I have a history with Abercrombie & Fitch. We’ve had beef. That much is certainly true when I think about my adolescence, which dripped with a sense of lonely dysphoria as a chubby girl in a beautiful, preppy world. I came of age in the 2000s, when Abercrombie and its younger sibling Hollister were the only things that truly mattered when it came to your “cool” factor. And kids are cruel. They would let you know if they saw you as an other, so we had to do what we had to do. I squeezed into t-shirts from the brands, but no jeans or bottoms. There’s no way those would fit. I knew then, and maybe it was the first time I realized this, that I wasn’t the kind of person they wanted in those jeans. In the t-shirts. This feeling that I remember so well is the reason why I was eager to get my eyes on White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch. Director Alison Klayman’s new Netflix documentary examines that “coolness by exclusion” brand through an analysis of the company from an insider perspective—but doesn’t expect to provide answers. It would rather that we simply sit with the consequences of that exclusion. As someone who’d like to send the brand an emotional damages receipt, I’m a fan of that approach because, at this point, there’s nothing left to do with the cultural era other than lay it bare.
White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch follows former brand CEO Mike Jeffries’ timeline with the company, and his influence on its business practices at both the store and corporate level worldwide. During his tenure with the brand, he built it into the elitist, preppy cool zone for hotties only that most of us remember it to be. Using nostalgia to unite us, White Hot reframes the discriminatory actions taken by a company that had a monopoly on determining what was deemed cool in impressionable, early ‘00s circles of young adults.
While nostalgia is certainly the name of the game with this film, White Hot doesn’t have any heartfelt archival footage to lean on, nothing particularly emotional or personal. Instead, the film relies on the sentimental appeal of the Abercrombie advertising and editorials we all remember well—yes, even the shirtless dudes who would stand out front of each retail location—and testimonials from millennials who were at the forefront of the brand’s heyday, from former employees to ex-devotees.
The movie holds the most space for several former employees who were part of a massive lawsuit against the company for racial discrimination during its prime years. Their strong presence in the doc nearly blots out the counter-voices that Klayman also highlights: Corporate higher-ups who looked the other way, or were at fault for some of what was going down internally. A thorough and unbiased reflection of an event will always cover both sides, but ultimately, those who have been wronged by this company over the years deserve to take the spotlight. Klayman understands this, building the narrative off their experiences throughout the company’s timeline. Because of this, the film is less an overwrought rehash of how shitty it was to grow up in this era and more a justified reexamination of what discrimination really does to the psyche—and how much of it we can stand in an effort to be desirable.
White Hot does a great job analyzing a house of cards, composed of societal failings, that allowed Abercrombie & Fitch to monopolize a generation’s adolescence through mind, body and spirit. However, I wish this reckoning touched more on where my own trauma surrounding the brand stemmed from: Its treatment of plus-sized customers. The movie hardly scratches the surface in that regard, and it feels like a missed opportunity simply because I know there are so many people like myself out there who remember the kind of damage these brands inflicted upon kids who didn’t have “prom queen” or “football star” written on their foreheads. At the same time, I’m happy that this brand is being reconsidered at all through a modern lens that doesn’t tolerate what we tolerated then.
Netflix’s latest documentary is a welcome analysis of a puzzling phenomenon, and while it flirts with its subject in just the right ways, its contextualizations are no less serious. White Hot could’ve broadened its scope to bring Abercrombie’s body-shaming transgressions into the frame, but the documentary mostly gets the main job done. It interrogates the foundations of a company we allowed to rule our subconscious through that strange chokehold: The need to be liked. The movie is a worthy examination of the culture surrounding Abercrombie and why it became so toxic—and how we followed suit—but it could’ve been a slightly more rounded-out story had it focused on all elements of the company’s biases.
Director: Alison Klayman
Release Date: April 19, 2022 (Netflix)
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer who eats, sleeps, and breathes exceptional horror, sweeping dramas, and top-notch acting. She is a news desk writer at /Film and has bylines at FANGORIA, The Guardian, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET. She tweets @nikonamerica.