In the late ’90s and early ’00s, Abercrombie & Fitch positioned itself as the coolest store in the mall. It was the bar for status when it came to everyday fashion. With its waspy Americana heritage ivy league aesthetic crossed with homoerotic Bruce Weber photos and super hot half (sometimes fully) naked models drenched in a triggering cologne that smells like unwashed legs, the A&F brand was the “IT” brand.

It was also very white. And don’t get me started on those racist Asian T shirts they sold back in the day.

In Netflix’s new documentary White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch (streaming now!), filmmaker Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) dives into the A&F culture of sexy wholesomeness and Sean Cody models. Led by outspoken CEO Mike Jeffries, A&F cashed in on an “all-American” image and enshrined its clothes as must-haves for the new millennium.

Even though everything looked pretty and tanned on the outside, as things unraveled for the store, revelations of exclusionary marketing and discriminatory hiring practices began to engulf the white hot brand in scandal. Featuring interviews with dozens of former employees, executives, and models, White Hot puts a glaring spotlight on the company. In particular, activist Ben O’Keefe was one of the people leading the charge on putting A&F in its place.

Top row (L-R): Samantha Elauf, Dr. Anthony Ocampo, Jennifer Sheahan, Carla Barrientos; Bottom row (L-R): Phil Yu, Dr. Treva Lindsey, Sapna Maheshwari, Robin Givhan

At 18 years old, O’Keefe petitioned against A&F and called for a boycott of the brand, which forced Jeffries to apologize about the brand’s lack of inclusiveness and diversity in stores and in sizes. Generally speaking, it was a David and Goliath kind of battle, but it was a well-fought battle where O’Keefe and many others speak about how this particular scandal speaks to the landscape of America.

“I’m fighting for liberation,” O’Keefe tells DIASPORA about starting that petition against A&F. “I grew up a back gate, poor kid. Successful was the last thing society wanted me to be and I realized at a young age I had an options: I could succumb to my circumstances and no one could blame me for that, right? Or I could decide to survive and I could decide to thrive. And I didn’t have any resource when I started this campaign.”

O’Keefe said he didn’t really know where to start so he used Google to learn how to write a press release and then started researching reporters’ emails so that he can send it to them. “I sent it out to hundreds of people and it ultimately helped change the world, and that’s because we are powerful.”

“I think that that is really always my takeaway is that we have so much more power than we allow ourselves to see and even if you have no resources, you have your lived experience,” explains O’Keefe about standing up to A&F. “I told the story of suffering from anorexia. I knew how harmful that rhetoric like Mike Jeffries could be on the psyche of dumb consumers because I knew how harmful it was to me. We can be storytellers. We can make people realize that their experience is not so different than so many else’s. If we come together, if we have collective power, we can take on these forces because ultimately there are more of us than there are of them.”

Read or full interview with O’Keefe below.

DIASPORA: It’s been a while since A&F was dragged for their exclusionary employment practices and flat out racism. That said, what was your reaction when you were approached for the documentary?

BEN O’KEEFE: They approached me during the dead of the pandemic. I got an email from the production company about an untitled Netflix Abercrombie project and my first reaction was a bit skeptical. You never know the direction a piece wants to take or why they want you involved — but when I heard Alison Klayman was the director, I was like, “Well, absolutely.”

She is an incredible director. I think that’s abundantly evident in this film. It is not just the incredible story, but it’s beautiful.There’s fun music and there’s beautiful animation. She created a project that I think is really going to speak to the millennials who Abercrombie is so synonymous with — and I think that’s the key.

DIASPORA: How do you look back on this whole ordeal?

O’KEEFE: Exclusion was a part of Abercrombie’s brand and they made it very clear. If the CEO said, “We only want cool kids app already exclusionary, absolutely” today it would be a very different situation, but it wasn’t today. I came across this statement that was seven years old and I thought to myself, “Why had no one done something about this?”

Then I realized, wait, I’m someone. I can do something about this. I think it’s really important that we remind people that exclusion still sells. In fact, it’s become even more insidious because it used to be that we only saw retouched photos on the covers of those magazines. Now, young kids can retouch their photos in the palm of their hands on an app. It used to be that we were only exposed to this exclusion in the media. Now we are creating a culture of exclusion that actually is maybe even worse than before.

Former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jefferies

DIASPORA: Do you think that legacy brands, networks, studios and companies that have a history of exclusion can change their old practices? Or do you think many of them are at a point of no return when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

O’KEEFE: Look, I’m always happy to see any company embrace inclusion not just because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business objectively. That is a fact. And there’s studies to prove it. But I think it can be important. It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between repairing their image and repairing the harm you’ve done.

If you look at a company like Abercrombie, go on their corporate website, look at their senior leadership. You’ll see white faces. Go look at their board, you’ll see all white faces, except for two. Then go and look at their website and look at their clothes and look how many sizes they carry. It’s not as extensive as you think. And then you click to their largest size of 2X and there aren’t that many options. So for me, I think redemption is possible for any brand, for any person, but it takes really repairing harm.

DIASPORA: What do you think would help some of these companies like Abercrombie get redemption?

O’KEEFE: It takes centering the people who you’ve hurt. And I know for one, Abercrombie has never reached out to me. I actually reached out to Abercrombie, must have been 2014 or 15. And I offered them an opportunity to continue a conversation that they had said they wanted to have. They did not return my call. And so for me, actions speak louder than words. And now that it’s cool to be inclusive, you have to do it more than just the brand. You have to prove it. And I don’t think they’ve proven it with their absence.

DIASPORA: I won’t mince words here. Even though there has been some progress with diversity, equity and inclusion in this world, it is still — how should I put this — trash. As an advocate and activist that goes beyond the world of film and TV, how do you choose your battles? Because there are a lot of battles to be fought in this space.

O’KEEFE: Look, I think I have a couple of thoughts. For one, it’s not our job to fight every day. I think for marginalized people, we’re all often forcing ourselves into pain, through assimilation, trying to fit into a space that we don’t belong.

What I’ve ultimately learned is forget the seat, build your own damn table. I don’t want to be pulled up to a table where they’re cooking something that I don’t want to eat, right? What I think is important is instead of always trying to fix systems, sometimes you have to dismantle them, or sometimes we have to create something new. So what I’m excited about are seeing BIPOC filmmakers and seeing BIPOC fashions designers and seeing marginalized people who are bringing their lived experience to the things that they do and not changing themselves to fit in.

It’s easier said than done but I have to say that when I truly gained success professionally in a space that does involve me working in equity, it was when I decided to stop holding back my truth. I have a lot to learn from that 18 year old who started a campaign, a major fashion brand because I was fearless. I believed that I could do anything — and I was right. When we start to realize our power and stop letting the outside world diminish our power and instead standing together in it, we can really accomplish anything.