White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is engaging and holds your attention but misses an opportunity.
This Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch review does not contain spoilers.
“It wasn’t not racist,” a former Abercrombie & Fitch employee says about the store’s revamped hiring practices. He even describes himself as a brown man who the majority thought was white. A producer of the Netflix documentary, White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, begins to laugh. A split second later, he joins her.
It’s the absurd, almost bewildering way of thinking. A brand that crossed a billion-dollar revenue at its height by doubling down on exclusivity. It’s a brand made, managed, and run by whites. The brand was made for exclusive whites. It was branded by an exclusionary practice of modeling only whites in its storefronts. But hey, don’t worry, they employed the non-whites in the back. They even let some work at night. Why? Oh, to make sure the store was clean and ready for the white employees in the morning.
The store was a staple in malls at the end and beginning of the last two centuries. At the time, Michael Jeffries, the CEO, spoke not exactly against inclusivity but wanting the brand to represent exclusivity. He was arrogant, brazen, and even too honest about it. He even wrote the big book of Abercrombie & Fitch that stated how dreadlocks are not allowed, or religious wear. Jeffries would even stock the storefront with employees by recruiting from white fraternities and sororities.
They even had a mass exodus of Asian employees after the holidays at one location. The majority of students who attended the University of California, Irvine at the time were of Asian descent. That’s when a corporate manager resets the hiring practices that represent their corporate culture — hiring mostly young white individuals. After the holiday, they did not hire back their Asian staff. The company even kept selling racist t-shirts demeaning members of this community. Why? The reasoning had only to do with the color green. They would sell at an incredible markup of 85%. That is a sign of repressive American business and reflects the marketplace. The implications that mirror oppressive socioeconomic business practices could not be more clear.
What director Alison Klayman (Take Your Pills) does very well is immerse you in a world full of toxic, addictive memories and the brutal realization of what was wrong with Abercrombie & Fitch. Jeffries and company never wanted to listen to the potential customer base. They wanted to dictate to people what they should be buying. They wanted to market an all-American farm boy and wholesome female looks. The problem is Jeffries’s narrow view of beauty, and he drove those to buy it.
Klayman also does an excellent job setting up interviews for a more significant effect later. At first, we did not know we were listening to stories from former employees. These individuals subjected to racist practices won a lawsuit against the company. This led to a court order, on the surface, for the clothing line to change its ways. You’ll notice how they start to tell stories about how exciting it was to work there and later the psychological toll when it ended. Business practices like this can lead to low self-esteem and dramatically affect greater opportunities down the road.
The story of the rise and fall of Abercrombie & Finch would have benefited from additional insight into Jeffries and their famous photographer Bruce Weber. The latter had accusations of sexually harassing the male models. (Weber later settled out of court without admitting fault). And Jeffries is such a contradictory figure. A gay fashion icon who was a closeted gay man, yet, he kept preaching blatant exclusivity practices. Jeffries can be viewed through an oppressive lens as a tragic figure. A real-life Phil Burbank who survived being beaten down by society. Jeffries hid his sexuality, which may have resulted in his toxic behavior.
White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch rarely goes more profound with the two old, white men who capitalized on the trend of oppressive business practices, which would have made for a much more fascinating documentary film. One that would have had more insights into Jeffries’ exclusionary university where he taught a master class schooling for exclusivity.
The story Klayman retells about this company we have heard before. There is nothing new uncovered here. Still, White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is engaging, the storytelling is balanced, and holds your attention while the content still burns a fire in your stomach. It’s a reflection of a decade some have labeled of peace and prosperity, but the Internet and social media helped shine white light on racism in the fashion industry that needs to be considered outdated.
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