Is Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) problematic? After watching the documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, we believe the answer to this question is a resounding yes. While the brand had previously been canceled by some, the new Netflix doc by American filmmaker and journalist Alison Klayman publicly airs the American clothing brand’s troubling history of discrimination.
Released on April 19, the 88-minute film takes a deep dive into the murky waters of Abercrombie & Fitch’s history. A tale of elitism, discrimination, and sculpted abs, White Hot unpacks the threads of racism tied up in the ‘Abercrombie aesthetic.’
One of the loudest voices in the documentary is Phil Yu, a Korean-American blogger and writer. In 2001, Yu founded the blog Angry Asian Man, which focuses on Asian American news, media, and politics.
In April 2002, Yu was the first to call out Abercrombie & Fitch for selling blatantly racist T-shirts featuring characters with slanted eyes and bamboo rice-paddy hats.
As if the illustrations were not outrageous enough, offensive slogans such as ‘Two Wongs can make it white’ reinforced worn-out stereotypes surrounding the Asian American community.
Abercrombie got their shirts pulled for way less and it was racist AF! pic.twitter.com/FZQCRqDi6O— MagicMike (@CarWithOthers) July 7, 2021
Abercrombie got their shirts pulled for way less and it was racist AF! pic.twitter.com/FZQCRqDi6O
— MagicMike (@CarWithOthers) July 7, 2021
Two decades later, the blogger is still a leading figure in AAPI activism in the United States, with more than 112,000 followers on Twitter, a podcast, and a book under his belt.
“Asian Americans are often taught that you’re supposed to keep your head down and not rock the boat […] But at that moment, I thought: It’s okay to be angry about this,” says Yu in the film.
Yu wasn’t alone in his thoughts. The T-shirts sparked outrage, and AAPI students across the country, from San Francisco to Boston, marched in protest. A&F eventually apologized and recalled the T-shirts.
AAPI students protesting in front of a A&F store. Screengrab via YouTube
The documentary also sheds light on Abercrombie & Fitch’s discriminatory hiring practices. To be specific, the brand clearly favored white males with classically good looks.
Jennifer Sheahan, a former A&F employee of Asian descent, was upfront about being fired solely on the basis of her ethnicity. According to Sheahan, one of the managers was displeased that the majority of her branch’s employees were ‘Asian-looking.’ The manager requested hiring more staff who resembled the white male models from the brand’s posters.
In addition to putting the American upper-middle-class label on blast, White Hot raises more food for thought, such as the implications of the brand’s prolonged, previous success and the role fashion plays in shaping the collective imagination.
The last decade has seen significant changes in fashion — for the better. Many brands are prioritizing representation and featuring diverse body shapes and ethnicities in their campaigns. Furthermore, female fashionistas are emerging as key players and shaping cultural notions of beauty.
Cover image via Choo Yut Shing on Flickr
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