As office life resumes across the U.S., cautionary tales of corporate misdeeds have been topping the charts on streaming platforms. With The Dropout on Hulu, Super Pumped on Showtime and WeCrashed on Apple TV , the shenanigans of rogue tech founders have made for compelling docudramas.
But in the latest release fromNetflix,White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, which premieres on April 19, taking centrestage is an industry not often the subject of cinema —that of the mall retailer —and how a trendy teen brand was able to leverage exclusionary practices to drive record profit.
At the center of the documentary is Mike Jeffries who served as Abercrombie’s CEO for more than two decades, from 1992 to 2014. He was hired by Leslie Wexner, founder of the company’s onetime parent, Limited Brands, which also owned Victoria’s Secret. Jeffries leveraged a playbook of racy marketing to sell an aspirational aesthetic of the “cool kid” — one who plays rugby barechested and dons that “all-American” look — which Jeffries dictated as White, fratty and fit. Celebrities featured in ads included Taylor Swift, Channing Tatum and Jennifer Lawrence, and at the height of its popularity Abercrombie was worth more than $7 billion.
But the brand fell out of favor. Protests erupted over a line of T-shirts called outfor being racially insensitive. Jeffries admitted to being exclusionary. And lawsuits started piling up, including a Supreme Court case that found it discriminated against a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf to a job interview. As Abercrombie struggled to respond to the decline of mall culture and rise of e-commerce and fast fashion, Jeffries stepped down.
Abercrombie, now under new leadership, boasts a more inclusive look and considers itself evolved from its prior iteration. Sales and profit rose last year. In a post on Instagram, it addressed the film’s release. “While the problematic elements of that era have already been subject to wide and valid criticism over the years, we want to be clear that they are actions, behaviors and decisions that would not be permitted or tolerated at the company now,” it said.
Filmmaker Alison Klayman, who also directed HBO’s Alanis Morissette documentary Jagged, said in an interview that she made the film to remind people that it wasn’t that long ago that this type of corporate behaviour existed. “Not everything is fixed, there’s a lot more work to do,” she said, explaining that Abercrombie was a“flagrant example of discrimination” in an already discriminatory fashion industry.
Morningstar retail analyst David Swartz agreed that despite a changing marketing and product mix, many apparel brands still have far to go to reflect the diversity of their customers. “If you watch a fashion show for a luxury apparel brand, the models are still thinner than the average woman for the most part,” he said.