April 19, 2022 3:30 PM EDT

Anyone who grew up going to American malls in the late 1990s and early 2000s likely remembers the dark pull of Abercrombie & Fitch. The retail store—which catered to teenagers and young adults, and repelled their parents—used photos of shirtless guys to sell shirts and had a scent as potent as a skunk. Between about 1996 and 2004, Abercrombie & Fitch and its aspirational Americana ruled the mall. But something changed in the mid-2000s, as several factors converged to make the brand go stale.

In the Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, out April 19, director Alison Klayman tracks how the store, which thrived on promoting beauty standards that idealized thinness and whiteness, began to come apart when employees began calling out what made it so toxic. The company not only glorified the beauty of the thin, white models presented in its ads, but deliberately only hired employees that fit that mold, and fired those who strayed outside its lines.

The documentary features interviews with former Abercrombie executives, retail employees, and models, as well as cultural critics and activists who helped bring Abercrombie’s troubling practices to light. But before the film gets into what made Abercrombie so toxic, it reminds viewers what made the store intoxicating in the first place—talking heads recall its all-American image, the models who graced the doorways, the smell, the dark lights, and the loud music.

A shopper carries an Abercrombie and Fitch bag after leaving the store May 10, 2007 in San Francisco, California.
Getty Images

Klayman pinpoints how and when the perception of Abercrombie started to change, both in the eyes of consumers and employees. One former employee on the corporate side says in the film that he felt a shift when he saw 2002’s Spider-Man, in which a bully wearing an Abercrombie polo tries to beat up Peter Parker. Employees of color working in the retail stores became disillusioned when they realized they were mistreated in comparison to the white employees, the documentary shows. Public protests in response to offensive slogans on Abercrombie’s popular graphic tees began in 2002. After years of lawsuits, boycott campaigns, and even more lawsuits until, eventually, Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries stepped down in 2014.

Though Abercrombie still exists, it bears little resemblance to the store that made it a notorious mall destination over 20 years ago. Now, the company sells trendy minimalist basics. A quote from current CEO Fran Horowitz on its website reads: “Abercrombie isn’t a brand where you need to fit in—it’s one where everyone truly belongs.” While Abercrombie & Fitch was built on the exact opposite sentiment, White Hot shows why the company had to go in an extreme direction in order to survive in the modern day.

A company built on exclusion

While many fashion brands are implicit in their exclusion, Abercrombie was explicit about its mission, making it clear who they wanted to shop at and work in their stores. White Hot uncovers how Abercrombie implemented a broader dress code that clearly targeted Black employees, with rules that didn’t allow employees to have dreadlocks, or allow men to wear gold chains.

Former employee Jennifer Sheahan, who worked at an Abercrombie location in Irvine, California, says in the documentary that she was let go along with several other Asian employees, after an employee from corporate visited the store and said there needed to be more people who looked like the (white) Abercrombie models. Another former employee, Anthony Ocampo, recounts being fired because they had “too many Filipinos working at the store.” Both Sheahan and Ocampo were part of a class-action lawsuit filed in 2003 by former Abercrombie employees against the company for race and gender discrimination. The case was settled in 2004, with Abercrombie paying $40 million to the plaintiffs. The settlement also required Abercrombie to increase diversity in its hiring process as well as in its advertisements and catalogs. The company also had to hire 25 diversity recruiters.

Jennifer Sheahan in White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.
Courtesy of Netflix

In the documentary, former Abercrombie workers say there was little enforcement of the company changes agreed upon in the settlement. They allege that the company continued to discriminate based on appearance. For example, a former member of the Diversity and Inclusion team at Abercrombie recalls being in a meeting where her colleagues openly discussed what physical features they wanted in their employees.

The company also hired Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion managers, which improved some issues on the surface level, like diversifying the store’s staff, but did little to remedy the real problem of having an overwhelmingly white executive staff.

