The 2020s, much like previous decades, have seen a rise in nostalgic media and conversations about the things that defined society 20 years ago. During the 2010s, many people were obsessed with “Friends”, grunge music, and ’90s stylistic elements like butterfly clips and scarves. The same can be said for the 80s-influenced 2000s, a prime example being Bowling for Soup’s hit cover of the song “1985.”
Now, people’s mindsets have turned to things ranging from entertainment to fashion trends. Many companies and celebrities, such as Gen Z singer Olivia Rodrigo, continue to pick up on and build on these elements — with good results. However, with renewed discussion of any historical period, artifacts from the past will be seen through a more critical lens. Nothing is safe from this type of reaction, including the latest point of interest, the classic from the Abercrombie & Fitch brand.
Origin of the company and initial rise in popularity
The company’s origins date back to 1892 when David T. Abercrombie founded Abercrombie Co. in New York. However, it wasn’t until 1904 when Ezra Fitch joined the organization that the brand name changed to what it is today: Abercrombie & Fitch. In the beginning, the company stocked items related to outdoor activities such as camping and fishing. In 1909, however, its catalog expanded to include other types of products, and more stores opened across America in the 1950s and 60s. Although the company had been around for nearly 130 years , it only found mainstream success in the late 90s and early 2000s following various organizations buying and selling the business and even going bankrupt.
In the 1990s, Mike Jeffries took over and became CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch. With Jeffries at the forefront, the company turned to a teenage demographic. With the rebranding, hypersexualized marketing campaigns, and more affordable prices compared to other stores, the organization has become the hottest place for teens to shop and work. At the turn of the millennium, it was virtually impossible to go anywhere without seeing the words “Abercrombie” and “Fitch” or the associated moose logo. Abercrombie & Fitch continued to be immensely popular around the world until its eventual decline in the 2010s when people began to favor outside brands such as Forever 21 and H&M. The business is still around, but it’s not making as much money and getting as much engagement as it used to.
Some might believe that Abercrombie & Fitch is under fire for the first time due to the recent release of the Netflix documentary “White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie.” But the problems with the brand date back to 2003, when a group of employees sued the company for discrimination. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2004. The company was ordered to pay $40 million. Although Abercrombie & Fitch promised to make changes to their working practices, it saved them from being sued once again by Muslim American Samantha Elauf. She claimed that she was not allowed to work in any of their stores in 2008 because of her headscarf. The case went to the Supreme Court and it won in 2015 with 8 out of 9 justices ruling in its favor.
These court cases were tied to a larger issue with Abercrombie & Fitch in the 2000s: racism. The once-beloved brand has been exposed for racist hiring practices. Anthony Ocampo, an interview subject for the documentary, worked there during the winter season and was promised a position in the summer, but when he decided to return to work, he was denied a job. When he asked a representative for the brand for an explanation, she replied, “Well, my manager says we can’t rehire you because we already have too many Filipinos working in this store.” This is certainly not an isolated case. Many former employees and hopefuls of color told their own stories of prejudice.
Additionally, apparent racial discrimination was reflected in the brand’s product line, which included offensive T-shirts riddled with harmful depictions of Asians accompanied by stereotypical Asian fonts. The most notorious piece was a shirt advertising a fictional business called Wong Brothers Laundry Service and the phrase “Two Wongs Can Make It White.”
Another issue raised in the documentary and in many articles about the company is the predatory behavior of some people and the decisions enforced by the organization. Bruce Weber, a former Abercrombie & Fitch photographer, has been accused by numerous models, some of whom were minors when they interacted with Weber, of sexual misconduct. Weber responded to these accusations in a New York Times article by saying he had “never touched anyone inappropriately”.
Additionally, Abercrombie & Fitch’s sexualized and exclusive image contributed to and promoted the body shaming and grossophobia that was already rampant in the 2000s. On the one hand, Abercrombie & Fitch was no stranger to sexualized advertising, especially with its teen-centric campaigns. Also, at the front of their stores used to stand bare-chested men or “models” that customers, mostly teenage girls, could take pictures with. Those hired, as well as almost all of the staff, were white, thin, and conventionally attractive. The company held its staff to exacting standards and removed those who did not conform or maintain a specific image.
Also, their stores only contained a limited number of sizes. The company’s emphasis on looks and its discrimination based on weight has caused backlash to the point that eating disorder survivor Benjamin O’Keefe started a Change.org petition signed by nearly of 80,000 people who called on Abercrombie & Fitch to “embrace beauty in every size”. by offering XL and XXL sizes for women and men!”
These are just some of the problems with the business. The company has also caused outrage in the past for misogynistic and homophobic actions. Abercrombie & Fitch’s past is dark and riddled with unacceptable behavior.
Mike Jeffries, the man behind these controversies
Jeffries, while the person whose vision allowed Abercrombie & Fitch to become the cultural juggernaut it once was, is the figure responsible for nearly every problematic action taken by the brand. All these problems come from him. By creating an image that associated the company with being “cool”, the organization made choices that deliberately excluded those who did not fit their ideal customer – white, thin, middle class, young and conventionally attractive. .
Jeffries never hesitated or tried to hide his disdain for people who didn’t fit his narrow category of beauty. In an infamous profile with Salon, the former CEO said, “Frankly, we’re chasing the cool kids. We are looking for attractive all american kid with a good attitude and lots of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they cannot belong. Are we exclusive? Absolutely.” After that statement, he continued, “These struggling companies try to target everyone: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you go totally vanilla. Even with the negative reaction this article garnered, Jeffries and company maintained their bigoted views and practices until he was ousted from his post in 2014. This profile was published in 2006. Jeffries has not apologized or shown remorse since.
Modern brands and where we go from here
Following the release of the documentary, current CEO Fran Horowitz posted a statement on Instagram along with a lengthy caption. The message read: “We are focused on inclusivity – and continuing this transformation is our enduring promise to you, our community. Always Forward.” The statement received mixed reviews, with much of users noting the delay in the apology. Abercrombie & Fitch made changes after the release of Jeffries, but none of them were particularly groundbreaking or remarkable. That doesn’t mean the company’s moves to move away from its past should be ignored. Models are gone, their sizes are more inclusive, and teens and selling sex aren’t theirs anymore. priority. These are good and necessary improvements.
With Abercrombie & Fitch’s hateful and shallow history comes an important call for more inclusive businesses. Some companies are moving in this direction or are based on better principles. Two current ventures include Fenty Beauty and Savage X Fenty, brands founded by singer Rihanna that prioritize inclusivity and positivity over exclusivity. Addressing a larger market has resulted in a diverse consumer base and more respect from the media and public. The company doesn’t need another Abercrombie & Fitch or a repeat of its countless damaging mistakes.