New Bedford’s LFO Featured in Controversial Netflix Abercrombie & Fitch Doc
New Bedford has been no stranger to Netflix documentaries in recent years, featured in films usually focusing on true crime such as the Big Dan’s rape case or the illegal overfishing scheme of the self-proclaimed “Codfather” Carlos Rafael.
The latest connection between the Whaling City and the streaming giant is far more tenuous but just as controversial, as New Bedford’s early-millenium pop group LFO gets a shout out in the new doc White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.
The documentary focuses on the massive success the clothing retailer enjoyed in the later half of the 1990s and how it fizzled out by the early 2010s, as the “cool kids” vibe and exclusionary feel of the brand fell out of favor with the shopping public.
The basic premise is that the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch at the time, Mike Jeffries, pushed a culture of exclusivity that centered on the “all-American” kid, which critics say meant they were looking for both models and store employees who were young, thin, attractive – and white. Store handbooks at the time banned dreadlocks as an employee hairstyle, for example, and managers were asked to rate their staff members based on how “cool” they found them to be.
Of course, most of this was not known to the legions of young shoppers who wanted to be part of the latest fashion trend, and Abercrombie & Fitch was everywhere at the turn of the millennium.
As Abercrombie & Fitch was becoming a big deal, pop group LFO – the initials stood for Lyte Funkie Ones – was poised for breakout success. Rich Cronin had put the group together in New Bedford along with Brian Gillis, and along with third member Brad Fischetti. LFO had been paying their dues, opening for NSYNC and trying to achieve chart success with their first few singles. Gillis later left the group and was replaced by Devin Lima.
In June of 1999, LFO released “Summer Girls,” the group’s biggest hit. It reached No. 3 on the Billboard 100 two months later. The song features a number of non-sequitur pop culture references, and Cronin frequently mentions how he “likes girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch” in the song’s lyrics.
In the documentary, the LFO hit gets a brief mention to demonstrate just how much the retailer had infiltrated the American consumer zeitgeist at the time.
Patrick Carone, the former associate editor of the retailer’s “magalog” A&F Quarterly, said that was the big moment for the brand.
“The high-water mark, when we finally all knew that we’d made it, was when LFO came out with ‘Summer Girls,’” he said. “It came out right in the summer, like alright, we’re doing something right.”
It was the culmination of Jeffries’ plan to have Abercrombie & Fitch be considered the pinnacle of American retail.
“That was probably the coolest thing that ever happened to Mike Jeffries. In that moment he knew that he’d done what he wanted,” said Dr. Kjerstin Gruys, a former A&F merchandiser.
Jeffries left the company amid declining sales in 2014, as it appeared there had been a reckoning for A&F’s exclusionary approach.
“At some point, those kids that learned it wasn’t cool to be bullied grew up, and decided they didn’t want to spend money at a place that made them feel bad,” Gruys said. “So Abercrombie & Fitch, some of that aura went away precisely because exclusion was the root of their success – and exclusion itself stopped being quite so cool.”
In the film, a spokesperson told the filmmakers that Abercrombie has “evolved to become a place of belonging rather than ‘fitting in.’” Current CEO Fran Horowitz told CNN in statement that "We own and validate that there were exclusionary and inappropriate actions under former leadership.”
As for LFO, the group disbanded in 2002 but later had a brief reunion for a few months in 2009. Cronin battled leukemia on multiple occasions beginning in 2005 before passing away in 2010 at the age of 36. Lima was diagnosed with stage four adrenal cancer in 2017 and died a year later at the age of 41.