Everything to Know About Abercrombie & Fitch as Netflix's 'White Hot' Doc Exposes Its Complicated History

From those shirtless male models to allegations of racial discrimination, here's some of the major takeaways from Netflix's White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch

abercrombie and fitch
Photo: Konrad Fiedler/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Netflix newest must-see documentary pulls back the curtain on one of America's most recognizable retail brands.

White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch follows the clothing company's popularity in the late '90s and early '00s, and how controversy surrounding its exclusionary marketing and discriminatory hiring affected the company's signature all-American image.

The documentary film comes from director-producer Alison Klayman, and features interviews with dozens of industry insiders as well as former A&F employees, executives, and models discussing the company's wild trajectory.

Here's 9 of the biggest things viewers will learn:

1. Former CEO Mike Jeffries was responsible for turning the brand around from financial failure

Abercrombie has been around for 100 years before it became what shoppers know it to be as today.

It started as an outdoorsman brand catering towards elite sportsmen, selling excursion goods like fishing rods, tents, and expensive shotguns to notable names like Teddi Roosevelt and Earnest Hemingway (E.B. White once described the windows of the store as being "the masculine dream," the doc says).

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The company fell on hard times over the decades before retail giant and then L Brands CEO Les Wexner bought the company in 1988, the businessman adding it to his portfolio that included Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, The White Barn Candle Company, The Limited, Structure, Lane Bryant, Lerner and more.

Initially, Wexner's plans to restore the retailer back to is initial vision failed. But when Mike Jeffries joined as CEO in 1992, he had a vision and started over — coming up with a formula that, as explained in the doc, "connected the heritage of the brand established in 1892 while catering to the elite, privileged people and combining it with sexual imagery."

"We knew we wanted to be the coolest brand for the 18 to 22 year olds," former A&F Merchandising VP Cindy Smith Maglione explained, A&F Design VP Charles Martin adding, "He had a pure mission and that was to build Abercrombie."

Jeffries was described as being a "mad genius" who cared, more than anything, about the details.

"Every piece of Abercrombie was by Mike's design — the store', the products, the whole thing, he would sign off on." Smith Maglione said.

A shopper enters an Abercrombie & Fitch Co. store at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center
Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images

2. The store design was a key component to Abercrombie's success, especially those shutters

It didn't take long for Jeffries' vision to connect with the MTV crowd and by the mid '90s, Abercrombie was a necessary stop for cool kids on any visit to the mall — which, at the time, was the center of teenage culture and one of the only places where kids congregated to see how to dress. Every store in the mall catered to different shoppers, as the doc points out. Hot Topic was for the alternative kids, Pac Sun for the surfers, and Abercrombie, for the preppy crowd.

Getting people into those stores was a challenge, and Abercrombie developed a winning strategy.

Shirtless male greeters were placed in front of the door, to help sell the mix of All-American and sex that Abercrombie had built its brand on (think the middle ground between Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren). Cologne was sprayed around the store, to give it a signature, musky, masculine scent. And the volume on the music was turned up, the pulsating nightclub beats only emphasizing its cool factor.

But the thing that helped the most? Those store shutters.

"One of the things that Abercrombie did quite brilliantly was put up brown shutters over the windows and a big image in the front doorway at the entry so you really couldn't see what was in the store unless you went into the store," one commentator explains in the doc. "No other retailer was doing that. They forced you to come over the threshold."

3. Store employees were also crucial to the Abercrombie experience, though it was less about their customer service skills and more about their looks

Exclusivity was a key component of Jeffries' Abercrombie, the former CEO designing the brand to convey what he considered "cool." He would even make charts to specify what he liked and didn't like (an Abercrombie dog would be golden retriever, not a poodle, for example).

But Jeffries didn't stop there. He made sure the employees who worked in the stores fit the image of the "All-American" look, requiring A&F recruiters to hire only "good-looking people."

Part of that experience was to focus on particular college campuses in the area and go after the best-looking frat guys. "The bet was if we get the right guys in the right fraternities to wear the clothes, then other people are going to want to copy that," journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis said. "It was like pre-digital influencer marketing."

When Jeffries and other store executives would stop by stores on scheduled visits, some employees would just be brought in just to impress them. And if stores weren't hitting their sales numbers, the feedback they would get? "You gotta get some more good looking people in there," the doc explained.

