Image source: Getty / Michael M. Santiago
The year was 2008.
And that year was marked by a significant change in my wardrobe for my 14-year-old self. It’s the first time I’ve got a pair of Coach trainers to match my Coach crossbody, and the last time I’ll wear streetwear. In just a few months, instead of window shopping for Coogi at Jimmy Jazz, we started traveling 30 minutes out of town to shop Abercrombie & Fitch and its subsidiary Hollister.
In April, Netflix released a documentary titled “White Hot” chronicling the rise and fall of Abercrombie & Fitch in the ’90s and 2000s, but while the documentary isolates Abercrombie & Fitch as a pop culture phenomenon in white suburbia, it doesn’t show that. How black kids in black cities embraced the brand. But black people have been and continue to be instrumental in A&F’s success, from influencing purchases on social media to regular purchases themselves.
Search for similar lifestyle brands on Facebook and you’ll find old profiles of black kids with social handles like HollisterKidd. During my high school years, it wasn’t uncommon to see Abercrombie & Fitch juicing with True Religion jeans and Cartier frames at a house party, or a teenage girl from Eastland wearing Hollister with a juicy starter necklace and Mack jeans. Chief Keef even rapped about Hollister in a song.
Photo credit: Getty/Tim Boyle
Sure, my relationship with A&F doesn’t look like past employees in the “White Hot” documentary, but that doesn’t mean the world of affluent white suburbia was a far-fetched idea for me either.
While “White Hot” suggests that Abercrombie & Fitch packaged white elitism and privilege in hopes of selling clothing, it does not clearly address how the brand’s whiteness coincided with the whitewashing of pop culture in the 90s and 2000s. Films, TV shows, and even novels portray adolescence and early adulthood through the lens of whiteness, thinness, and wealth. In the film, there were “Clueless,” “She’s All That,” “Mean Girls,” and “Bring It On.” On television, you can watch “90210,” “The OC,” “Laguna Beach,” and “Gossip Girl.” Among the novels I read as a preteen were The Clique series by Lizzie Harrison and the Pretty Little Liars series by Sarah Shepherd.
The story of the rich white teenager was inevitable. What we’ve all seen will inevitably become what we want, and Abercrombie & Fitch has packaged the desire for wealth and exclusivity at just one affordable price point. Since buyers are naturally drawn to symbols of wealth, it’s a no-brainer that teenagers who were deliberately excluded from marketing would still be drawn to A&F’s products.
Of course, the brand’s exclusionary marketing scheme included a culture of racism and chauvinism. The 2000s led to several lawsuits over discriminatory hiring practices, ultimately resulting in a $40 million settlement and the departure of CEO Mike Jeffries.
But while the documentary rightly criticizes the Abercrombie & Fitch culture of yesteryear, it fails to explore the role black fans played in making the brand a ubiquitous staple of the 2000s — despite not being represented or even welcomed. Now, as the documentary brings that era back into the limelight today, black people have once again been left out of the conversation.
As the brand paves the way forward to right its wrongs with more inclusive sizes and accessible styles, it’s rebuilding its relationship with its black customers. Not only does A&F regularly feature Black models and influencers in its promotional materials and on social media, it recently hosted pop-ups at its global home office featuring local Black creators and entrepreneurs.
It’s a small step on a long and winding road to redemption with black shoppers, a group that has been loyal to the Abercrombie & Fitch brand for decades. And it’s a story worth telling.