Looking back on the racist and toxic past of the popular mall retailer led by controversial CEO Mike Jeffries.
At the height of mall culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was one brand that rose to the top: Abercrombie & Fitch, which is the subject of an all-new Netflix documentary, White Hot, which chronicles the rise and fall of the brand and exposes the racist and toxic culture that flowed onto the pages of its infamous catalog and the policies of its club-like stores.
Initially established in 1892, it wasn’t until under the leadership of CEO Mike Jeffries, that the retailer went on to define a generation with its “potent mix of sex and wholesomeness” and elitist take on the “all-American” image. During its reign, everyone from Channing Tatum to January Jones modeled for the brand’s racy, homoerotic marketing campaigns led by photographer Bruce Webber while consumers spent billions in sales across thousands of stores in the U.S.
“This was a shared experience for a generation of people,” director Alison Klayman tells ET about the brand’s reach and monolithic place in the zeitgeist. “And when you brought it up, people immediately shared personal memories or stories about their own identity” as it related to the retailer.
Interested in how A&F became part of the larger, collective consciousness, Klayman also wanted to pull back the curtain on the system that was “incredibly flagrant and top-down and explicit in crafting this image,” she says, explaining that the documentary then examines the harmful, racist and exclusionary practices that were implemented systematically within the company and how that “influenced all of us as youth.”
With White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch now streaming on Netflix, here’s what to remember about its toxic culture and where Jeffries is now.
Institutionalized Racism and Lawsuits
From the outside, A&F presented itself as an affluent, all American, sporty yet sexy clothing brand -- essentially a modern take on preppy – worn by college age corn-fed athletes and their cool girlfriends. And in the stores, where employees were called models, the sales staff was largely white, with many people of color relegated to the stock room or evening shifts, which, according to the documentary, was company policy handed out from the top down.
Among those interviewed in White Hot are former store employees -- Carla Barrientos, Dr. Anthony Ocampo and Jennifer Sheahan -- who all joined the same 2004 class action lawsuit brought against the company for discriminating against people of color by offering preferential treatment to white men.
While the lawsuit was settled, and A&F hired Todd Corley as the brand’s Chief Diversity Officer and agreed to a Consent Decree to diversify its workforce and institute anti-discrimination practices, the company ultimately did not fully comply. And in 2009, Samantha Elauf sued A&F after she was told her hijab violated the company’s employee “look” policy. “That was the first time anything had happened to me like that,” Elauf says of her experience.
Of all the former A&F employees to speak out, Corley is notably the highest ranking member of the company to appear on camera. “He’s on the right side of history,” Klayman says.
“Fashion is a discriminatory industry and our society is a discriminatory, elitist place. But even within all of that, Abercrombie was just so flagrant and you could kind of really point to how it was executing what it was doing from the top down,” the director continues, pointing to Jeffries and the rest of the corporate team at the time. “It look a lot of people to enforce, for example, the discriminatory labor policies at Abercrombie & Fitch.”
Bruce Webber Sexual Assault Allegations
When Abercrombie & Fitch was at its height, it was largely due to the brand’s nearly nude marketing campaigns that were not only plastered all over the walls of the stores and on the company’s shopping bags, but were also preserved in the A&F Quarterly. And the man behind redefining the male gaze at the time was Webber, who was known for his campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and other fashion brands.
“Clearly, Bruce Webber’s artistry is amazing,” Klayman says. “Like, we have to acknowledge that. But then if you’re going to do that, you also have to acknowledge what is already even in the public record about these people.”
What the director is referring to is allegations brought against the photographer. First, in 2017, when Webber was sued by a male model for sexual assault. While he denied all the allegations, the New York Times reported in 2018 that 15 male models had made sexual assault allegations against him.
In the documentary, two former A&F male models -- Ryan Daharsh and Bobby Blanski -- come forward with their experiences working with Webber. “It was very well known that he liked young men,” Daharsh alleges, claiming that during photo shoots when “you would put your hand on your chest and he’d put your hand on your hand telling you to relax. And then it was, ‘I’m gonna lower your hand. Tell me when to stop.’”
Blanski, meanwhile, claims that he was fired from a photo shoot after he declined Webber’s invitation to spend time alone together. “I was done,” he says.
As the documentary notes, Webber has not been charged or convicted of any wrongdoing.
Mike Jeffries Controversy and Where He Is Now
Surprisingly, despite the brand’s well-documented discriminatory practices and promotion of its brand as a “casual luxury” only designed for a certain kind of person, it wasn’t until 2013 that marked the beginning of Jeffries' downfall when quotes from a 2006 Salon interview resurfaced and went viral.
While speaking to Salon, the CEO explained why A&F only hired “good-looking people” in its stores. “Good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that… Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
That’s when Benjamin O’Keefe started a viral petition against A&F for its blatant discriminatory behavior, not only demanding an apology but asking that the brand offer inclusive sizes for all customers.
In May of 2013, Jeffries responded by issuing a statement that read: “I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. …We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics.”
However, the eccentric and controversial leader was reportedly ousted as CEO a year later over the brand’s poor sales and issues surrounding “poor corporate governance” that stemmed from activities like hiring male models to work as attendants on the company’s private jet and an all-male household staff.
Since leaving A&F, Jeffries, now 77 years old, has largely stayed out of the public eye and did not respond to requests for an interview in the documentary. “He’s such a private person and really an enigma,” Klayman says.