Everyone knows about Abercrombie & Fitch's revival and dominance of the retail scene in the late '90s. The Bruce Weber catalogs, the loud music, the shirtless models emblazoned on the entrance, even the smell of their signature cologne, Fierce, permeated popular culture for several years. Matthew Shaer's piece for New York Magazine highlights the man behind the sudden resurgence and staggering success of the Ohio based company as well as its equally quick demise.
That man is CEO Mike Jeffries, the 69-year-old MBA graduate from Columbia that has helmed A&F since 1992. Charged with reviving the 100 year old brand, Jeffries injected what seems to be his own personal aesthetics and aspirations into the once famed outfitter's DNA. Relying on the age and heritage of the brand, the now ubiquitous 1892 logo was Jeffries's move, as was the design and feel of A&F's retail spaces. Jeffries kept the outdoorsy, elitist connotations of a wealthy man's outdoor outfitter, but instead of double barreled shotguns and leather jackets, pushed for a kind of California kid at boarding school on the East coast vibe. "Sun kissed" hair is an element specifically outlined in Abercrombie's now infamous "Look Policy," as is the amount skinny jeans should be rolled (down to the quarter inch), and employees are encouraged to emulate the models featured in the brand's advertising. But Jeffries isn't one of those CEOs that insists on such strict aesthetics only for his employees. According to the article, Jeffries is that look. Or at least he aspires to be a beefy model in boxer shorts in the midst of a rugby scrum with his equally attractive friends. And it's this insistence and infatuation with a very particular aesthetic and ethos that has hampered the company in the wake of fast fashion, the growth of the internet and a global economic downturn.
Before the creation of the Hollister brand, Abercrombie was a one stop shop of elitism and raw sexuality, two things that teenagers are specifically attracted to. And it worked. In high school I knew of kids that were basically suburban versions of 'Lo heads, stealing as much of the bran'’s expensive cable knits and distressed denim as they could carry. And it was this extreme sort of fetishism that made the brand so successful for a better part of a decade. Kids wanted to belong. They wanted to be like the kids that worked at the retail stores. The company, like any cool kid, courted controversy and pushed the boundaries between titillation and flat out bad taste. All of Jeffries's, and subsequently the company's, success and cultural domination have to be seen through a prism that accounts for the lack of Internet culture.
The Internet has extended our collective memories and we all remember the complete and utter asshole that Abercrombie was so proud to be.
Social media wasn’t even a concept in 1998. Kids still had to watch MTV and read magazines and hope their parents could afford to take them on vacations if they wanted to see what was going on in the rest of the country. Outrage at some of the brand’s more gauche maneuvers couldn't gain a foothold because it cropped up in pockets without an easy mode of dissemination. By the time Ruehl No. 925, Jeffries's ill-fated, high-end concept, debuted, the Internet and the competition had caught up to Abercrombie. The culture had shifted. It wasn’t cool anymore to overspend on something you could get for 20-30% cheaper. It wasn’t cool to be tacitly racist and elitist. But Jeffries seems to never have gotten that memo. Shaer's article paints Jeffries as a sort of tanned, bottle blonde Kurtz: a charismatic tyrant ensconced in his Ohio fiefdom, sheltered from the changing tides and sensibilities. When a company is printing money like Abercrombie was, the idiosyncrasies and totalitarian grip on the company's direction seem almost genius-like. But now, the very same sense of superiority and coolness are seen as plaguing the flailing brand's leadership, jeopardizing the company and it's already precarious position in the retail landscape.
The board has since put in place moves to engage markets that company once purposefully ostracized: plus sizes, lower pricing tiers and decidedly international markets like Dubai and Asia. But all of this appears too little too late and reeks of a desperate and self-serving grab for attention and any semblance of relevance, just like the mean girl who suddenly realizes that no one likes her anymore and tries to be nice to all the people she picked on at the lunch table in order to save her fleeting social cache. It's not working.
The Internet has extended our collective memories and we all remember the complete and utter asshole that Abercrombie was so proud to be. And we aren't forgiving them. Instead, we’re looking at them as a relic of retail's past—a crumbling bastion of the pre-fast fashion era. Abercrombie's license was originally bought for only $1.5 million dollars years ago because they refused to change. It appears as if Jeffries and his once powerful flip-flop empire are making the same mistake.