Netflix’s latest documentary, White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, about Abercrombie & Fitch, lit up the internet with several bombshell findings. Already, there are articles out there describing some of the more outrageous facts, like how A&F employees’ futures were tied to their perceived hotness. Or how there’s an A&F handbook for airline employees on how to treat ex-CEO Mike Jeffries’ on his private plane. For LGBTQ+ people, though, our takeaways from director Lisa Klayman‘s White Hot: The Rise & & Fall Of Abercrombie & Fitch will likely be a little different.
Here are mine:
1. Homoeroticism Is Often Invisible To Cis-Het People
One of my favorite quotes from the documentary is by journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis, who wrote that explosive Salon.com profile on Mike Jeffries in 2006. To paraphrase him, A&F’s marketing materials were a cornucopia of male homoeroticism in its heyday. Yet, this went over the heads of the brand’s target audience; people Denizet-Lewis calls “college frat bros.” The same college guys who filled their wardrobe with A&F polo shirts and wore A&F cologne were oblivious that gay men shaped the brand. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this blindness better than the non-reaction most cis-hetero people have toward shopping in a place filled with imagery of mostly naked men.
So what if the giant man on the wall photographed by Bruce Weber has pecs so large that his nipples are the size of eggs?
2. People will pay 85% t-shirt mark-ups, even if the shirts are decidedly uncool
People somewhat familiar with A&F’s scandals may have already heard of their racist line of shirts depicting Asian stereotypes. Though these shirts, with slogans like Two Wongs, Can Make It White, have long been incinerated, it’s discomforting that they likely sold at an 85% markup. Well, at least the people who loved wearing them paid for it.
3. A&F stores were like IRL Bulletin Board Systems for teens in the 2000s
Jeffries’ attention to detail meant that there was an A&F guideline for anything, including how its stores should smell, look and sound like. A giant poster would be obscured by brown shutters, inviting you to come inside if you wanted to see it. An attractive employee would dutifully spray a company-approved, aerosolized scent into the air. Then there’s the loud club music, which you’d hear before seeing the store. Parents hated it, which made teens love it even more — so they hung out there.
4. Exclusivity always sells, even if all you’re selling are buffalo wings or shirts
A buffalo wings store where I live launched a marketing campaign on Instagram where you had to join a secret account and make posts to said secret account to get a discount. My co-workers marveled at how they used this formula of exclusivity to get great user-generated content. Mike Jeffries would have probably loved it. His vision was defined by excluding many things, including certain types of people, and it did work for a time.
5. One way to create your own reality bubble is by creating your own brand
During Jeffries’ reign, Campus, A&F’s headquarters in New Albany, Ohio, operated in an alternate reality. One where America was a lot whiter, perpetually ripped, and dressed casually enough to be cool but not to the level where it suggested that you only shopped at Walmart. Campus, which is 300 acres big, is where Jeffries had model A&F stores built and a strict dress code called for casual wear. Jeffries obsessed over the minutia of running a successful A&F store, like how low a pair of jeans should hang on the store mannequin. Meanwhile, Benjamin O’Keefe, then a teen activist who visited Campus in 2013, wondered aloud why the Chief Diversity Officer was the only person of color on the company’s upper management level.
6. Queerness becomes threatening when it is overt
While American conservatives were riled by what they deemed pornographic material in A&F Quarterly, a magazine catalog produced by the company, a similar uproar erupted several time zones away.
In Singapore, a giant A&F advertisement featuring a male torso in the retail mecca of the city raised some ire. A concerned parent wrote into the national broadsheet in 2011, calling for the removal of the ad, citing “common decency.” The decision was then made by the Advertising Standards Authority Of Singapore to remove the poster. The upset over the display of male flesh as the object of sexual desire versus that of the female body is rooted in homophobia. This position is astutely summed up by social commentator Alex Au, “The male should be the gazer, not be gazed upon. To be gazed upon is to lower his status…”
Queerness becomes threatening when it dares to suggest that the heterosexual male gaze isn’t the only lens from which one can view the world. This threat is multiplied when it “intrudes” into public space, which is exactly what this 39 ft high poster did.
7. People will go to great lengths to find a sense of belonging
Robin Givhan of the Washington Post said it best, “In many ways, the very last thing [the brand] is actually selling is garments.” Instead, A&F sold sex appeal, fashion, and crucially “belonging.” To hear White Hot tell it, Jeffries was desperate for some belonging. Perhaps that is why he fought so hard to wrestle his worldview into being through A&F, where it briefly bled into our collective reality. That would explain why he decided to create his fashion empire and alienate the world.