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The Racist Past of Abercrombie & Fitch Netflix Doc White Hot Unpack

“This is the first real direct confrontation with the racism directed at you,” Alison Klayman, director of the streamer’s new documentary about the early 2000s craze, told IndieWire.

It’s 2005, and as a college kid, there are few places to feel seen as the way you want to be: an attractive young adult, with agency, value, and $40 to spend on a t- shirt.

Enter affordable Ralph Lauren meets Calvin Klein mash-up Abercrombie & Fitch, the rebranding of a safari-and-gun-wearing empire where Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway once shopped. Modernize the brand for the mall culture of the 1990s, and it’s like America itself is reborn, warts and all.

Selling an ambitious lifestyle for A&F was an understatement — pulsating club music, darkly shuttered windows, shirtless male models in jeans, and strong signature cologne packed the promise of meeting a workable celebrity crush and leave with their lingering scent on your skin. Buying something was like buying a new you, but it turns out that only certain customers were deemed worthy of the brand’s “all-American” message.

Netflix’s documentary “White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch,” now streaming, re-examines the problematic message (i.e. the sale of healthy yet seductive teenage sexuality, a specific brand reserved for Caucasians) behind the reigning sartorial empire of the 2000s which at one time then employed rising stars like Olivia Wilde, Channing Tatum, Taylor Swift, Penn Badgley and January Jones as models.

“I was immediately fascinated by how when I spoke with people at Abercrombie & Fitch, people immediately shared these really personal, identity-based stories,” said director Alison Klayman (“Jagged” ). “I had lived it, I knew that it had occupied an important place in the culture. I could see how this brand awakened personal storytelling and the formation of people’s identity.

“White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch”

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Proudly exclusive Abercrombie & Fitch was then slapped with a series of discrimination lawsuits based on its hiring practices, and longtime designer photographer Bruce Weber was accused of sexual assault by male models. L Brands, A&F’s parent company, was also at the center of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking scandal after CEO and founder Les Wexner was discovered for allegedly supplying Victoria’s Secret models to Epstein’s parties.

“I was kind of shocked at how much it took these abstract negative forces in society and systematized them,” Klayman continued. “You could really tell a story of the system and make it concrete – structural systemic racism, beauty standards – something that feels in the air but clearly affects all of us, and in Abercrombie’s case, that’s really a top-down story reinforcing things that exist in society and are being weaponized and used for their benefit.

Based on the meeting of East Coast prep and West Coast ease, universal and national sex appeal was seemingly wrapped in a black-and-white shopping bag covered in abs. Klayman explained that Abercrombie & Fitch targeted students who participated in their respective Greek school systems, hiring popular fraternity and sorority members to work in stores and model catalogs.

Former CEO Mike Jeffries micromanaged the A&F “look” for 18-to-22-year-olds, and measured how much torso should be visible with low-rise jeans. The brand was decided to be more “golden retrievers and jeeps”, as the documentary reports. And the homoerotic fantasy of locker rooms and half-dressed football games were the cornerstone of the brand’s marketing campaign. In short, Klayman had his hands full when deciding which lens to feature throughout his documentary.

“There are so many stories out there,” Klayman admitted. “It’s always had the same laser focus, trying to combine the nostalgia, the fun element of pop culture, the sexiness of it… You can’t take away the sexiness or this idea that there’s attractive fun in there too, because it’s not true to history either.

Ultimately, Klayman defined the “North Star” of “White Hot” as a broken race-based system in America.

“It’s a credit to the amazing people who spoke to us and shared their stories, because I think what you realize is that it’s not abstract evil. It’s real evil when it’s you, especially when you’re young,” Klayman said. “It’s the first real direct confrontation with the racism directed at you: the exclusion, the unease, directed at you. today it’s easier to talk about and tease about it, but it was something that was reported at the time and that we all experienced We can all feel ourselves in this story, those of between us who have experienced it.

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CEO Mike Jeffries

Courtesy of Netflix

Klayman continued, “Every person I interviewed, whether it was a lawyer who was involved in suing the company or a recruiter who worked there for a very long time and then became someone someone working in diversity and inclusion and tried to improve the brand, to a role model, to a journalist who may have written about them before, you could start every interview and say, “Where did you grown up ? Where did you shop? What did Abercrombie mean to you? Even the people who end up being brand critics or antagonists, when you hold their feet to the fire they can all describe what the appeal was, what it stood for, and even a time they wanted to do part of this club. It’s less pro or anti-camp, and more [how] it was a cultural phenomenon that touched everywhere.

Klayman is now turning his attention to founding the WNBA in 1997 for his next project. “I always want to bring a historical look or a political context to the work,” explained Klayman, a self-identified “90s kid.” “I think it’s finally interesting and important to re-examine this recent past of the 90s and early 2000s. So many huge changes have happened to us as a society in the last five years. There’s a bit of a feeling that this is an interesting time to look back on our recent past. But it’s also fun because that’s when I grew up, and I have a lot of questions about that too.

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

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