"A lot of people don't belong in our clothes, and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely." This is a comment from Mike Jeffries, former CEO of American retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, to a reporter in 2006.
If you're a '90s kid and grew up during the era when Abercrombie & Fitch ruled the high street and dominated pop culture, this statement is hardly shocking. And yet it is sobering to see it spelled out so bluntly. As a prepubescent teen I would go to my local Abercrombie purely for the experience. Walking into the dimly lit store you would be greeted by the distinctive cheap, musky cologne; walls draped in shirtless models with washboard abs; size 6 mannequins wearing spaghetti tank tops; shop assistants bristling past you without making eye contact, fully aware you couldn't afford anything. Abercrombie's exclusivity was always heavily implied. Sure, anyone could walk into the store but these clothes were for cool, popular kids. Whatever that meant, it was evident that as a Black, afro-haired girl, Abercrombie was not for me – or anyone who didn't look like the models on the walls.
Netflix’s latest exposé, White Hot: The Rise & Fall Of Abercrombie & Fitch, explores this exclusivity. The racism implied by Abercrombie's branding is finally made explicit in this documentary. Past managers reveal how they were told to hire only 'good-looking' staff – a statement which on its own sounds illegal. To make things worse, Abercrombie gave managers a handbook which defined 'good-looking' to ensure they were recruiting shop assistants who would be inspirational to customers. "A perfectly combed, appealing haircut is okay," the handbook explained. The example given was a blue-eyed, Ken doll-esque man. Meanwhile, Black hairstyles such as dreadlocks were unequivocally "unacceptable for men and women". Employees had to be "natural, classic and American", which came to imply affluent, blonde, thin and white. Those who were not were relegated to the stockroom.
White Hot attributes much of Abercrombie's meteoric success to the brand's ability to sell aspirational, 'cool' clothes to its young adult target market. The fashion industry at the time was on a mission to create an appetite for whatever it wanted to sell and persuade you that you wanted what it was selling. Abercrombie recognised this and assumed the role of one of fashion's most powerful gatekeepers. To its young, impressionable target market, being cool and popular was currency and Abercrombie wanted buy-in. The brand’s WASP beauty standard extended beyond the models chosen for campaigns to its hiring practices in stores and headquarters worldwide. The result was a business culture steeped in racism, classism and fatphobia. In Abercrombie's defence, this was indicative of the culture of fashion at the time.
The people who Abercrombie was excluding were fed up – fed up of being sold a youth that didn't resonate with them and clothes that didn't fit them by people who didn't look like them.
White Hot concludes that the company faded into irrelevance because execs like Mike Jeffries and photographer Bruce Weber – godfather of the all-American, white aesthetic – refused to move with the times. Society had evolved organically to accommodate everyone; excluding people of different races and sizes and genders from fashion and beauty was no longer socially acceptable. And being affluent, thin and white was no longer aspirational.
But this conclusion rings hollow because the shift in public appetite was not as passive as the documentary suggests. Instead, the people who Abercrombie was excluding were fed up – fed up of being sold a youth that didn't resonate with them and clothes that didn't fit them by people who didn't look like them. They took the reins and changed the tides of fashion through activism, influencing and leveraging digital platforms to start their own brands.
The early 2000s, during the rise of Abercrombie supremacy, also saw the emergence of new social media platforms like Tumblr, Myspace and Bebo, where a growing number of users would post their outfits. From this, the blogosphere was born. Early blogs weren't created to amass followers or attract brand deals. Users simply saw them as an opportunity to be creative and find a community. Blogs became spaces where young people could consume fashion from people who looked just like them. Rallying against the high street's beige clothing standards and strict rules of masculinity and femininity, bloggers such as Aimee Song, Fisayo Longe and Callie Thorpe challenged the status quo. They played around with trends, colour and style, incorporating their own cultures. Their clothes were also somewhat affordable and, indirectly, they injected an inclusion and acceptance that was missing from the big retailers.
The fashion blogosphere is not without its controversy but there is no doubting the role that today's fashion bloggers have played in shattering the exclusivity of the conventional fashion industry. Many of them have celebrity status, successful brand partnerships, books and clothing lines of their own. It is important to acknowledge that relatability and attainable looks played a huge part in turning people away from the high street and towards their peers. Ever since then, the increasing visibility of queer, fat bloggers of colour in the fashion and beauty world has done a lot to undermine the WASP beauty standard.
This is most evident in the commodification and whitewashing of streetwear, which emerged as a fashion niche in the 1990s from hip hop culture. Today, the global streetwear market is worth an estimated $185 billion. Hip hop was originally underground, Black and built on community. The beauty and fashion that has emerged from hip hop resonates with so many young Black and brown people because it stems from a genuine place of love and respect for this community. It’s arguably why this style has stood the test of time.
Retailers like Abercrombie, Gap and American Apparel, which were not built this way, now steal trends from Black communities to feign authenticity and stay relevant – everything from monogram prints and braids to hoop earrings and sneakers. The only difference is that these trends are now sold to predominantly white, thin and likely affluent people.
So yes, White Hot recognises that Abercrombie is slipping into obscurity because the fashion climate has changed. But it is the communities that Abercrombie boldly excluded which are changing the tides. The essence of mainstream fashion still favours whiteness wherever feasible. If things are slowly changing it is because we are the ones who are changing them.