April 20, 2022

White Hot: The Legacy of Abercrombie and Fitch

A 1990s edition of A&F Quarterly: notice the 6:1 ratio of men to women.

I recently watched the documentary White Hot, on Netflix. It charts the rise and fall of Abercrombie and Fitch, which dominated malls and shopping centres visited by many a millennial teen between the late ninetees and mid 2010s. The brand stood, I think, for something sinister at the heart of our culture: elitism, vanity, and a certain kind of racialised, classist idealisation of youth.

This path was dictated by the company's CEO Mike Jeffries, who took a hundred-year old brand synonymous with old school masculinity (Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway had been customers), and turned it into a preppy, Fratboy, All American brand. WASPiness commoditised.

This manifested itself in the work of legendary photographer Bruce Weber, who focused especially on the sculpted six-packed bodies of male models who became synonymous with the A&F brand. These models, usually shirtless, would be placed at the door to each store, which used low lighting, overtly perfumed scented pumped in to each room, and specialially selected gorgeous staff members to sell their flannel tops and chinos.

Jeffries & Weber

The focus that the company took to the "All American" look appeared to be personally directed by Jeffries and Weber, who took a hands on approach to ensuring that slim women, muscular boys, and white bodies were the image that the company put forward to their customers. This, they implied, was attractiveness personified.

The documentary does an excellent job breaking down the law suits filed against A&F, first regarding its hiring policies (based solely on image & body shape), and the overtly racist approach to people of non-caucasian descent; then the predation and sexual absue that many of the male models suffered at the hands of both Weber and Jeffries.

On a personal level, I vividly remember smelling an Abercrombie and Fitch store before I saw it. As a teen, I wasn't particularly fashion conscious, but the store imprinted itself on my psyche. The images of topless, muscular men placed on their walls, as well as the attractive staff members present, seemed to imply that it would be somewhere I would feel comfortable enough if I were cool, which I wasn't. Something of that internalised itself within me, because when I eventually began to workout and focus on becoming "attractive", I started subconsciously aiming at this image of a manliness.

I've written previously about how Daniel Craig's James Bond - especially the scene in Casino Royal in which he emerges as a hulking adonis from the water - left me with a lasting impression that this was the world of manhood, and if I wanted to catch up my first port of call was the gym.

This development of my self, how I related to my body and the way it looked has caused a myriad of difficulties as I've grown older, but only now am I beginning to notice the subtle influences I was given as a young man. Watching this documentary, I've been given a greater indication that the forces of highly successful and trend-setting brands like A&F, just like large pop culture franchises like James Bond, can have a huge impact upon the definition of what "normal" or "desirable" is to you.

What brands such as these imply is "if you want to thrive in this world, not only should you be white, ripped, hot, and carefree, but not everybody can make it, so make sure you're in the club".

I believed in a form of narrative like this for a good part of my formative years, and judging by examples like this Doc, so do millions of people worldwide. The fact that it is rotten to its core, just like the centuries of lies we've been fed about racial and class differences on people's aptitude, intelligence, and capabilities, is beside the point for capitalism, because it makes money.

Exposing it is part of the solution, but is just the start of the journey. Digging deeper into our past as to why brands like this can survive and thrive in such a meaningful way in our culture is the next and even more crucial step.

Books like Emma Dabiri's What White People Can Do Next are great starting points. Looking into our pasts, our recurring thought loops about ourselves, and how we go about making decisions about the clothes we buy, the friends and partners we seek, and what we think when we look in the mirror, are instrumental. The Abercrombie way was developed by two closeted gay men who tried to live out their racist, judgemental insecurities using a system which was more than happy to cater for that as long as they sold clothes. As we move towards a capitlalist-cogniscent, and increasingly critical world, we'd benefit greatly from a quicker analysis of the companies and people we are placing our hopes on, and how we spend our money to support them.

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