A new fashion-focused documentary is slated to debut on Netflix on April 19. While recent films have outlined the history of denim and highlighted the wrongdoings of disgraced apparel mogul Peter Nygard, the latest on-screen story hones in on the past prejudiced offenses of the sporting goods store turned teen speciality retailer Abercrombie & Fitch.
“White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch” profiles the discriminatory hiring practices and self-proclaimed exclusive branding of the retailer, which was a popular label among teens in the ’90s and ’00s.
The retailer built its fanbase by creating an aspirational image of all-American youth by hiring associates they referred to as “models” all with a similar appearance: white, thin and attractive—by the retailer’s standards.
These practices ultimately landed the retailer in hot water, with several discrimination lawsuits including a 2003 case that proved it discriminated against African-American, Latino and Asian American applicants and employees, by either discouraging their hiring or by placing them in less visible positions within the store. The lawsuit led to the company hiring a diversity executive and conducting diversity training for all employees with hiring authority.
In 2015, the company again faced legal troubles when it was accused of religious discrimination for denying employment to an otherwise qualified Muslim applicant because she wore a hijab. The retailer claimed the hijab violated its dress code, but ultimately lost the Supreme Court case.
The company’s former CEO Mike Jeffries was allegedly a driving force in the retailer’s lack of diversity in both demographics and size—the brand previously didn’t carry women’s sizes above large. He fell under scrutiny in 2013 for publicly stating that he didn’t want larger people shopping in his stores and that he didn’t want customers to see “people who aren’t as hot as them wearing his clothing.”
The brand experienced a significant dip in sales, which it attempted to recover by redesigning stores, targeting an older demographic and removing logos from its apparel. Jeffries was later ousted from his position as chairman of the company, and ultimately pressured to retire in 2014.
In response to the upcoming documentary, Abercrombie & Fitch issued a statement on its Instagram page on March 31, noting that the film highlights “actions, behaviors and decisions that would not be permitted or tolerated at the company now.”
In early 2017, Fran Horowitz—who was serving as the company’s president and chief merchandising officer at the time—was appointed the retailer’s CEO and added to the board. Since then, it has put effort into refreshing its image and becoming more inclusive. In 2019, it launched a “Curve Love” women’s collection in waist sizes 23-37 with various options for inseam lengths. Two years later, it launched a campaign reflecting its most inclusive collection yet, featuring a men’s line available in sizes 28-40 with various inseam lengths.
Now a favorite among millennials and Gen Z, the retailer is often featured in clothing hauls on TikTok, signaling that all may be forgiven in the eyes of the youth. Still, the retailer is focused on continuously progressing.
“We know the work is never done and remain committed to continually creating a company of which we can all be proud” the company stated.