Netflix’s 2022 documentary White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch charts the birth of Abercrombie and Fitch and its explosive popularity in the 90s before its rapid loss of public favour. The documentary does a great job at highlighting the lengths the brand was going to defend its, and I quote, ‘natural, All-American, classic’ aesthetic. However, in true Netflix fashion, it refuses to pass any type of moral judgement on those involved with the company’s misdemeanours. 

There’s a short segment with Moe Tcacik, a former The Wall Street journalist, who talks about an interview she conducted with a previous Abercrombie employee. This former district manager – who now works at American Eagle – cries in relief having finally switched jobs.

“I can hire who I want” she tearfully rejoices.

Tcacik investigates this further and realises that non-white staff at Abercrombie are not only being hired less but being fired at a much higher frequency than their white counterparts. Perhaps it was the result of unfortunate editing but Tcacik’s response to this discrimination as “it maybe wasn’t legal?’ is a shining example of the staggering apathy of many large corporations. 

This is why diversity must be written into law; it is simply not enough to rely on the good nature of people. Whilst there has been an increase in discussions surrounding the topic of diversity (and rightly so), what I find lacking in these conversations is an emphasis on the fact that everybody benefits from diversity in the workplace, not just marginalised identities. I would even go as far to suggest that diversity in the workplace is necessary for success on both an individual employee-to-employee scale but also for a company as a whole.

Despite the shortcomings of Netflix’s documentary, it would be remiss of me to not point out how artfully the director, Alison Klayman, and her production crew took the audience on a visual journey of the company’s success. The documentary is intercut with harrowing testimonies of discrimination until this discrimination – much like in real life –  becomes too much to ignore. 

At the peak of its popularity, Abercrombie and Fitch was inescapable. The oiled-up washboard abs of the models were plastered all over walls and billboards, forever invading your line of sight. This was the marketing genius of Bruce Weber, head photographer. The man had a vision that many were eager to fulfil. His work has been described as beautiful and (perhaps unintentionally) homoerotic, capturing ‘the eternal and forever good’. Whilst I could write a whole separate article about the problematic implications of Weber’s work being described as beautiful (given that he wrote an entire booklet dissecting features to make explicit what exactly constituted ‘beautiful’ – see 29:06 in the documentary), what I wish to focus on is the precarious situation in which these young men were placed. Weber is presented as a quasi-untouchable figure; his white supremacist’s guide to human beauty was not enough to damn his career, nor was his conduct around the young boys he frequently worked with virtually unsupervised. The image of a visionary figure is swiftly shattered by the testimony of Bobby Blanski, replacing the vision with a mosaic of what Tcacik dubs ‘really troubling behaviour’. Blanski describes the routine of a model being personally called by Bruce Weber and being invited for dinner.

“They’d go over and I wouldn’t see them the next day,” Blanski describes.

He goes on to say the same thing happened to him and when he politely declined the invitation, Weber was in shock.

“What? No, you have to come. It’s great for your career.”

Blanski is resolute in his decision and not even two minutes later, his phone rings:

“Hey Bobby. Unfortunately, you’re gonna be cut and your flight is ready. You have a flight tonight.”

Just like that, Blanski’s career was over. 

There are no official allegations against Weber yet there appears to be a consensus among the models that something was happening. If we observe the behaviour described, it still remains unacceptable for an employee – an underaged one at that – to lose their job on the basis of not wishing to spend private time with their boss outside of working hours. These young boys – captains of the football team, homecoming kings, popular and attractive ‘jock’ types – the untouchable leaders at the top of the food chain, the ones we think of last when thinking about those affected by discrimination, were put in a situation they were never meant to be in and potentially in great danger.

This is what I mean when I say a lack of diversity is detrimental to all. These teenagers were preyed upon for the sole reason that they aligned with Weber’s warped conception of beauty. Their images were then used to project a construction of masculinity that was impossible for most people to achieve. This comes as no surprise as it could be argued that Abercrombie and Fitch’s entire marketing strategy was built around the double bind of visibility. The consumer is presented with the Visible, the paragons of contemporary beauty. Buying Abercrombie allows you to belong to this elite community – to be visible. Through creating the visible, the invisible are forged; anyone deemed other, anyone who was not white enough, thin enough, muscular enough was simply not Abercrombie enough. Abercrombie and Fitch simultaneously becomes a badge of belonging and exclusion. From a company whose CEO boldly proclaimed in a 2006 interview, “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely … If you don’t alienate anyone, you don’t excite anyone,” can consumers really be shocked? It is heartbreakingly expected that the alienated in this case relates to anyone who was not a cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied and affluent white person. This begs the question, has anything truly changed?

