‘WHITE HOT: THE RISE & FALL OF ABERCROMBIE & FITCH’ Review: Netflix Documentary Fans The Flames


Courtney Howard // Film Critic


NR, 1 hour and 28 minutes

Directed by: Alison Klayman

The concept of branding has been around for centuries, but leave it to fashion to pounce on the idea of marrying consumer product with the razzle dazzle of aspirational advertising. The 80s brought sex appeal into the mainstream with the rise of labels like Calvin Klein, Jordache and Guess to fashionably outfit the aerobically-toned asses of the masses. The 90s brought about a new wave sexy-preppy with the rise of Abercrombie & Fitch, a mall store that combined the upscale WASPy aesthetic of Ralph Lauren with the chic sex appeal of Calvin Klein at an “affordable” price point for its collegiate clientele.

The company’s specific style of marketing showmanship might’ve worked out favorably if not for the multitude of self-inflicted, easily avoidable infractions and scandals it found itself embroiled in as explored by Alison Klayman’s WHITE HOT: THE RISE AND FALL OF ABERCROMBIE & FITCH. With the aid of flashy animated graphics, period appropriate soundtrack stingers and interviews with a diverse group of pivotal people, the documentarian dives into what made the chain successful while simultaneously setting up the factors of its drastic decline. It certainly has the receipts (in every sense of the word) and bags the product up nicely, but it’s repackaged goods, utilizing a large majority of well-known information previously discussed at length in the media and pop culture zeitgeist.

The documentary itself has a breezy, casual tone and style even when delving into the important issues that plagued the powerful corporate heads, making it a palatable, educational watch. To see how massive the brand grew, spinning-off from its fairly humble beginnings as a modest fishing supply chain back in the late 1800s, the documentarian sets the stage for its 1990’s comeback. However, it doesn’t dwell long enough on certain portions to make the audience tangibly grasp the seedy, cultish underbelly the corporation had created in its second incarnation. So that, when the downfall hits, our satisfactory response to their schadenfreude fails to sting. It also occasionally suffers from either omitting certain facts about the brand’s competition (with slim to no mentions of Aeropostale, J.Crew and The Gap family brands), or highlights remedial details like the popularity of malls when those are very much still in existence.

Despite some of its lackluster qualities, it finds some of its power broaching the store and ad campaign’s overarching philosophies. Klayman sufficiently handles mixing sillier aspects with the salacious and maddening. Answers to lingering questions former-shoppers-cum-viewers may still have can be found here, everything from the headache-inducing music blasting and pungent cologne smell that wafted into mall corridors like a siren song for young adults to the palpably homoerotic overtones in its influential, inspired advertising. The rest of its strengths deal with the problematic side of the business. For how much good the company did injecting a vigorous, youthful voice into the marketplace, its more harmful aspects (those involving a shocking lack of diversity and inclusion, as well as sexual harassment) allowed bigoted, sexist, small-minded folks at the top to thrive for far too long.

This documentary stands as a ringing testament to how, if popular corporations refuse to change with the times, listening to and not limiting its clientele, it’ll find itself obsolete. Yet the foreboding sense that accompanies its warning – a death knell sound of history repeating – feels muted. That heat generated is lost, ironically similar to the doomed brand it eulogized.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5

WHITE HOT: THE RISE & FALL OF ABERCROMBIE & FITCH begins streaming on Netflix on April 19.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.