For many teenagers in the ’90s and 2000s, one of the main indicators of being considered in the “popular” group in high school was determined by the response to this question: did you wear Abercrombie & Fitch?

It was thin. It was rich. The retailer had figured out a formula to sell the thing many youth crave the most — fitting in. And it was all packaged in a shopping bag with a shirtless man on the cover that screamed you were cool if you had it.

The store was the first to put up wooden shutters and dim the lights, forcing you to wade through strong cologne and loud music to venture into the store to see what was inside.

I remember walking past the store with other teenage girls, and we would be giggling and daring each other to go in. At the time, most of our moms would not have approved of us being there amongst the overly sexualized gigantic posters of half-naked men on the walls.

As a teenager growing up in the diet culture-infused 2000s, my main concern wasn’t walking out with the embarrassing and objectifying bag (it was strange, though) — it was being worried that none of the clothes would ever fit me.

After watching “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch,” I learned I was hardly the only person growing up who felt that way. The documentary, streaming now on Netflix, is rated TV-14 and does contain brief nudity.

Abercrombie & Fitch rose to popularity by being the cool kids

One of the main takeaways from the documentary is that the perception of the brand being meant only for the “cool kids” was by design. Exclusivity was part of its mission in making a name for itself.

Even though it says it on most of their shirts, many people do not realize how old the original company is. Founded in 1892, Abercrombie & Fitch started out catering to elite sportsmen selling fishing and camping gear to customers like Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt. That Ron Swanson vibe sounds, honestly, way more cool.

Ditching that classic American heritage for a more preppy and palatable version, the 1990s and 2000s made the brand wildly popular among teens and young adults, and it dominated American malls across the country. During that time, the goal was to sell that “all-American” lifestyle of being preppy, sexy, yet more affordable than competitors such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

The prevalence of mall culture in the 2000s

A “mall scene” was ubiquitous in teen movies in those years. And Abercrombie & Fitch thrived in that era where information was spread by teen magazine, MTV and TRL.

The documentary transitions with illustrations of magazine cut-out animations of the brand’s models that harken back to that magazine influence. Mike Jeffries, the man who took over as CEO in the ’90s, recognized this crucial aspect of a clothing brand — you weren’t selling clothing, you were selling an aspirational life.

That’s why celebrities such as Taylor Swift, Ashton Kutcher and Jennifer Lawrence have all donned the signature Abercrombie look at one point. It was the thing that was cool.

Racial, religious lawsuits surface against Abercrombie & Fitch

The documentary walks through some of the problematic parts of the overly sexualized brand’s “work and lifestyle culture,” and it also asks the question — is it legal to only hire “hot people?”

At the crux of Abercrombie & Fitch’s scandal, two lawsuits emerged. The first came from a class action suit filed by a group of former employees who are people of color. It alleged that the retailer refused to hire “qualified minority applicants as Brand Representatives working on the sales floor while discouraging applications from minority candidates,” according to LDF.

It pressured the retailer to name a Vice President for Diversity, provide diversity training and take other steps to be more thoughtful and considerate to customers and employees from minority groups.

The second lawsuit came from a Muslim woman who was asked to remove her hijab in order to be hired. She sued based on religious discrimination and won, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Social media campaigns force Abercrombie & Fitch to rebrand

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With momentum from the lawsuits building, social media propelled the brand’s rebrand in a way that only social media has the power to do. People shared negative experiences of feeling like the brand purely focused on clothing for a small majority of thin people, while many others were interested in the clothes. Benjamin O’Keefe created a petition in 2013 calling for the brand to sell larger sizes and be more inclusive, and 70,000 people signed, according to The Guardian.

Groups of potential customers took to social media with their concerns, held protests and boycotted the stores and called out the brand for many of the issues that made it popular in the first place.

This shift forced the company to shift leadership and focus on creating a sense of belonging and inclusion. In many ways, the brand’s marketing and strategy packaged a product tailored to the idea of fitting into the right clothes as a means to find acceptance that many teens and young adults crave desperately.

However, is the new strategy of trying to appeal to everyone, and wanting to be liked in the way that is cool now, really just a rebranding of the same problem? Is it just the new way to fit in? I guess time will tell.

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