White Hot The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch: New Netflix documentary disrobes toxic American culture

Superficial, salacious and ethically slippery, White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is the latest item that you can pick off Netflix’s spring/summer rack of documentaries about millennial misdemeanours. After a typically flashy opening few minutes scored to mid-2000s punk rock, White Hot attempts to earnestly uncover the shady goings-on at the once-iconic clothing brand, but in a manner that is virtually as vapid as its subject.

So many of these recent Netflix documentarians cut corners by simply having some innocuous text on screen inform you that the people that they are going to spend around an hour-and-a-half litigating refused to participate in them. Well, did you try harder? Did you try reaching out to friends, family, loved ones? Showing both sides of the story doesn’t automatically conceal bias; a filmmaker can still express their true feelings with some clever editing. If anything, having a voice of dissent can often emphasise the point that a director is trying to make.

It can’t be denied that White Hot has its heart in the right place. It is also clear that we, as a culture, have evolved to the point where we can look at what happened with the company, heave a collective sigh of disappointment, and work towards change.

For the longest time, Abercrombie’s reputation as an elitist, classist and racist brand was common knowledge. I remember reading a particularly nasty rumour about the company making it a mandate to burn surplus stock to prevent a scenario in which, on an off-chance, the surplus clothing ended up with poor people. For the homeless and the destitute to be spotted wearing Abercrombie apparel would tarnish the brand’s image as a preppy outfitter for old-money frat boys.

White Hot lays bare the disgusting marketing techniques that Abercrombie would deploy, as it excluded minorities from working in the organisation or in any way using persons of colour in its advertising. Scouts would lurk around college parties and approach the homecoming king-types. These guys would get a stash of Abercrombie clothes and their job would essentially be to wear the brand often enough so that their peers, in a fit of aspirational envy, would decide to splurge on some themselves. “It was pre-digital era influencer marketing,” as one person accurately says in the film.

On other occasions, former employees sheepishly admit that some of the messaging was, in fact, problematic. Such was the allure of Abercrombie among people of my generation that I distinctly remember the rich kids in my school coercing their NRI family members to send some T-shirts over for them. The middle-class kids would simply buy knockoffs at Palika. If only the upper management at Abercrombie knew; nothing gets in the way of ‘desi jugaad’.

But this story points to the success of the brand’s exclusionary vibe, and its concerted efforts to cater to a niche clientele. Even though the Delhi kids in my school who wore Abercrombie weren’t white, they were the whitest brown people that you could ever lay eyes on. This wasn’t a fluke. Wealthy customers was what Abercrombie wanted, and that’s what it got. This, in itself, isn’t a problem. But how Abercrombie went about it is.

The brand’s discriminatory hiring practices, its toxic work culture, and the deeply problematic image that it had knowingly cultivated all caught up with it in the age of the internet, when people started pulling receipts and took Abercrombie to the cleaners. All this is handled rather unremarkably in the film, which rushes through the actual consequences part of this story with some hasty title cards and rudimentary narration.

Where White Hot succeeds, at least partially, is in its satirical description of American culture at the turn of the century, and the casual mean-spiritedness directed at minorities that fully took shape a couple of decades later. In a way, it’s a cautionary tale, but at a time when pop-culture is actively taking corporate America to task—WeCrashed, The Dropout, Super Pumped literally came out within a few days of each other—White Hot doesn’t burn as bright as it thinks it does.

White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch
Director – Alison Klayman
Rating – 2/5

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