White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch (Netflix) | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, May 25th, 2022  

White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch

Studio: Netflix
Alison Klayman

Apr 26, 2022 Web Exclusive
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An epigraph attributed to Adolph Hitler at the beginning of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1998-published novel Glamorama reads, “You make a mistake if you see what we do as merely political.” This line is especially haunting not only within the context of the book—a scathing satire of the fashion industry and political stage, in which a vapid male model is recruited into a particularly brutal global terrorist ring consisting of his colleagues—but also that of director Alison Klayman’s intriguing documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch. The film’s exploration of the once-leviathan retailer’s origins, its insidious campaign which tapped into the most vile tendencies of ’90s and ’00s market economy, and ultimate inability to successfully transition into a new era raises valid questions regarding American popular culture.

Klayman chronicles A&F’s journey from its beginnings as a New York-founded men’s sporting goods store (frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Roosevelt, and Cole Porter) to its revitalization by businessman Michael Jeffries (who acquired the brand from retail mogul Leslie Wexner) in the early-’90s. Jeffries devoted his adult life essentially to recreating the idyllic suburban teenage experience he enjoyed in the ’50s and ’60s, projecting his adolescent desires upon his children and grandchildren’s generations, and in the process maiming himself both physically and professionally. The Los Angeles-bred Columbia University graduate was able to redefine the A&F name, offering the prospect of “preppy” coastal affluence to young people otherwise condemned to less desirable regions, collectively referred to in the film as “flyover country.” Of course, the ultimate appeal of his vision was greater than Milwaukee versus Manhattan, having reinstated a staunchly traditionalist standard of beauty whose mainstream prevalence had begun, ever so slightly, to recede in the wake of multicultural progress and increased economic consciousness.

“Recruiting is everything,” states former A&F recruiter Jose Sanchez at the film’s start, setting the stage. “We hire good-looking people,” he insists, reenacting his technique for the camera. As demonstrated by Sanchez, the company’s coded language and presentation reinforced the strength of its brand, the tenets of which were described with clarity throughout store literature. The “A&F look,” as defined to employees, was “Natural, Classic, American.” Workers were prohibited from wearing dreadlocks and gold chains, while managers were directed to reevaluate and fire those not classifiable as “cool.” This worldview was also encouraged in A&F’s customers, who spent money on entirely unremarkable clothing in hopes of achieving higher positions of branded hierarchical prominence. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman described the brand’s campaign as “fascist” in a recent review of White Hot, which, despite the term’s exhausted overuse in the current climate, poses a necessary question, harkening back to Ellis and Glamorama: Are fashion and politics, namely those within the authoritarian caste, inherently interchangeable?

It does appear that even if fashion has not remained partial to fascism, fascism has indeed remained partial to fashion. With the exceptions of some loose fundamentals, both are unusually fluid concepts, easily adapted, taking on unique cultural traits, rendering themselves exceptionally difficult to comfortably define. As made clear by the lifestyles and predilections of its pioneers, fascism leans heavily into fashion. One must consider the choreographed gestures of Benito Mussolini before an audience, his theatrical delivery accentuated by an elaborate costume and bombastic persona—not to mention “Il Duce’s” notoriously oppressive stranglehold on the Italian fashion industry through a rigid governmental fashion agency. Consider the meticulous visual symmetry of the Nuremberg Rallies. Like Mussolini, Hitler also founded his own fashion bureau, known as the “Deutsches Modeamt,” through which he sought to maintain German morale and engineer a superior national feminine identity, insisting that “Berlin women must become the best dressed in Europe.” Much of the political influence held by Mussolini and Hitler was a result of their respective abilities to manipulate the public’s susceptibility to imagery and symbols, and its seemingly inherent impulse to assign meaning to them, readily articulated through the lenses of art and entertainment. Of course, it can be argued that the very nature of politics—as neither politics nor fashion are anything more than pageantry in the end—is dependent upon the same phenomenon, but there has always existed a distinctly cruel chic-ness within the dictatorial image, typically, necessarily, and thankfully lacking in a healthy democratic representation. If all of politics is a runway, then would-be dictators have, in their times, been its next top models.

Likewise, Jeffries and his team used dog whistle rhetoric and symbolic imagery to successfully cultivate their own sociopolitical movement. Moreover, “A&F-ism,” as one may refer to it, functions as a paradoxical model, in which nothing is as it seems—a trait which lends philosophies such as fascism much of their power.

