White Hot true story | What was the Abercrombie and Fitch controversy?

While Tuesday marks the end of the Easter Weekend, at least we're kicking off the four-day week with brand new Netflix documentary, White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.


The film, which dives into the history and cultural phenomenon that was Abercrombie & Fitch, looks at just how popular the brand was in the '90s and '00s before a number of controversies around employment practices and accusations of exclusivity in regard to its target demographic came to light.

While the documentary looks at the various lawsuits and claims, we've broken down some of the big controversies in detail – so here's everything you need to know about Abercrombie & Fitch and the issues explored in the film.

What is Abercrombie & Fitch?

Abercrombie & Fitch is a clothing brand that became popular in the '90s and early '00s thanks to its high-profile advertising campaigns and its line of All-American, preppy clothes.

The company was founded in 1892 as an apparel outfitter for outdoorsmen, but after it was bought by The Limited in 1988, it began targeting the young adult market and grew into one of the largest clothing brands in the US.

Abercrombie & Fitch became known for its marketing material, which featured black and white photographs of semi-naked men and women in outdoor settings as well as its stores, which were often dark, covered in shuttered windows, smelled of Abercrombie & Fitch perfume and hired models and other attractive young people to be its "brand representatives".

The company established a number of spin-off brands, including Abercrombie Kids, Hollister Co, Gilly Hicks and Ruehl No. 925, all of which were marketed towards different age demographics.

As a Salon article wrote in 2006: "For the kids there's Abercrombie, aimed at middle schoolers who want to look like their cool older siblings. For high schoolers there's Hollister, a wildly popular surf-inspired look for 'energetic and outgoing guys and girls' that has quickly become the brand of choice for Midwestern teens who wish they lived in Laguna Beach, Calif.

"When the Hollister kids head off to college, [it] has a brand – the preppy and collegiate Abercrombie & Fitch – waiting for them there. And for the post-college professional who is still young at heart, [it] recently launched Ruehl, a casual sportswear line that targets 22- to 35-year-olds."

What are the controversies around Abercrombie & Fitch?

Abercrombie & Fitch has been at the centre of numerous controversies over the years, beginning with boycotts over its line of graphic T-shirts.

In 2002, the Asian American student group at Stanford University boycotted the company over a T-shirt it sold which read: "Wong Brothers Laundry Service – Two Wongs Can Make It White" alongside two characters wearing conical Asian hats. Abercrombie & Fitch pulled the design and issued an apology.

In 2005, the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania launched a "girlcott" of the stores after the company began selling T-shirts with slogans such as "Who needs brains when you have these?", "I had a nightmare I was a brunette" and "Available for parties". The company discontinued the designs and said in a statement: "We recognise that the shirts in question, while meant to be humorous, might be troubling to some."

The company has also been sued over its employment practices, with a 2004 lawsuit accusing Abercrombie & Fitch of discriminating against people of colour by preferentially hiring white men for floor sales and management positions. According to the New York Times, the company did not admit guilt but did agree to pay a settlement of $40 million to several thousand plaintiffs, as well as hiring diversity recruiters and a vice president for diversity.

The publication noted: "In an unusual step, the settlement calls for Abercrombie to increase diversity not just in hiring and promotions, but also in its advertisements and catalogs, which have long featured models who were overwhelmingly white and who seemed to have stepped off the football field or out of fraternities or sororities."

In the UK, 22-year-old employee Riam Dean took Abercrombie & Fitch to the employment tribunal in 2009, suing them for disability discrimination after claiming that she was removed from the shop floor and made to work in the stockroom as her cardigan, which covered her prosthetic arm, did not adhere to the dress code.

The tribunal awarded her £8,000 for unlawful harassment and ruled that the company failed to comply with employment law but found that Dean did not suffer disability discrimination, according to BBC News.

More recently, a lawsuit filed by Samantha Elauf against Abercrombie & Fitch was taken to the Supreme Court after she claimed that she'd applied for a sales position at an Abercrombie Kids store and a manager told her that her headscarf violated the store's 'Look Policy'.

The US Supreme Court ruled 8-1 against the company in 2015. Abercrombie has since changed its 'look policy' to allow headgear, including hijabs.

The company's former CEO Mike Jeffries came under fire back in 2013, when an interview he did with Salon magazine in 2006 resurfaced, in which he had made comments about the brand's aims for exclusivity.

"That's why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that," he said.

"In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

He went on to issue an apology on the company's Facebook page shortly afterwards, saying: "I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7-year-old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offence."

He also stated, "We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterisations or other anti-social behaviour based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics."

White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is available on Netflix now.

If you’re looking for more to watch check out our TV Guide or visit our dedicated Entertainment hub for the latest news. 


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