Abercrombie & Fitch clothing is displayed in one of its stores
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

4. Racial discrimination was built in to Abercrombie's hiring process

Much of White Hot explores how Abercrombie's discriminatory hiring affected the company's signature all-American image.

The doc details how store managers were provided a book strictly outlining "what good-looking looks like," those descriptions often deeming non-white features as inappropriate.

"Our people in the store are an inspiration to the customer," the book read, according to the doc. "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," said the book, which also outlined how how employees needed to wear "appropriate undergarments at all times."

"No other mall brand went to the extreme that Abercrombie did in micromanaging the look of everything from the store down to the person who was cleaning up the stockroom," fashion editor Robin Givhan said.

It wasn't just the book, either. Abercrombie store managers had to rank each of their employees in weekly look-based review sheets, on a scale of "cool to rocks." Those deemed "rocks" were subsequently removed from the schedule, essentially fired without being told they were fired.

"All that mattered was that the employees that you took pictures of and sent back to headquarters were hot," journalist Moe Tkacik said.

40 Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) models line outside the A&F store to take pictures with passersby in Knightsbridge
SIMIN WANG/AFP via Getty Images

5. Racial discrimination was also built into Abercrombie's product

It wasn't enough that Abercrombie didn't seem interested in hiring people of color to work at their stores; the brand went so far to mock marginalized communities with their products too, coming under fire in 2022 for a series of graphic T-shirts that took aim at the Asian community.

The offensive and problematic shirts — emblazoned with racist caricatures of buck-tooth, slant-eyes Asians alongside racist slogans like "Pizza Dojo: You Love Long Time: Eat In or Wok Out" or "Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White" — enraged Asian-American student customers, who wound up protesting the brand.

"This blatant racist products really got a lot of Asian American students particularly enraged," Phil Yu, who runs the Angry Asian Man blog, said in White Hot. "They were kind of hitting them where, this was supposed to be my jam. This was supposed to be for me."

Abercrombie responded by removing the shirts from stores, saying, "We thought Asians would like these shifts."

"All those stupid slogans, that was us," former A&F graphic designer Kelly Blumberg explained in White Hot. "We didn't have copywriters. They really wanted us to be irreverent, they really wanted us to be funny, relevant to that late teen, early 20s college crowd."

"Graphic Tees for us were our personality. We were moving at light speed, the graphic T business was a one-and-done type thing, so you had to continuously produce art," Smith Maglione said. "We were always trying to be quick witted and things like that and I know we made a couple of mistakes. We kind of owned up to our responsibility, made it right as fast as we could and then we kind of learned and moved on."

6. Multiple lawsuits were lobbied against the company over the years for their discriminatory hiring policies

Throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, Abercrombie faced several lawsuits, including a 2004 class-action suit in which nine former employees of color accused the brand of discriminating against African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and women by preferentially offering positions to Caucasian males. The brand agreed a $40 million settlement, admitting no guilt but signing a consent decree in which they pledged to change their recruiting, hiring and marketing practices.

A court-appointed monitor would follow the brand for six years, White Hot explained — though "there were no explicit penalties for missing benchmarks," the doc noted.

Some changes were effective. Todd Corley joined the team as A&F's vice president for diversity. He said in the doc that from 2004 and 2011, the diversity and inclusion team brought about an over 40% increase in non-white employees in stores, going from 10% to 53%.

But those changes didn't effect any of the leadership board, who were all white, the doc said. And while splitting employees into two titles helped define roles ("Models" worked up front while "Impact" employees worked in the back), former A&F recruiter Jose Sanchez said in the doc that the standards for hiring models didn't really change, the roles going to mostly white people.

"Abercrombie was never found in violation of the consent decree," according to the documentary, "But the court-appointed monitor did find Abercrombie repeatedly missed benchmarks, including underrepresenting minorities in marketing and hiring."

In 2009, Samantha Elauf filed a lawsuit against the company after being told her hijab violated the store's "look policy." Abercrombie stood by their decision, comparing her head scarf to a baseball cap and claiming that hiring her would hurt their brand which would in effect hurt their sales. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court where and 8-1 vote ruled in favor of Elauf, saying that Abercrombie violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Abercrombie & Fitch went all the way to the Surpreme Court. Discrimination was not just a blip, it was their brand; it was their identity," said Benjamin O'Keefe in the documentary. "They rooted themselves in discrimination at every single level."

Khloe Kardashian/Snapchat.

