Alison Klayman’s documentary about the golden age of white America’s most exclusionary mall store is juicy but frustratingly superficial.
In the white and WASPy corner of Connecticut where I went to high school during the early 2000s, the whole Abercrombie & Fitch aesthetic wasn’t aspirational so much as it was a baseline for acceptance. If you could wear those clothes without seeming like a poser — if you could rock the retailer’s vaguely colonialist, lacrosse and legacy admissions style of preppy sexuality without looking like a sad parody of the milk-fed Aryan super-teens who stood outside its stores — then you were entitled to a seat at the cafeteria table among the other future kings and queens of the universe.
This exclusionary phenomenon wasn’t subtle, or the kind of thing that kids would only realize with a blush of embarrassment 20 years later. On the contrary, it was Abercrombie’s brand, and it was powerful enough to make a soft-bodied Jewish theater dweeb like me buy some wildly overpriced rugby shirts in the deluded hopes that they might be a convincing disguise. My resentment for Abercrombie was gradually offset by the sheer ridiculousness of the company’s schtick — no store at the mall should ever smell that strong — but I still remember the embarrassment of shopping at a place that made me want to be less like myself. Even now, it continues to stand out from the countless array of other indignities that being a teenager allowed me to enjoy on a daily basis.
Anyone who grew up in the glory days of Lit and LFO probably doesn’t need Alison Klayman’s ampersand-drunk Netflix documentary, “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch,” to know that the “all-American” retail giant had a similar effect on millennials around the world. Likewise, anyone who’s been awake for the last decade probably doesn’t need to be reminded that Abercrombie’s discriminatory way of doing business was antithetical to everything that people demand from lifestyle brands today (it was also wantonly illegal in its practice of hiring people based on race and attractiveness, which were often mutually exclusive traits in the eyes of former CEO and full-time Gary Busey lookalike, Mike Jeffries).
As the film itself ultimately concludes, Abercrombie is less compelling as a case study of some bygone American bullshit than it is as a symbol of the comfortably racist culture that helped spark the country’s latest reckoning with its own self-image. In the astute words of history professor Dr. Treva Lindsey: “Abercrombie & Fitch is illustrative more so than it is exceptional.”
But Klayman, whose documentary work ranges from sublime (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) and/or controversial (“Jagged,” “The Brink”) acts of portraiture to wildly reductive summations of generational phenomena (the Adderall expose “Take Your Pills ”), seems happy to settle for the most obvious, snackable, watch it to numb your brain while you work out telling of this American horror story. Cathartic and outrageous as it can be to hear the juicy — but wildly unsurprising — details of how Abercrombie operated behind the scenes, Klayman’s film doesn’t ground them in any greater sociopolitical context.
“White Hot” seldom burns with the curiosity required to say anything beyond “remember when this was the biggest thing in retail fashion? Well, it was even worse than you knew at the time, so let’s have a good wince about it.” Personal accounts of why the company’s branding continues to sting are boiled down to their most basic points, and further diluted by a choppy sea of talking heads. Despite speaking to virtually all of the major players involved in Abercrombie’s heyday, the film still feels like it was slapped together over the course of a long afternoon (using a clip from 2018’s “Eighth Grade” to illustrate “TRL”-era mall culture is unforgivably sloppy in a doc that depends on evoking such a specific moment in time). And despite its eventual admission that Abercrombie was just an acute symptom of an endemic virus, “White Hot” explains the company’s downfall in terms so blinkered that it almost seems to suggest the same problems no longer persist today.
And yet, by virtue of its access (and its attention to a corporate saga that probably wouldn’t have warranted its own documentary in less content-hungry times), “White Hot” can’t help but feel definitive. Klayman lays out Abercrombie’s business model in broadly lucid fashion, each of her interview subjects offering their own perspectives and degrees of regret. Former Abercrombie recruiter Christopher Clayton remembers how specifically he was tasked with scouting hot frat boys for each of the company’s locations — do they still have the shirtless jocks who would stand outside the entrance as if the shitty clothing store next to Wetzel’s Pretzels were Studio 54? — while former job applicants and employees like Samantha Elauf and Jennifer Sheahan recall the racist tactics (eg hiring few people of color, and then denying them shifts or sticking them in the stockroom), that would later compel them to participate in class action lawsuits, and even bring Abercrombie before the Supreme Court.
