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Angry Asian Man isn’t enough to save White Hot:Rise & Fall of A&F

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter

White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch doesn’t give as much context as one would like about the fashion industry and failing to get an interview with Mike Jeffries, the main instigator of the rise, director Alison Kayman’s documentary also fails to get people within the industry to give a proper assessment.   

For Asian Americans, the perceived racism of the chain’s racism in its marketing campaign inspired angered Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man fan and brought his blog into prominence.

The documentary starts with a man sitting down. Don’t worry, he keeps his shirt on. “Recruiting is everything,” Jose Sanchez confesses. He was a recruiter for Abercrombie & Fitch. Then we hear from people who were fans and learn how Abercrombie & Fitch was “aspirational” in its thin female and muscular male whiteness. It was selling preppy with money.

The problem was how it was selling and how people were selling out. A&F was founded in 1892 in New York City by a wealthy lawyer, Ezra Fitch (1865-1930), and David T. Abercrombie (1867-1931), an outfitter for high-end outdoorsmen like Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) or explorer Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957). After filing for bankruptcy in 1976, the company name was eventually bought and revived by The Limited. The Limited (now LBrands) CEO, Leslie Wexner, hired Mike Jeffrees in 1992 and specifically tasked him with A&F. 

Jeffries rebuilt the brand as an upscale apparel retailer for young adults, but he also courted controversy.

The documentary attempts to take us back to the A&F heyday, when mall culture was a thing. Notably, the documentary mentions how MTV and its House of Style (1989-2000; 2012 revival) were showing fashion to a nation, helping styles move across the country more quickly, but TV had been part of the cultural landscape for decades.  

In trying to give us the feel of the times, there’s plenty of name-dropping, but not enough follow-up. Future stars like Olivia Wilde and Penn Badgley were wearing A&F. A&F used people like Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum, Ashton Kutcher, Heidi Klum, and January Jones, before they were more than models and yet we never hear from these people.

There’s also name dropping of fashion houses and fashion brands: Ralph Lauren (1939), Nautica, Calvin Klein (1942), and Tommy Hilfiger (1951). We’re told A&F was trying to be sexy like Calvin Klein but preppy like Ralph Lauren. But Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger are real people; they are fashion designers and we never know how they felt about the fashion brand A&F. Further Nautica was founded by Taiwanese American fashion designer David Chu and that’s important for the controversy that later plagued A&F.

A&F came under siege by activists for its usage of Asian stereotypes on its T-shirt designs (e.g. “Wong Brother’s Laundry Service: Two Wongs Will Make It White”), sexist T-shirt slogans, questionable hiring and employee evaluation standards and personal employee working conditions. Some of these resulted in lawsuits such as Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman who was not hired because of her headscarf (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, 575 U.S. ___ (2015)). Getting Chu’s reaction to the A&F slogans that brought out Asian American protests would have been worth hearing. We do get to hear from Angry Asian Man Phil Yu, but Yu isn’t in the fashion business.

Further, A&F noted that when the offensive slogans were developed and finalized, there were Asian American team members. While there’s supposition as to why these unidentified people didn’t protest, there’s nothing concrete. We don’t know who these people were and how they felt about their place in the company. Of course, A&F wasn’t the only company with controversial T-shirts. 

Jeffries left the company in 2014. That’s the same year that American Apparel publicly suspended its CEO, Canadian Dov Charney. Charney, who opened up his first store in LA’s Echo Park isn’t in this film, and his presence might have given the film context. Like A&F, American Apparel didn’t use professional models. While the ads for A&F were by professional American fashion photographer Bruce Weber, who also shot ad campaigns for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Revlon and Gianni Versace, Charney shot many of the ad campaigns for American Apparel. While Weber’s photos for A&F were perfect and airbrushed, there was a touch of amateurish honesty that was, at the time, lauded in American Apparel’s ad campaigns. However, American Apparel’s ads were also banned as pornographic in some regions. Like Weber, Charney was accused of sexual harassment and abuse.

It’s also worth considering that in prior to Jeffries’ A&F and Charney’s ad campaigns,  there was a fashion trend known as “heroin chic” that was also seen in Calvin Klein ads, but more strongly associated with Halston. Kate Moss is considered the model who epitomized the look. 

Should we see the A&F erotic male images and the amateur porn feel of Charney’s American Apparel as a natural development from the edginess of Heroin Chic? If we were examining the ad campaigns as reactionary societal indicators or as streams of art movements, surely we would.

I didn’t buy or patronize either American Apparel or A&F, and I still don’t shop A&F. My go-to brands are Gap Kids, Landsend, Nordstrom, and Mini Boden. 

A&F currently carries women’s XXXL (size 24) and XXL (size 20 and 22). Their models for the clothing on their websites include Black men and men of East Asian descent. The children’s clothing features Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Stitch as well as other franchises such as Sponge Bob and Star Wars. 

For the main landing page, a Black man and woman are prominently featured. Plus size models are also highlighted.  However, there doesn’t seem to be petite sizing. On the current A&F website, there’s a specific page for “Diversity & Inclusion.”

While American Apparel has definitely fallen, Abercrombie & Fitch is currently under American businesswoman Fran Horowitz-Bonadies and has not totally fallen out of the retail business. The documentary is more about the rise and fall of Jeffries and, unfortunately, Jeffries refused to be interviewed. 


Kayman’s debut feature was about Chinese activist artists Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and won a US Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance when it premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. That film was focused on the battles of one man.

Likewise, White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is focused on one man, but suffers since unlike the former, this documentary didn’t get the cooperation of the main subject, Jeffries. The documentary lacks commentary from people in the same business but outside of A&F and doesn’t provide context in the sense of the fashion world and advertising of contemporary businesses like American Apparel.

For Asian Americans, the documentary provides a strong activist voice via Phil Yu, but not an academic one. The East Asian caricatures seemed to target only East Asian men and we are at a time when the East Asian American forever foreigner status is an issue. Nor does the documentary question or note that despite being “White Hot” there doesn’t seem to have been insensitivity toward the Black community in its graphic T-shirt designs although there was racism in its hiring practices toward both African Americans and Asian Americans as well as Muslim Americans.  The documentary does show that Asian Americans have not been silent on issues that arose before the pandemic and that’s an important point. The documentary also disproves the saying, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” There is and it can be bad for business. 

White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch is streaming on Netflix as of 19 April 2022. 

For the longer version of this review, please visit Age of the Geek.

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