Carla Barrientos, a black woman, worked in the stockroom at Abercrombie. She exclusively worked night shifts. When she asked her manager for more daytime hours, she was told that there were none available. Another employee said they were happy to give her some of her hours but the manager rejected this. They were adamant that Carla could not work any daytime shifts. She was then removed from the rota. After two months of calling and being told ‘there’s nothing available right now, keep calling us’ Barreintos finally accepted she had been fired. No resignation. No official documents. It was over just like that.

Jennifer Sheahan went to UC Irvine, an area renowned for its high Asian-American population. After an unannounced corporate visit (known as a ‘blitz’), the store received a Christmas card.

“If you have not received a paycheck, you have been let go.”

Jennifer, an Asian woman, had not received a paycheck. Neither had her Asian friends. It was later revealed that the corporate inspector had noticed ‘a lot of Asian people in the store’ and spoken to the assistant manager. The corporate inspector said that the assistant manager ‘needed to hire more people that looked like this’ whilst pointing to the white male model on the wall. This was all it took for a significant portion of this branch’s staff to be fired without prior notice.

I previously advocated for diversity in the workplace being written into law. What I neglected to mention is that this is nowhere near enough to solve the problem. In 2003, Abercrombie and Fitch had a settlement with the California state regulator. More importantly, they had to sign a six year consent decree which forced them to improve workplace conditions – including diversity. Although the consent decree was not technically violated, the company missed several benchmarks and there was no change in the overall culture. It was not until 2008 that Abercrombie and Fitch’s hand was forced. Having lost a case in the Supreme Court and stock prices plummeting to an all time low, it was finally time for the company to take substantial action.

After signing the 2003 consent decree, Todd Corley joined the company as the first Diversity and Inclusion officer. During the documentary, Corley came across as reserved, especially in relation to his time at Abercrombie. What he makes abundantly clear is the company’s habitual discrimination was up to him to fix. This alone would have been a Herculean task however, when told no at every turn, the task quickly went from Herculean to impossible. When Corley had a meeting with the executives and other ‘higher ups’ within the company, he was asked if he “can help us work past this?”. The CEO, Mike Jeffries, did not deign this particular meeting important enough to attend.

This would not be the first time that Abercrombie and Fitch would call in a group affected by their actions to fix the company. The brand was notorious for its limited availability (if any) of larger sizes. This sent a loud and clear message: ‘we do not want fat people wearing our products’. Of course this promoted negative body image among adolescents, particularly adolescent girls and is what led the National Eating Disorders to officially denounce the company as ‘not cool’. The sale of thongs in children’s sizes was a large source of concern to parents and the wider public. The hypersexualisation of girls did not stop there as Abercrombie released a slew of racist and misogynistic graphic tees that were the cause of several protests. In each case, the company ignored the advice of concerned parents, eating order support groups petitions with thousands of signatures, and disgruntled protesters. Instead, spokespeople were invited to company headquarters to suggest a solution. With each wrongdoing, Abercrombie and Fitch placed the onus of their actions on the victims, absolved themselves of any wrongdoing then patted themselves on the back for doing so. Whilst the Abercrombie bubble breathed a sigh of relief and publicly declared they had “learned their lesson”, everyone outside the bubble became increasingly disillusioned with the brand. 

The downfall of Abercrombie and Fitch serves as a warning to other enterprises about the social, cultural, and financial value of a diverse workplace. Different cultural perspectives allow for fresh new ways of thinking but also minimise the likelihood of being grossly offensive. The company’s rebrand as a vessel of authenticity is nothing short of impressive, but what of the legacy of its past? The rise and fall of Abercrombie and Fitch showcases the limitations of legalising diversity and any attempt to implement change often places the brunt of the labour on marginalised groups. The cost of the emotional labour calls into question if this forced (at best) or inauthentic (at worst) diversity is worth it – especially when marginalised peoples are the ones who must pay that price. How can we work towards true diversity when we live in a society where white supremacy is so ingrained to the point that it is woven into the clothes we wear? True diversity would require a substantial upheaval in cultural thought, something that may not happen for a while. In the meantime, we can use the law to usher in this era of change.  I’m not saying the law can make people care, but it can certainly induce change. If nothing else, the threat of financial repercussions via legal fees and/or a reduced clientele will force companies to implement changes in the workplace and in recruitment – after all, money talks. There is certainly no perfect solution. However, there is no solution at all without progress.