Review – White Hot: The Rise And Fall Of Abercrombie & Fitch

White Hot: The Rise And Fall Of Abercrombie & Fitch


Oh, I get the title now.

Beginning in the 1990’s, Mike Jeffries turned Abercrombie & Fitch into the clothing brand that seemed to best exemplify a very American, and very upper-class, kind of cool. But over time the company’s branding, hiring practises and corporate ethos came under greater and greater scrutiny, with accusations of racism, sexual harassment and intolerance coming to blight the once monolithic position of “A&F”.

The latest in what is becoming a fairly long-line of similar looking documentaries from Netflix – the recent Tinder Swindler was only a little bit different from this, with Fyre, Downfall and The Social Dilemma, all presenting themselves with a similar style – White Hot aims to tell a story of elitism, exclusion, greed, racism and incompetence in a company that for many was one of the defining symbols of the 1990’s and early noughties. And it succeeds some of the time. It’s undoubtedly an interesting story, and the perspectives that have been collated here can be quite affecting. But too often White Hot, not unlike its subject matter, chooses style over substance in what will probably be framed as an incisive parody, but which comes off more like an unfortunate imitation.

I mean, how else are you supposed to react to a documentary which, in the first five minutes, has a talking head who feels the need to describe to the world what shopping malls are (he says they are like an online store you can actually walk through)? One suspects he was asked to give a deadpan sarcastic answer, but it’s been edited to make the man look like a cretin and the audience feel deeply patronised. White Hot is thus off to a not especially great start, and supplements this feeling with a resulting story that is disjointed in its focus on a very select period and some very select incidents.

And some of those incidents are absolutely worthy of exploration. Among the varying charges levelled at A&F are blatantly racist hiring policies, where the company’s definition of beautiful cool extended only to white people; racial employment practices, where POC employees were relegated to backroom work; alleged sexual harassment of models in some of the company’s ridiculous photo shoots, where those who refused advances were summarily fired; performative efforts to comply with court orders regards inclusivity; and some dodgy corporate behaviour, such as CEO’s getting greater and greater pay even as the company’s annual profits were decreasing sharply. Even as the brand was becoming synonymous with many people’s identity, it was mired in a great deal of sleaze and increasingly negative perception: once Flash Thompson showed up in 2002’s Spider-Man bullying Peter Parker while dressed in A&F gear, the jig was starting to be up.

The racial aspect is undoubtedly the most fascinating aspect of the whole thing really. A&F wanted to present an image to the world of a very specific type of demographic, almost uniformly white, rich (“preppy” is the word used repeatedly), bare-chested, faux-artistically erotic and imbuing a corny sense of Americana in every shot of young men throwing a football around on a summers day (and it is mostly men: the homoerotic undertones to everything A&F did in that time are striking). That A&F consciously turned its back on a huge segment of the population for so long is astounding, and the implied reasoning seems to be that Jeffries, a closeted gay man for many years, turned his secret sexual orientation into a company ethos. But to then go further and incorporate racist designs and slogans into their clothing, and battle all the way to the Supreme Court litigation alleging racist actions, seems evidence of a remarkably blinkered and ego-driven mindset.

I wish that White Hot had been able to spend more time on some of these topics, especially those allegations of a sexual nature, which could probably have been a documentary all of their own. Instead it loses itself a bit in stylised scrapbook backdrops of a 90’s pop culture vibe, a plethora of not especially interested talking heads put against the more interesting ones and just a bit too much in terms of A&F stock footage, which goes beyond the informative and almost into the realm of propaganda. Director Alsion Klayman is no stranger to controversial documentary subjects, having headed The Brink about Steve Bannon, but one feels that she is presented with the opportunity to really go for the jugular here, but instead perhaps takes too much of a relaxed position, foregoing a narration and giving a mealy-mouthed diversity manager for A&F almost as much time as some of the people suing them for racism.

It’s good that people who felt victimised by A&F get the chance to speak, and I did appreciate the film’s occasional glimpses of a deeper problem in society when it comes to racist culture (a few clips of SNL reporting on A&F protests make the point, with A&F coming in for a skewering before the Asian people protesting outside are mocked for bad driving). But it was never really enough, with White Hot turning always to distracting post-production effects and always too quick to jump from interviewee to interviewee. Netflix really is turning these kinds of documentaries, which I can only assume are cheap to make and distribute, into their bread-and-butter, but they can do, and have done, a lot better than this with the format. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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