No one was more responsible for Abercrombie’s rotted core than its CEO Jeffries. The former employees interviewed in the film credit Jeffries for every decision made in A&F stores, from the way a pair of pants sat on a mannequin to the types of necklaces store employees were allowed to wear. (Gold chains, for instance, were verboten.) But Jeffries’ control extended in darker directions, too. The former CEO was apparently obsessed with keeping the image of the store exclusive and almost entirely white. Unsurprisingly, this policy landed Abercrombie in court several times. The most high-profile case went all the way to the Supreme Court after A&F refused to hire a woman wearing a hijab because it violated the brand’s “look policy.” (Abercrombie lost.) In hindsight, seemingly more banal corporate activities, too, look shocking: owner Les Wexner was a close associate of Jeffrey Epstein, while Bruce Weber, the photographer responsible for creating A&F’s sensual image, is accused of sexual harassment by the male models he worked with.
One takeaway is that it’s surprising that Abercrombie held on as long as it did. The opportunities to “cancel” Abercrombie during its heyday were endless, but consumers lacked the firepower to get it done. One Salon article caused an uproar in 2013—a full seven years after its original publication date. The climate was simply different. “There were probably just as many people as there are now who hated what we were doing, who were completely offended, who didn’t feel included, who didn’t feel represented,” one former employee says in the documentary. “But they didn’t have the platform to be able to voice it, and now they do, so maybe it’s not, like, this massive societal new awareness. It’s just now we’re hearing everyone and we have to pay attention.”
What White Hot truly makes clear is that, company culture aside, what Abercrombie accomplished in the ‘90s and 2000s couldn’t happen today. Personal style just doesn’t operate that way any longer, with one brand or style able to take such a dominant position. Today, popular retailers like Zara, H&M, and Shein dominate by offering their takes on every possible trend, rather than trying to define a single manner of dress. Outside of the controversies, this is what’s most jarring about White Hot: seeing how much power has been drained from the mall. Retailers like J.Crew or the remade Abercrombie no longer have the authority to prescribe—they’re merely trying to fit in. If Abercrombie used to throw the illest and most exclusive parties, it is now simply trying to be a good friend in hopes of scoring an invite. The current iteration of Abercrombie is repentant. But it’s still serving up a different kind of American fantasy—one with a focus on diversity, inclusivity, and an acceptance of all body types.
It’s not entirely clear who White Hot is for. The documentary plays out like a TikTok explainer, going beat-by-beat through Abercrombie’s endless scandals while pausing to add context around them. But few of these screw-ups, if any, will come as a surprise to practically anyone who went to a mall in the 2000s. Ultimately, the documentary is most successful in the portrait it paints of a brief moment in time when something like Abercrombie could thrive. Luckily, we don’t live in that world anymore.