Problems from the top down

As White Hot shows, there seems to be unanimous agreement from everyone who worked for Abercrombie that the company’s problems trickled down from CEO Mike Jeffries, who was with the brand from the mid-90s until 2014. He is credited with reinventing Abercrombie, which was originally founded in 1892 as a sporting goods brand for outdoorsmen. Jeffries was brought onto the brand by Leslie Wexner, the former CEO of L Brands, which owned, among other mall stores, Victoria’s Secret. Wexner has been under investigation for his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, whom he allegedly allowed to misrepresent himself as a recruiter for Victoria’s Secret to get access to young models.

Jeffries made his strategy for Abercrombie clear in a 2006 interview: “Candidly, we go after the cool kids,” he told reporter Benoit Denizet-Lewis, who also appears in the documentary. “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

This quote, which came out after the first round of discrimination lawsuits were settled, later came to symbolize everything that was wrong with the company. It was not just that Jeffries built Abercrombie on this point of view, but that he saw nothing wrong with calling his company “exclusionary” even though the company settled lawsuits for its exclusionary practices.

Jeffries also had a close relationship with photographer Bruce Weber, who worked with Abercrombie for years and helped shape its marketing and advertising images. His signature was the black-and-white photos of half-naked men that appeared on the Abercrombie shopping bag, in advertisements, and in their stores. Weber has since been accused of sexual harassment and misconduct multiple times; in 2018, he became the subject of a sexual harassment and sexual misconduct lawsuit, with former models from Abercrombie and other brands accusing him of inappropriate behavior on shoots. In White Hot, one former model recalls being cut from a photoshoot after rejecting an offer to spend the night at Weber’s house. Another former model said, “it was very well-known with Bruce that he liked young men.”

Another employee says in the documentary that Jeffries, as the CEO, “fetishized the all-American boy.” This obsession with a narrow standard of beauty is what helped make the store so popular in the first place, but it’s ultimately what led to Abercrombie’s downfall, too.

Mike Jeffries in White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch
Courtesy of Netflix

The beginning of the end

For years after he said it in 2006, Jeffries’ “we go after the cool kids,” declaration barely made a splash (Initially commissioned by the the New York Times Magazine, the interview with him was killed for that publication and later run in Salon). His words stayed under the radar in part because it was still the early days of the internet, and a web-only article just wasn’t that big a deal.

In 2013, activist Benjamin O’Keefe stumbled upon the article and started an online petition addressing Jeffries after realizing he had never faced any consequences for the statement. “Stop telling teens they aren’t beautiful; make clothes for teens of all sizes!” the petition read. O’Keefe says in White Hot that he was never able to wear Abercrombie because they never made clothing in his size. He also says he dealt with anorexia in high school, and felt especially sensitive to the store’s exclusivity.

O’Keefe’s petition spread widely, garnering responses ranging from a teen YouTube vlogger calling him an “old hag” to the Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb mocking him on the Today Show.

Soon, Abercrombie again faced legal trouble when Muslim teenager Samantha Elauf alleged that she was rejected after a job interview at the store in 2008 because she was wearing a headscarf. Abercrombie fought back and the case ultimately went to the Supreme Court in 2015, which ruled in favor of Elauf.

“Discrimination was not just a blip,” O’Keefe says in White Hot. “They rooted themselves in discrimination at every single level.”

Jeffries’ 2006 quote about “cool kids” was the beginning of the end for the brand in its most successful form. As one former employee put it in the documentary, “exclusion itself stopped being quite so cool.”

In 2017, Abercrmobie’s current CEO Fran Horowitz joined the company and gave it a physical and moral makeover. Visit the store’s website homepage and there is a graphic directing you to a page called “This is Abercrombie today,” with a quote from Horowitz about the brand’s “inclusive and equitable spirit.” The models featured on the website are more diverse in ethnicity and size. And like any modern clothing brand, Abercrombie sells merch for Pride Month and Black History Month. Instead of creating the trends, Abercrombie is now following the lead of other fashion retailers.

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