7. Photographer Bruce Weber, who masterminded the company's iconic marketing, was also accused by male models of sexual misconduct and assault

Anyone who has ever been in an Abercrombie store should be familiar with the images of half-naked (or often, fully naked) male models flanking its walls.

The homoerotic shots of young, beautiful men hanging together in the country side — all meant to make customers think about the eternal good — were shot by fashion photographer Bruce Weber, known too for his sexually provocative Calvin Klein ads.

Though Weber was instrumental in crafting Abercrombie's marketing, he also allegedly inappropriately touched his male models, according to the documentary (Weber did not participate in White Hot, and has not been charged or convicted of any wrongdoings).

"It was very well known with Bruce that he liked young men," Ryan Daharsh, a former Abercrombie model, claimed in the documentary, alleging that Weber would play a "good touch, bad touch game."

"You would put your hand on your chest and he would put his hand on your hand, kind of talking to relax [you]. And then it was, 'I'm going to lower your hand, tell me went to stop.' My hand didn't move,'" Daharsh claimed. "[He'd say], 'No we're going to lower your hand' [and I'd be] like, 'No, that's... we're good.' "

Bobby Blanski, another former A&F model, alleged that Weber frequently invited models over for private dinners where he would make inappropriate advances on them. Dismissing Weber's invitations, Blanski claimed, got him fired from a job.

"[I told him], 'So no, I'm not going to be able to make it,'" Blanski recalled, turning down a dinner summons from Weber. "He said, 'What? You have to come. It's great for your career.' So I'm like, 'I'm cool Bruce, but thank you very much.' And all of a sudden, my phone rings again, less than two minutes later, [with another person telling me] 'Hey Bobby. Unfortunately you're going to be cut. ... Get your bags ready, you have a flight tonight.' It's like, in that instant, I was done."

A total of 15 male models who worked with Weber came forward accusing the photographer in a bombshell 2018 New York Times report of "what they said was unnecessary nudity and coercive sexual behavior." Weber denied the allegations, telling the outlet, "I have used common breathing exercises and professionally photographed thousands of nude models over my career, but never touched anyone inappropriately."

Many went on to sue Weber. As the doc explains, one lawsuit against him was dismissed in 2020. He settled two assault lawsuits by former models in 2021 for undisclosed amounts with no admission of guilt.

Pedestrians walk outside the Abercrombie & Fitch store on Fifth Avenue in New York
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

8. Jeffries quit the company overnight and hasn't been seen by many since

Eventually, mounting controversies surrounding Abercrombie — including unapologetic comments Jeffries made about the brand's exclusionary practices to Denizet-Lewis in a 2009 Salon article that led to a boycott years later — caught up with the brand.

By the mid-2010s, the brand was becoming irrelevant. "At some point those kids that learned that it wasn't cool to be bullied grew up and decided they didn't want to spend money at a place that made them feel bad," one commentator explains in White Hot. "So Abercrombie & Fitch, some of that aura went away precisely because exclusion was the root of their success and exclusion itself stopped being quite so cool."

With the pressure on, Jeffries decided to quit in 2014, exiting with a $27 million retirement package. "He literally was on the phone with executives on Sunday, Dec. 7 and Monday, Dec. 8, did not show up for work," it's said in the doc. "He never showed up again, and many people have never seen him since then."

Wexner stepped down as CEO of L Brands too, departing in 2020 amid his own set of scandals involving his close ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Mike Jeffries, CEO of US clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch leaves the store on the Champs Elysees avenue
BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images

9. Abercrombie today is all about inclusion

Fran Horowitz has been the president and chief merchandising officer at Abercrombie & Fitch since December 2015, and has made it her mission to right the wrongs of the past, turning the brand into what they call "a place of belonging rather than fitting in."

As White Hot shows, part of her strategy has been "turning the lights on and the music down in stores." She's also been focused on listening to customers, and has expanded the brand to include a wide range of diverse, body positive models.

"While the problematic elements of that era have already been subject to wide and valid criticism over the years, we want to be clear that they are actions, behaviors and decisions that would not be permitted or tolerated at the company now," the company said in a statement on its Instagram back in March, addressing Netflix's doc.

"As we've evolved, we've felt the love from this community. We are grateful for the support you have given us as we've taken intentional steps to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone," it continued. "Thank you for giving us the chance to show you who Abercrombie is today, and for being a part of who we will be tomorrow. We know the work is never done and remain committed to continually creating a company of which we can all be proud."

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

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