A new Netflix documentary, “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch,” recounts the toxic and racist culture of the American clothing company during the 2000s.
In the documentary, which was released on Netflix on Tuesday, former Abercrombie employees alleged that they were excluded or held back at the company because of their ethnicity.
A lawsuit filed against Abercrombie in 2004 accused the American chain of pandering to white customers by giving floor sales and management positions to white employees, while Black, Latino, Asian American and female employees worked in the back of the store.
One former employee, Dr. Anthony Ocampo, claimed that the company wouldn’t rehire him because there was already another Filipino working at the store.
“At no point did I say I was Filipino so that was a guess on the part of the person that worked there,” he said in the documentary. “I remember I told my parents, and I told close friends, and they very much agreed with me that it was f*cked up.”
“I’ve never seen racism that explicit,” Ocampo added. “I was really pissed off. I was in a rage that never went away.
“When I was invited to be a part of the lawsuit, I thought here’s an opportunity to call Abercrombie on their bullsh*t of trying to say that they’re an all-American brand, and yet, the way they’re maintaining this image of all-American is to hire a bunch of white folks and fire a bunch of people of color.”
Another employee, Jennifer Sheahan, claimed she was fired from an Abercrombie branch in Costa Mesa, California, because she is Asian.
“The real reason was because after the corporate blitz, one of the people from corporate went around and noticed a bunch of Asian people in the store,” she said in the documentary.
“They said, ‘Well, you need to have more staff that looks like this,’ and they pointed to an Abercrombie poster, and it was a Caucasian model,” Sheahan continued.
A Black employee, Carla Barrientos, said her schedule had more night shifts than day shifts. When she requested to work more hours during the day, she was told she could only work at night. Barrientos tried switching shifts with a co-worker but was denied. Abercrombie ultimately let her go altogether.
After paying $50 million to settle the lawsuit in 2005, Abercrombie made changes to its recruiting, hiring and marketing policies. The company also brought on a chief diversity officer, Todd Corley, in 2004.
Abercrombie came under fire again after allegedly refusing to hire Samantha Elauf because she wore a hijab at her interview in 2008. A jury awarded her with $20,000 in compensatory damages in July 2011, but Abercrombie filed an appeal with the U.S. District Court in Tulsa that same month. A federal appeals court dismissed the lawsuit filed on behalf of Elauf in October 2013. One year later, the Supreme Court revealed that it would hear the former Abercrombie employee’s discrimination case against the company. The court ruled in favor of Elauf on June 1, 2015.
Phil Yu, founder of the Angry Asian Man blog, also appears in the documentary to talk about the racist graphic T-shirts that the company sold. One of the shirts had the words “Wong Brothers Laundry Service” and “two wongs can make it white” on it. Caricatures of Asian men with slanted eyes and Cantonese hats were also depicted on the shirt.
Sadas Abadsidis, former editor-in-chief of A&F quarterly magazine, claimed in the documentary that the shirts were approved by two Asian senior corporate team members.
“There was an Asian designer in there?” Yu asked in disbelief. “Maybe there was somebody. You know, your cover is the one Asian guy in the room.”
However, the blogger doubted an Asian employee would say out loud, “This is very offensive to my identity.”
“In this corporate, stuffy environment where everyone around you is white, I don’t know if it’s a safe place to do that,” Yu said.
In a statement to NextShark, Abercrombie & Fitch’s current CEO, Fran Horowitz, acknowledged there were “exclusionary and inappropriate actions” when Mike Jeffries was CEO from 1992-2014.
“At Abercrombie & Fitch Co., we live by our purpose and show up for our customers, associates and partners on their journeys to being and becoming exactly who they are.
Our ongoing evolution has been so rewarding, and we want to be clear that the recently released documentary is not reflective of who we are now. We own and validate that there were exclusionary and inappropriate actions under former leadership. Since I became CEO in 2017, we’ve overhauled Abercrombie and transformed with intention into a place of belonging. We’ve evolved the organization, including making changes in management, prioritizing representation, implementing new policies, re-envisioning our store experiences and updating the ﬁt, size-range and style of our products.
We’re focused on inclusivity—and continuing that transformation is our enduring promise to you, our community. Because without you, we wouldn’t be who we are now. Thank you for being on this journey with us.”