Abercrombie & Fitch: Grappling With Heritage
Abercrombie & Fitch: Grappling With Heritage
- Words Gunner Park
- Date September 10, 2018
There was a time when Abercrombie & Fitch was great. Even more so, it was important— a brand that defined a style of dress for several decades, and became a staple of American culture. Despite its transition into a shameful mall brand and negative PR magnet, Abercrombie & Fitch was once a company that outfitted presidents, pioneers, authors, actors, explorers and icons, all while maintaining a perception of an elite maverick. Today, the label faces an identity crisis. Their clientele is decidedly less illustrious than they once were, their products retain a faint connection to American heritage, and it seems that A&F is making headlines for anything but its actual clothes.
A&F has transformed many times over the years. What was once a boutique that sold high-end gear for outdoorsmen in the 19th Century is now a global fashion retailer known for its hyper-sexualized advertisements depicting underage models. In the last few years, the company looked to repair its reputation through a massive revision of its product and customer base. Immediately, one question comes to mind. Will simply changing the assortment of products and revising a destructive marketing strategy change public opinion of the brand? Abercrombie & Fitch’s bizarre history questions whether or not the company can re-establish the firm ethos it once had.
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David T. Abercrombie, a Baltimore native, founded Abercrombie Co. on the shores of the East River, at 36 South Street in Manhattan on June 4th, 1892. The storefront was inspired by Abercrombie’s infatuation with the great outdoors, carrying an array of gadgets and gear tailored to the seasoned outdoorsman—fishing, hunting, hiking and so forth. Abercrombie used his penchant for designing and curating high-end outdoor ephemera to select items that were as upscale as they were utilitarian. While the intersection of active and luxury may seem niche, this was the era of Teddy Roosevelt on safari, a time when dignitaries and celebrities would go on expensive outdoor excursions and the upper class didn’t mind getting their hands a little dirty. These affluent outdoorsmen became the target audience of Abercrombie Co.
One such man was Ezra Fitch, a New York-based lawyer and real estate developer who, having grown tired of his day job, took up more leisurely activities such as yachting, climbing, and fishing to compensate. In Abercrombie Co.’s earliest years, Fitch was one of the company’s most dedicated customers, purchasing from the shop continuously until one day, after some convincing, Fitch convinced Abercrombie to allow him to purchase a major in share in the company. In 1904 the partnership went public as “Abercrombie & Fitch Co,” and moved into larger quarters at Reade Street in TriBeCa where Fitch began implementing experimental ideas to renovate the store. Over the next few years, both men enjoyed great financial success, however, their relationship began to sour. Fitch was more economically-minded and pushed for large-scale expansion, while Abercrombie preferred to maintain the brands premium status. In the end, Abercrombie left the brand he founded after fifteen years, turning over complete control to Fitch in 1907.
The “Fitch Years,” as they are often to referred as, were a time of great prosperity for the brand. Abercrombie & Fitch Co. mailed over 50,000 copies of its 456-page catalog worldwide and produced each edition for one dollar (a staggering and costly amount for a publication at that time). The catalog featured outdoor clothing, camping gear, articles and advice columns. However, while the catalog proved to be a profitable marketing device, the cost nearly bankrupted the company—especially considering the catalog was available for free at the store.
Luckily, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. continued to flourish. In 1910, the company began selling womenswear and became the first store in New York City to supply both menswear and womenswear. In 1913, after moving into Reade Street—not a convenient shopping destination for women in an era where shopping was particularly concentrated to specific “upmarket” areas—the New York City storefront relocated to a more fashionable and easily accessible Midtown address at 55/57 West 36th St. In 1917, Abercrombie moved once again to the corner of E. 45th and Madison, a prime location that became forever etched in their history.
The store was a shrine to all things outdoors and fully encapsulated the brand’s extravagant approach to retail during the early 20th century. The basement housed a shooting range while on the mezzanine there was paraphernalia for skiing, archery, free diving, and lawn games. The second through fifth floors were reserved for clothing that was suitable for various climate and terrain. On the sixth floor were a picture gallery, a bookstore, a watch repair facility and a golf school. The seventh floor included a second shooting range and kennel. Finally, the eighth floor contained fishing, camping, and boating equipment and included a desk for a fly-and bait-casting instructor who gave lessons at the pool located on the roof. In 1913, A&F adopted the slogan, “The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World,” with the storefront to back it up.
Their location included everything from burly walking coats and exquisitely decorated firearms to imported pith hats and to Mahjong sets straight from China. A&F became a cultural phenomenon, with a reach extending well beyond menswear. In 1927, Abercrombie & Fitch outfitted Charles Lindbergh for his historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean, attracting the business of other prominent figures such as John Steinbeck and Amelia Earhart. Inarguably Abercrombie & Fitch’s glory day, it was a period when the brand perfectly situated itself in-between quaint outdoors pursuits and the opulent urban population.
In 1928, Fitch retired and sold his shares in the company to his brother-in-law, James S. Cobb. Under Cobb, A&F acquired Von Lingerie & Detmold, a well-respected New York dealer of fine European-made sporting guns and fish tackle. Cobb also acquired Griffin & Howe, another gunsmith company. Merchandise from both was carried at A&F’s Madison Avenue store in addition to new offerings for polo, golf, and tennis. By 1929, sales hit $6.3 million with net profits of $548,000.
During the Great Depression, the company’s revenue dramatically decreased and it ceased paying dividends. Sales plunged to just over $2.5 million in 1933. Luckily, A&F recovered in the following years and resumed paying dividends in 1938. The company reached a record net profit of $682,894 in 1947 under its new president Otis Guernsey. Noting their impressive profits, Guernsey said, “the Abercrombie & Fitch type does not care about the cost; he wants the finest quality.” They began opening small winter-only boutiques in warmer locations and summer-only boutiques in colder locations to attract seasonal clientele. The Madison Avenue storefront remained the label’s flagship location and was even remodeled throughout the 1950s due to the stores’ impressive sales. Unfortunately, by the 1960s it seemed the outdoorsman niche Abercrombie & Fitch carved out was no longer in vogue.
In 1960, net profits fell for the fourth straight year under Guernsey's successor, John H. Ewing. Ewing paid little attention to the decline in sales and did little to combat it in. In 1961, he said to an interviewer of Business Week that Abercrombie & Fitch enjoyed a special niche, “by sticking to our knitting; by not trying to be all things to all people.” The company sought out new leadership once again, and instated Earle K. Angstadt as President and CEO in 1964. Angstadt decided the label could no longer maintain the same niche audience it once had—they must branch out and acquire other wealthy clients. A&F proceeded to open a year-round resort shop at The Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs (1962) and its first suburban store at a mall in Short Hills, New Jersey (1963). The company continued to expand in upscale locations such as the Bal Harbour Shops near Miami Beach (1966) and the Somerset Mall in Troy, Michigan (1969). Undergoing rapid expansion with no clear direction, Abercrombie & Fitch was in the midst of an identity crisis with no founders to steer the ship.
Abercrombie & Fitch held two warehouse sales—one in 1968 followed by another in early 1970—in addition to releasing a collection of offbeat newspaper advertisements that were a clear sign of desperation. The company’s revenue continued to decline, posting a loss of approximately $500,000 in its previous fiscal year. Noting the negative effect that their advertisements had on their customer base, the next president William Humphreys, a former Lord & Taylor executive, halted the measures. He focused on improving A&F’s inventory control, credit practices, and cutting the company’s expenses. Humphrey’s changed the store design to reflect a different image and focused expansion into the suburbs. A&F noticed the offbeat advertisements were attracting customers that were deemed, “not of classic Abercrombie & Fitch material.” The company ceased its extraneous advertisements in 1970 and renovated its flagship store once more. Relocating high ticket items away from the main floor, adding a discount clothing store, and a renewed focus on womenswear were all part of a concerted effort to reinvigorate the business. Unfortunately, the changes did not improve sales and the company continued to decline under Humphrey’s and his successor, Hal Haskell. After losing $1 million in 1975, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August 1976 and officially closed its doors in November in 1977.
In 1978, Oshman’s, a sporting goods retailer, acquired Abercrombie & Fitch Co. for $1.5 million. It opened A&F stores in Beverly Hills, California, and Dallas, Texas which sported $40,000 USD elephant guns and “Abercrombie Runabout Sports Convertibles.” Stores continued to open in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport and Trump Tower in hopes of catering towards contemporary interests such as golf, exercise, and tennis. Menswear and womenswear collections consisted of business and casual dress alongside outlying sportswear pieces. Forbes described the merchandise as, “a hodgepodge of unrelated items” and that, “sometimes it is better to bury the dead than to try reviving them.” Abercrombie & Fitch continued to struggle as Oshman’s struggled itself to develop a cohesive identity for the brand.
Abercrombie & Fitch experienced its greatest and perhaps oddest revitalization after being acquired by Limited Brands in 1988. Headquarters was relocated to Columbus, Ohio, and all inventory was cleared out. The new president, Sally-Frame-Kasaks, placed a strong emphasis on apparel, but only remained on the board for a short period of time before being replaced by Michael S. Jeffries, a former clothing executive, in 1992. Jeffries popularized the brand to a teen apparel merchandiser in an attempt to move away from the ailing sportswear brand it currently was. He believed that focusing A&F’s attention toward the lucrative American teen market that was growing at a record rate.
The “new” Abercrombie & Fitch reopened shortly after with a preppy outdoors theme reminiscent of the company’s roots. Jeffries wanted to portray A&F as the pinnacle of teenage popularity, using sexuality as the brand’s main selling point and retaining very little of the brand’s original appeal. He desired to have erotic photographer Bruce Weber—who himself has come under significant scrutiny—to shoot his catalogs, but knew he could not do so until the company became financially secure. A&F began offering pricey, preppy basics— woven shirts, denim mini-skirts, cargo shorts, wool sweaters, and polo shirts were all emblazoned with A&F’s signature logo. In the prime age of suburban mall retail, the strategy proved successful. Sales rose to $85 million in 1992 and hit $165 million by 1994.
In 1997, the company launched A&F Quarterly. The publication included photography, interviews, and articles about sex, pop culture, and other teen interests. Bruce Weber became a larger contributor to the publication, in addition to photographing many of A&F’s racy advertisements throughout the 1990s. The company continued expanding and introduced its first subsidiary, abercrombie, in 1998. The concept was designed for A&F’s younger clientele between the ages of 7-14 and served as a means to recruit adolescent customers earlier on. By 1998, A&F once again became an independent company, ending their fiscal year with $805.2 million in revenue. However, as the brand regained its prominence, industry analysts began to speculate how long Abercrombie & Fitch would retain its popularity.
Entering into the twenty-first century, Abercrombie & Fitch was rated the sixth most popular brand by teenagers before Nintendo and Levi’s. The company introduced its third brand, Hollister Co., in July 2000. The third concept was inspired by a Southern California surf lifestyle and was targeted toward high school students. However, it was around this time that A&F began facing numerous controversies, hindering its public image and sales. In 1999, A&F underwent a 3-year-long class action lawsuit in response to the poor working conditions in their sweatshops in Saipan. The Christmas 2003 edition of A&F Quarterly is infamous for a page divulging on the pleasures of group sex, causing the publication to cease production. In April 2002, A&F released a series of T-shirts with jokes like “Wong Bros. Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White” and "Buddha Bash: Get Your Buddha on the Floor” The shirts featured Asian caricatures with rice paddy hats, slanted eyes, and buck teeth. In May 2002, A&F started selling children’s underwear with suggestive sayings printed on the front. Despite all of these controversies, however, A&F continued to expand at a rapid pace, releasing two more brands--RUEHL No. 925 for older consumers and Gilly Hicks for intimate apparel, while simultaneously opening locations in Canada, Europe, and even a west coast flagship store.
After the 2008 recession, A&F suffered noticeable losses for its refusal to drop to a lower price point or offer any discounts. In 2009, they announced the discontinuation of RUEHL No . 925 as well as the closure of roughly 60 stores. As A&F increased in popularity, so did the number of problems surrounding the brand. Issues regarding racial equality, customer discrimination based on appearance, and hyper-sexualization of minors berated the company. To compensate, in January 2010, A&F launched its A&F Cares initiative, highlighting its philanthropic efforts to garner public sympathy, but the company continued to suffer financially and socially. After walking a fine-line for several more years, A&F’s trendy image took a hit when comments made by Jeffries in 2006 that disparaged customers with certain body types resurfaced. The resulting backlash launched a viral internet campaign called “Fitch the Homeless,” which aimed to subvert and mock the company’s carefully manicured and exclusionary image by redistributing A&F clothes to people in need. Jeffries was removed from the board in 2014 following eleven straight quarters of declining sales.
In the past few years, A&F pursued multiple efforts to amend its controversial image. The company overhauled its stringent “hot” sales clerk policy in 2015 and even got rid of its famous in-store shirtless models. Amid continuously poor sales, A&F attempted to be more modest but instead furthered its identity crisis. In 2014, the company said it would begin to phase out the excessive use of logos. The rebrand, however demonstrated the efforts of an an-out-of-touch retailer that was scrambling to keep up with fast fashion trends and athleisure brands.
In 2015, Katie Kuethe joined A&F from Lucky Magazine as the brand’s new creative director. Her appointment, in particular, was viewed as a step up by many towards ameliorating the brand’s woes. In fact, the brand’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection rendered A&F nearly unrecognizable—perhaps even cool. “What ‘the new Abercrombie’ no longer has is that recognizable-from-anywhere A&F look; no iconic silhouette for similar high street brands to emulate. That day is gone. But for a brand that once pushed away its customers by strategically making others feel excluded, this new open arms style is a smart move,” said Man Repeller’s Amelia Diamond. The company continued its open arms approach, debuting their Fall 2015 campaign with Neelam Gill, with an emphasis on re-worked classic staples that showcase a new direction in design and quality.
In May 2016, Aaron Levine, then vice president of men’s design at Club Monaco, received a call about the opportunity to head A&F’s men’s design. The latest step in the A&F’s rebrand, Levine was a perfect choice considering his reputation as, “a man with a penchant for serving up tasteful, classic menswear with just enough bells and whistles to turn heads.” Levine’s vision for A&F is anything but embroidered moose t-shirts, billowing cargo pants, and skin-tight polo shirts. He wants A&F to hark back to its good old days. A time when Abercrombie was known as New York City’s premier sporting-goods store for outdoorsmen. In 2016, that seems to translate best into safari jackets, chunky cable-knit sweaters, minimalist bomber jackets, lived-in linen shirts and about anything resembling a budget Engineered Garments ensemble—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
For a brand that once had more confidence and gusto than any given retail space could ever contain, A&F lost any shred of integrity and to a great extent still lacks an identity. While the future of A&F is still uncertain, the company may be in the perfect position for a revitalization within the menswear community. With streetwear becoming exponentially more prominent in fashion, arguably saturating an already over-saturated market, style-conscious men are turning back to workwear and well-crafted garments—clothing that actually means something. Brands like Needles, Patagonia, and Carhartt are central to the men’s fashion conversation, suddenly rewarded for unyielding dedication to craftsmanship and heritage. Perhaps A&F can situate itself as a more affordable option to the former. Perhaps the label died a long time ago after its two founding partners departed. Considering A&F’s bizarre and storied journey, who knows what will happen next.