“They literally made so much money marketing clothes. But advertising them with no clothes on,” former A&F model Bobby Blanski remarks in the film, suggesting far greater aspirations on the company’s part.

Synthesizing sexuality and splendor, thus encouraging within the viewer an association of erotic pleasure with material consumption, Jeffries and photographer Bruce Weber (against the latter of whom allegations of sexual assault have since been made by former models) intricately crafted and advertised what is essentially elite American transcendence—an Aryan utopia, in which able-bodied, traditionally attractive (predominantly) Caucasian youths could frolic partially-clothed (or sometimes entirely nude) across geographically striking natural landscapes. In such settings, they were free, far from the restraints of a genetically flawed populace, their perfect teeth and earnest eyes brightly set like heavenly bodies against each image’s monochromatic canvas. Their motions, frozen in time, suggested some sort of American coastal bacchanalia, while their casual affectations embodied the carefree Sigma Chi/Chi Omega experience many young people are taught to consider a rite of passage. A term to which many of White Hot’s interviewees return is “aspirational.” In its assurance of exclusivity and prosperity, the era’s A&F marketing material, whether glimpsed in its stores or long-defunct publication Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly, was often akin to the grandiose propaganda artwork of many totalitarian regimes.

The film’s remainder concerns A&F’s unraveling in the 2010’s. The idol of Michael Jeffries, as with many supreme leaders before him, was ultimately toppled not by invader forces or complex conspiracies, but Jeffries himself. Excerpts from one of the notoriously private CEO’s rare interviews resurfaced in 2013, during which he nonchalantly confirmed to Salon, “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,” before elaborating, “Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.” While national suspicion toward A&F had been mounting for years by then, with evidence of racial discrimination and ensuing lawsuits dating back to the early-’00s, Jeffries’ previous comments turned wider public attention to the brand’s trademark viciousness—none of which Jeffries or his cohorts ever attempted to disguise or withhold. In the end, the same entitled arrogance and refusal which had catapulted Jeffries to success and accounted for much of his brand’s appeal resulted in his ousting from the company he had led for 20 years, ringing in a Dark Age for the A&F empire, from which it has yet to emerge.

White Hot weaves a tale as old as class and currency themselves: Society as an inherently political apparatus which, despite its often hyper-individualistic leanings, tends to seek conformity—a desire easily harnessed by the savvy politician or skilled marketer in search of relevance. Abercrombie & Fitch’s rise as a cornerstone of its era’s teenage experience is neither extraordinary nor the first of its kind, but its tremendous psychosocial effect and political implications remain significant enough to remark upon. The company’s subversive marketing campaign, which waged a psychic war of frosted tips and Ivy League smirks upon Clinton and Bush-era America, weaponized its dual appeal to teenagers and their parents—pitching to the former a sense of upper-crust boarding school belonging while selling to the latter the prospects of “normal,” functional childhoods to be enjoyed by their offspring. The fashion industry has often attempted to feign the appearance of encouraging individuality, but A&F blatantly trafficked in the delights of conformity, quickly becoming the go-to brand of the “in” crowd and further enabling an incredibly pernicious ideology.

White Hot is well-made and bound to entertain those who attended high school during Abercrombie & Fitch’s reign. However, one cannot help but feel that Klayman merely scratched the surface of the documentary’s most pressing issues, leaving the social and political causes and consequences of such fads as A&F largely unaddressed. Klayman remains a skilled filmmaker with an eye for culture and an ear for narrative, but White Hot fails to deliver as well as 2019’s The Brink, which left no stone unturned. Nevertheless, the story told here matters, and ought to be recounted to the next generation. One wishes that, if anything, White Hot had been a two-parter, or even limited series, each episode covering a different facet of millennial fashion, while also examining the greater questions: Is human beauty an inevitably corrupt pursuit? Is it even possible for A&F to restore its brand to its former glory, or is Gen Z too far removed from that world, which now seems antiquated by comparison? Was the Abercrombie & Fitch of the ’00s a decidedly fascist entity? If so, then White Hot succeeds in offering one chillingly relevant fundamental: Recruiting is everything. (www.netflix.com)

Author rating: 6.5/10

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