Klayman climbs her way up the ladder from there, searching for the executive-level source of the rot that trickled down to all of Abercrombie’s stores. Former models like Bobby Blanski and Ryan Daharsh grow wide-eyed as they reflect on how the company plucked them out of small-town America for their homegrown looks, they laugh at how silly it felt getting naked in order to sell clothes, and then they wince at how the photographer responsible for Abercrombie’s singular image (“allegedly”) took advantage of the fresh-faced boys that his camera turned could turn into gods. On a related but less sinister note, Klayman’s doc is at its sharpest when exploring how Abercrombie sold heterosexual culture through an overtly gay lens; Bruce Weber may have been a predatory force, but it’s hard not to share in the wry bemusement of former A&F Quarterly editor-in-chief Savas Abadsidis as he chuckles at the irony of jocks spewing the f-word while aspiring towards an aesthetic that was tailored to the sexual fantasies of a few gay men.
Weber was one of them, and ultra-fastidious CEO Mike Jeffries was another. The type of guy who screams, “I definitely have direct connections to Jeffrey Epstein!” so loudly that it comes as no surprise when Klayman finally lays them out, Jeffries has remained an elusive figure in the years since he’s stepped away from Abercrombie, but his hands-on approach to running the company is well-remembered by everyone it touched. It was Jeffries who would personally determine who was good-looking enough to work at his stores. Some of the requirements were coded (“Natural. American. Classic”). Others couldn’t have been more blatant (“no dreadlocks.” Hijabs? Ask SCOTUS about that). Former managers recall how Jeffries would perform regular sweeps of the stores, and judge them not on their sales figures but on the supposed attractiveness of their employees.
With that kind of person shaping the corporate culture — and with his business decisions being affirmed by a stock price that soared too high for investors to care about the damage Abercrombie might have been doing to America’s social fabric — it’s no wonder that the stores eventually started selling the openly racist graphic tees that signaled the start of the company’s decline. Even though Klayman’s talking heads are largely reduced to “Best Week Ever”-sized soundbites, “Angry Asian Man” blogger Phil Yu cuts right to the heart of the matter when he explains the damage caused by the company’s most infamous shirt.
Yu also gifts Klayman a valuable moment when he laments how a single Asian-American voice in the room might have prevented the release of such a casually demeaning product, only for the director to reply that two of the main team members were, in fact, Asian American. Yu rightly pivots to a different but equally valid concern — the pressure to bite their tongues that people of color are often made to feel in predominantly white spaces — in a way that should be the perfect set-up for Klayman’s focus on Todd Corley, the Black chief diversity officer who Abercrombie hired to right the ship as part of the company’s post-scandal consent decree. But “White Hot” is too fast and frothy to meaningfully explore the impact (or lack thereof) that cosmetic hires can have on such rotten institutions. Corley insists that he’s proud of the changes he oversaw, but the film offers too glancing a profile of him for viewers to glean any insight into the feelings of frustration or complicity that may have complemented his pride.
And the closer Abercrombie gets to imploding, the further “White Hot” drifts away from a clear understanding of its downfall. One interviewee expresses shock that Abercrombie allowed Elauf’s discrimination case to reach the Supreme Court, and yet nobody bothers to ask if that oversight owed more to arrogance or resignation. And the film’s general aversion to specificity only becomes more frustrating as Klayman reaches for sweeping yet wildly myopic explanations for the big picture reasons why Abercrombie lost its cultural foothold.
Her interview subjects wax poetic about how exclusion stopped being cool, and talk about social media as some kind of cleansing panacea — it gave a voice to fly-over country, and everyone lived happily ever after! — but offer nary a word about the rise of online retail, the end of mall culture, or the Great Recession that just so happened to coincide with Abercrombie’s lowest stock price of all time. The very last voice we hear in the film laughs at the idea that anything has really changed under the surface; if we continue to preserve our history with such flimsy streaming docs, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that we’re condemning ourselves to repeat it.
“White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Tuesday, April 19.