say that they had something to do with their own recognition of their sexual identity. But also, they say, this has something to do with my body issues, or what I think is attractive, and I’m still trying to shake that off. They all recognize that this was artificially implanted — what is attractive and what you’re going for — and I think that that is a huge ongoing point of discussion and reflection today.

Having made this film, how do you think about corporate responsibility now?

That was always kind of where we wanted to take it. In my films, I’m interested in big, potentially unanswerable questions, or just leaving you with a better question. This isn’t a story that ends with “and then everybody did the right thing,” or “a company did the right thing.” The question is, can a company in a capitalist system be ethical? Can it be better? Maybe there’s degrees of better, but really, can it be ethical? And do you expect it to contribute to positive values? Is that what they’re there to do? Is it even capable of that, when it’s there to sell you clothes?

That was definitely something we talked about with everyone. There are, I guess, different answers. But it is more of the question to leave you with at the end.

Abercrombie’s transformation, in terms of their marketing and positioning today, lends itself to continuing that discussion. How important is continuity? And reckoning with the past? Changing your marketing — while it’s much, much better than the marketing that was there before, you look back at their Instagram, and they just totally wiped everything clean in 2017. Everything that they did had to do ultimately with profits and with appearance. I think it’s important to recognize the ways Abercrombie has changed, but also to differentiate between corporate spin and what actually happened and is happening.

I hope that’s one of the places the film can lead people. We made sure not to end on a congratulatory or self-congratulatory note — not just for the brand, but also for consumers. These things worked because people bought them, you know, and that’s an important part of the story.

White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is streaming on Netflix.

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