The White Heteronormativity of Abercrombie & Fitch

by Nia Hunt

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday June 11, 2022
Originally published on June 10, 2022

The White Heteronormativity of Abercrombie & Fitch
  (Source:Courtesy of Netflix)

The popularity of youth fashion brands is often dictated by each generation's ideals of beauty, style, and glamor. Young people of the modern era are redefining these qualities, and such a radical shift is reflected in the undulating relevance of brands that once dominated American shopping malls. Underlying the evolution of teen fashion are the progressive values championed by a more enlightened generation striving for a more inclusive world. Therefore, brands that catered to a singular, narrow definition of attractiveness have been faced with the choice of either adapting to a diversified landscape or remaining a relic of an elitist past.

Most indicative of changing attitudes towards teen fashion is the current status of iconic 2000s brands as those which teenagers no longer wear. Labels like Gap, Aeropostale, and American Eagle were ubiquitous among millennial high schoolers, as they were status symbols displayed by classmates of elevated social standing. Of course, the teen brand that reigned above all its contemporaries was Abercrombie & Fitch, whose cultural impact was just as monumental as its eventual fall from grace.

The source of Abercrombie & Fitch's immense success was the catalyst for its great downfall: its promotion of the so-called "All-American look." The seeming innocuousness of this concept belied the discriminatory beauty standards upheld by the company through marketing campaigns and hiring practices. White heteronormativity and the male gaze were the core of Abercrombie & Fitch's business model, hence the glorification of thin, cis, able-bodied, white physiques.

Mike Jeffries
Mike Jeffries  (Source: Courtesy of Netflix)

Former CEO Mike Jeffries was the literal male gaze through which the brand's image was cultivated, and he took pride in the exclusionary nature of his products. According to him, only the "cool kids" deserved to wear his clothing, and that anyone who did not fit the mold of attractive and popular in school did not belong in his stores. Considering the uniform appearance of his models and retail employees, Jeffries' perception of attractiveness is limited to cisgender, heterosexual youth of a certain race and body type.

Abercrombie & Fitch's public image was characterized by muscular, often shirtless men posing in scenic backgrounds, supplemented by the presence of at least one slender young woman clad in a bikini or other minimal clothing. Naturally, the brazen objectification of brawny men served the dual purpose of creating a power fantasy for male consumers while alluring female customers. Presumably, the inclusion of female models was intended to have the inverse effect, though it most likely compounded the societal pressure placed on female audiences to be thin. Ironically, the aesthetic of numerous strong, handsome men originated from gay male culture, and Abercrombie & Fitch's appropriation of this unique phenomenon did not rid it of its homoerotic undertones.

Abercrombie & Fitch's clothing itself was rife with gender stereotypes, particularly the crass T-shirts. The men's T-shirts were emblazoned with misogynistic catchphrases that reduced women to their sexual desirability, including the fetishization of lesbians with the tagline, "The Island of Lesbos: Every Man's Dream." Women's T-shirts did not fare much better, as the messages printed upon them exalted Eurocentric beauty standards and emphasized physical appearance as more important than intelligence.

The near demise of Abercrombie & Fitch was brought about by the company's myriad acts of discrimination coming to light amid burgeoning social justice movements, thereby rendering the brand's exclusivity obsolete. These injustices would be detailed years later in the documentary "White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch" released this past spring on Netflix. The documentary only further tarnished Abercrombie & Fitch's reputation by revealing lesser-known information, such as the sexual misconduct allegations made by male models against photographer Bruce Weber.

Abercrombie & Fitch would never again reach the heights of its heyday, but major changes had to be made in order for it to remain afloat at all. At the helm of the company's transformation was the visionary Fran Horowitz, who began her tenure as CEO in 2017.

The initial attempts at rebranding were fraught with missteps, such as the infamous tweet, "The Pride community is everybody, not just LGBTQ people." Additionally, the Abercrombie Kids gender-neutral collection was criticized for its lack of skirts and other feminine attire, which perpetuated the misconception of gender neutrality as strictly androgyny and implicitly discouraged boys to explore their femininity. Nevertheless, Abercrombie & Fitch's newfound partnership with renowned queer mental health organization The Trevor Project has helped steer the company in a more open-minded direction.

Abercrombie & Fitch ushered in Pride Month 2022 with a themed collection for its children's and young adult clothing lines, as well as increased efforts to uplift the LGBTQ+ community. This year they offer a plethora of colorful T-shirts, hoodies, shoes, hats, and other accessories for shoppers of all ages, genders, sexual identities, and even sizes. Furthermore, Abercrombie & Fitch is gifting The Trevor Project with a $400,000 donation and creating empowering content for queer viewers using the #Trevor-LoveChain hashtag on TikTok, a far cry from the company that once fired an employee for being transgender. Further proving their commitment to supporting the LGBTQ+ community are their planned year-round donations to The Trevor Project.

Abercrombie & Fitch was once a brand that reveled in toxic hierarchies, but perhaps the $2.8 million that they and their customers have raised to support the wellbeing of queer people is the first step in repairing their years of damage.