I’ve never set foot inside an Abercrombie & Fitch. I was a teenager at the peak of the store’s success in the ’90s, and there was an implicit sentiment from the store that I felt almost on a spiritual level: A&F was for rich white kids, and I was a poor Black one. I simply didn’t belong there.
I didn’t want to shop there, but I also didn’t even want to walk inside. I didn’t want to be the type of Black kid who spent time in Abercrombie. I hated those kids.
I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but on a gut level I felt that the status that Abercrombie afforded white kids was based on excluding people like me. At the height of mall culture, the stores you shopped at reflected the type of person you were—or wanted to be—and seeing a Black teen wearing Abercrombie, often a token person of color in a circle of white friends, felt like watching a sellout celebrate their betrayal.
My stubborn opposition to Abercrombie culture came from my own struggles with being a token. In those years, I was transferred from an all-Black school to a predominately white one. It was an uncomfortable transition, to say the least, but Abercrombie & Fitch highlighted for me the two types of discomfort I felt when I was surrounded by white people: There was level-one discomfort, when I’m the only Black person in the room, but I’m wanted for my novelty; and there’s level-two discomfort, when I’m the only Black person in the room, and I’m not welcome. In level one, my Blackness was an asset if I was willing to debase myself for it: entertain, let white people touch my hair, yuk it up. In level two, my discomfort meant a sense of steady anticipation of overt conflict, humiliation, or, in the worst-case scenario, actual danger.
For me, Abercrombie felt like a level two, but it wasn’t until I watched a new documentary from Netflix, White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, that I felt validation of that gut feeling I’d had as a kid. And although the Abercrombie culture it describes is exactly what I expected, the story behind the company’s leadership and marketing is worse than I ever knew.
In White Hot, former Abercrombie models, employees, and customers describe their experiences with the brand in the ’90s. The documentary begins with a reminder of what mall culture was like at the time, and then uses that context to explain the rise of Abercrombie’s cultural dominance by using “all-American,” “good-looking people” to sell clothes to white people.
“The fundamental idea is that fashion is selling us belonging, confidence, cool, [and] sex appeal,” Robin Givhan, senior critic at large at The Washington Post, says in the film. “In many ways, the very last thing that it’s selling is actually garments.”
What comes next is the story of Abercrombie’s drastic fall, full of media scandals, sexual-abuse allegations, and workplace-misconduct lawsuits. But most compelling to me are the interviews with former leaders in the company who recognize the store’s reputation today, but who didn’t at the time. And what bothers me the most, even days after finishing White Hot, is that the documentary lets them get away with it. Culturally, everybody got away with it. Abercrombie may have been elitist and exclusionary, but our acceptance of elitism and exclusivity is what made it successful. The architects of Abercrombie culture—especially former CEO Mike Jeffries—are given appropriate blame for what they mastered, but no one else is made to speak to our broader complicity in any meaningful way, even though it didn’t take a genius to see the harm of those values in real time. White Hot takes down Abercrombie & Fitch, but doesn’t acknowledge the harm done by those who chose to benefit from the toxicity that made it so popular.
And Abercrombie’s success wasn’t that long ago, as Givhan explained. “The story of Abercrombie is essentially an incredible indictment of where our culture was just 10 years ago,” she said. “It was a culture that enthusiastically embraced a nearly all-WASP-y vision of the world. It was a culture that defined beauty as thin and white and young, and it was a culture that was very happy to exclude people.”
Exclusivity is a problem we’ve yet to solve. In 10 more years, I won’t be surprised to watch another White Hot–style documentary about country clubs, NASCAR stadiums, monster-truck rallies, rodeos, yacht clubs, gated communities, or any other number of places that I’m too uncomfortable to enter. We’ll probably be embarrassed about some of them in hindsight. But then we’ll probably invent something new that reverts to what made those places feel uncomfortable to so many.
And we’ll keep getting away with it, until we stop looking backwards.
Thanks to everyone for their responses to last week’s essay about Better Things. The finale aired this week, and I miss the show already. I haven’t even begun responding to emails, but my favorite one came from Rose, who is so loving that I’m not sure she even recognizes when she’s being savage:
“I bet you got a lot of replies to your mom situation. Here’s my take: There aren’t any training manuals that come along with kids. Most mothers learn from their mothers. You might consider what kind of parenting she had. Or maybe she just didn’t like you. Looking forward to reading your book, dear.”
Rose is 79 years old and one of my favorite readers, and now I also picture her roasting me on a playground, saying, “Your mom doesn’t even like you.” I can’t wait ’til you finish reading my book.
And you’re right, Rose, my memoir was published this week! I’ve never been prouder of anything than I am of this book—all the preorders and support have been overwhelming. Thanks for caring about my weird little life.
If you’re in NYC, I’ll be at the Strand tonight at 7 p.m. for my book launch (tickets here if you want to say hi). And this week’s book giveaway is the 2020 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. Just send me an email admitting a store, place, or community that you might be embarrassed about in 10-plus years. I’ll send the book to a random person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun.