Abercrombie Adjusts to a World Moved On

For teens growing up in the late 90s to early 2000s, Abercrombie & Fitch was THE go-to status clothing store. Preppy, sexy and insanely popular. You could lose your “cool” card if you didn’t have an A&F logo emblazoned hoodie in your wardrobe. Preferably several. But, according to sales, critics and, most importantly, KIDS, culture has moved on…and Abercrombie is desperately failing to keep pace.

You don’t need to go too far back in your time machine to remember a day when Abercrombie ruled on high school and college campuses. Its Stepford ads of impossibly beautiful, if somewhat androgynous, models, loud dance music and dark stores filled with what Businessweek called “conformist, sexy and exclusive” clothing options. The selections were few and most – if not all – were tight, low and, in a word, unapologetic.

Things were not always that way. When Abercrombie & Fitch went public, with about 125 stores, in 1996, the brand did not yet possess its distinctive air or reputation for unapologetic exclusivity. But that changed when CEO Michael Jeffries penned a 29-page book that included conditions for stores and all employees. These stipulations were strict, draconian and granite. Women had to arrive at work sans makeup or nail polish. Nearly all jewelry was verboten. Tattoos as well. Men had to be clean-shaven and otherwise cleancut. Store managers were expected to frequent local college campuses, searching for coeds with the Abercrombie look. You may have already guessed they started at fraternities, sororities, and athletic teams. Photos of hopefuls were forwarded to “headquarters” for approval.

The “This Is Definitely Not ‘Hot Topic’” message resonated. A&F was the ultimate frat party fantasy for jocks and Mean Girls, and even many who might have otherwise claimed to hate the image clamored to be included. Then came the controversies.

When the recession hit all retail with the force of a cartoon anvil, Jeffries curtly refused to lower prices or standards. Instead, he maneuvered the brand into one PR situation after another. Racist t-shirts, thongs for preteens and a blatant refusal to even consider stocking plus size clothes. Each move created attendant controversy, and, each time, Jeffries just smiled his Cheshire grin and kept on keeping on. It was during this latter controversy that the CEO made headlines nationwide with his infamous quote: “Does it exclude people? Absolutely. We are the cool brand.”

Miscalculated might be an understatement. Jeffries may have thought his quip simply another case of wink-wink PR grabbing, but he failed to account for both the evolving culture, particularly among his target market, and the power of social media to enact cultural change. Jeffries was universally blasted, easily drowning out anyone who might have defended him. Some millions still shop at A&F, but the brand has lost much of its mystique.

Time, as it tends to do, kept ticking, and so did the trend machine. Fast forward a decade and the comfortable sneer of Abercrombie is as out of fashion as Jersey Shore bro culture. But the brand has failed to adequately keep pace with a world less interested in its attitude and appearance. And now Jeffries has paid the price. He “retired” in December 2014, leaving the brand without its iconic – if controversial – leader…and, worse, without much of any plan for how to retake the retail hill.