Netflix recounts in a documentary the story of the clothing chain that used half-naked boys as a claim and accumulated accusations of racism and sexual abuse
It was the time of the white gang of ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ and Brad Pitt marking abs in ‘Thelma & Louise’ with cowboy hat and hair dryer in hand. Between the late 1990s and early 2000s a brand, Abercrombie & Fitch became a pop icon by combining Ralph Lauren’s college posh airs with the Apollonian eroticism of Calvin Klein ads..
His clients were supposed to be the quintessential American boy: athletic, cool, and Caucasian. In his stores there was no distinction between the models smiling from the walls and the shop assistants who sold bare-chested t-shirts. In 2006, Abercrombie & Fitch grossed nearly $2 billion in annual sales at more than 800 stores around the world. Shortly after, the textile empire collapsed, amid accusations of racism, labor discrimination and sexual abuse.
A newly released documentary on Netflix, ‘Spot on Target: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch’ looks at the phenomenon. Born in 1892 as a store for nature lovers, where guys like Charles Lindbergh or Ernest Hemingway bought clothes for their excursions, it took a century for Mike Jeffries to reinvent the brand under the concept of ‘casual luxury’: casual clothing like jeans, hoodies and t-shirts, with the visible logo and a target audience between 18 and 22 years old willing to pay a good price.
The brand went on to gross nearly $2 billion in annual sales at more than 800 stores worldwide.
Abercrombie & Fitch stores dimmed the lights and turned up the music, in addition to hiring their handsome dependents, who greeted with a “hey, what’s up?” light clothes. Jennifer Lawrence Y Taylor Swiftin addition to Ashton Kutcher, were brand image. In a few years still without Instagram, Jeffries recruited the photographer Bruce Weberauthor of campaigns for Calvin Klein and the video clip ‘Being Boring’ by the Pet Shop Boys. In his images the models always brushed against each other. Whether it was climbing a tree or doing push-ups, there was always someone without clothes.
“In every high school there are always cool and popular kids and others that are not so cool. We go to the cool kids. The typical attractive American guy with a great attitude and tons of friends. Are we exclusive? Without a doubt,” he was honest. Mike Jeffries in 2006 to journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis. “Those companies with problems try to reach anyone: young, old, fat, skinny. But you become totally vanilla. You don’t exclude anyone, but you don’t turn them on either,” Jeffries concluded.
Activist Benjamin O’Keefe collected signatures for Abercrombie to “stop telling teenagers they’re not beautiful”
Surprisingly, the interview went unnoticed until 2013, when in addition to the birth of the ‘body positive’ and a greater respect for body diversity, the internet had been consolidated. Activist Benjamin O’Keefe – “he couldn’t wear Abercrombie, he was a poor, fat, gay kid, a bully’s dream” – came across Jeffrie’s “exclusive” statements online and flew into a rage. He started a signature collection campaign for Abercrombie & Fitch to include plus sizes and “stop telling our teenagers they’re not pretty.” It went viral and proved that times had changed.
Then, Abercrombie & Fitch had already been boycotted for the racist messages on its t-shirts. In the early 2000s, a group of employees filed a racial discrimination class action lawsuit, which Abercrombie & Fitch settled with a payment of nearly $50 million and a settlement that included some cosmetic measures such as appointing a Vice President of Diversity.
and although in five years the company went from a workforce with 90% white workers to having 53% employees of other races, the truth is that the latter were denied working with the public. That things had not changed was made clear in 2015, when the case of a Muslim woman Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire for wearing a head covering reached the US Supreme Court.
A year earlier, Mike Jeffries had resigned as CEO. At the age of 48 when he took over the firm, he chained aesthetic operations and oxygenated his hair to approximate his ideal. Married with a child, he still hadn’t come out of the closet. “Anyone paying attention would see that there were a lot of gay people involved, but they did it in a way that would go unnoticed by the general public, the typical cool college straight guy,” observes Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Bruce Weber was accused of sexual abuse by his models.
Since a woman, Fran Horowitz, took over, the brand’s Instagram is as multiracial as Benetton’s
Since a woman, Fran Horowitz, took over in 2017, Abercrombie & Fitch has been transformed. His Instagram is so multiracial that it looks like Benetton’s and even uses models in wheelchairs. Are we better than in the 90s? asks the documentary. Probably not, but at least social networks have served the supposed minorities to realize that, in reality, they are not less.