Can Abercrombie & Fitch Be Cool Again?

The American teen brand has been making big changes in an effort to rebrand its identity. But is it too late to recapture its glory days?

In 1999, Aaron Levine decided to take time off from his studies at Virginia Tech and, at his parents’ request, began applying for jobs. “My parents were kinda like, ‘You know what? Take some time off on your own dime,’” recalls Levine. He drove to a local Abercrombie & Fitch store in Richmond, Va. and dropped off his resume.

He was hired as an assistant manager. But, Levine admits, he wasn’t the archetypal A&F guy. He didn’t resemble a Greek god, like the rest of the “models” (A&F’s term for its salespeople at the time). “I had long hair, I was scruffier,” he says. “I still don’t know how I got the job.” Levine, who was in his early 20s, didn’t know it then, but he’d find himself back at A&F a decade and a half later.

In May 2015, Levine, who was then vice president of men’s design at Club Monaco, received a call about the opportunity to head A&F’s men’s design. A surprised Levine went home and consulted his wife. “I was like, ‘I got this really interesting phone call.’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, sure, that’ll never happen.’” A month later, Levine was hired, the latest step in the rebranding of Abercrombie & Fitch that began near the end of Michael Jeffries’ tenure as CEO, following several lawsuits and controversies and plummeting sales. In 2014, the company toned down its stores’ nightclub vibe; it lowered the deafening music, turned up the lights, and sprayed exactly 25 percent less of its “Fierce” cologne. It also minimized the signature logos on clothing.

“This company is very sound,” Jeffries told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2014. “Its customer is changing, and we’re ready to change with her and him.” Earlier this month, A&F released its Spring/Summer 2016 collection—Levine’s first for the brand. The collection—and A&F—received glowing reviews. GQ wrote in its review of the new collection that they were “glad to see the brand finally moving in the right direction.” Maxim published a piece with the headline: “THIS IS NOT THE ABERCROMBIE & FITCH YOU REMEMBER.”

But can Abercrombie & Fitch be cool again?

Aaron Levine, head of men's design at Abercrombie & Fitch (Image via Abercrombie & Fitch)

Abercrombie & Fitch wasn’t always a preppy purveyor of clothing to good-looking teens. It was founded in New York in 1892 by David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch as a sporting goods emporium that sold everything from golf clubs to safari wear. Its clients included the elite: President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly shopped there for equipment for an African safari; Amelia Earhart wore A&F’s flying jackets; Ernest Hemingway was a frequent visitor to the firearms floor. By 1939, A&F was calling itself the “greatest sporting goods store in the world.”

But in August 1976, A&F filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The following year, it closed its 12-story New York flagship. It shifted ownership and direction until it was eventually purchased by The Limited Inc., a clothing chain operator, in January 1988, and honed in on apparel.

Jeffries, who was previously an executive at Paul Harris Stores, joined A&F in 1992. When he arrived, he reportedly wore khakis, oxford shirts, and loafers—the polar opposite of the Abercrombie jeans and flip-flops he’d later wear to work everyday. From the outset, Jeffries focused on turning A&F into the retailer for American youth. He revamped A&F clothing—sweatshirts, sweatpants, graphic tees, polo shirts, and hoodies with massive A&F and moose logos, jeans, denim shorts, and flip-flops. He also defined a culture dedicated to youth and good looks. “That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores,” Jeffries told Salon in January 2006 in a now-infamous interview. “Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”

The modern-day Abercrombie & Fitch represented exclusivity and a certain lifestyle, and Jeffries fostered a total immersion in that brand identity. He wrote a 29-page “Look Book” for sales staff that included guidelines like: No makeup or colored nailpolish; no tattoos; hair should be natural and long; no beards or mustaches. Sales employees were required to wear A&F clothing or logo-less clothing that resembled A&F’s products. Even the male crew members aboard the company’s private plane had to wear jeans, boxers, polo shirts, and flip-flops, as outlined in an “Aircraft Standards” manual, according to a former pilot for the company’s private jet who sued Abercrombie in 2010. “It was super controlled,” a former A&F employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told us. “Everyone looked identical.”

“[Jeffries] marketed the brand to be a cool brand,” says Marcie Cooperman, assistant professor of fashion marketing management at Parsons. “The message was this is really cool, and we know we’re cool. It’s almost as if Abercrombie was the cool kid in class, and you wanted to be a part of it.”

During Jeffries’ tenure, A&F was known for its racy advertisements. In 1997, the company launched the now-defunct A&F Quarterly, a magazine and catalog that was sold for $6 and would later only be available to those 18 years and older. Issues boasted highly-sexualized editorials as well as pictures of all-American boys and girls nearly or completely nude. In 2003, it featured articles on both oral and group sex. In the late 1990s to early 2000s, Taylor Swift, Ashton Kutcher, Olivia Wilde, and Channing Tatum—who represented the sexy, extremely good-looking college kid A&F targeted—all modeled for the mag.

For nearly a decade, A&F’s profit increased every year thanks to a loyal fanbase across America and overseas (there was a Chinese bootleg Abercrombie & Fitch website, called abercrombie-and-fitchoutlet.com, which sold a pair of pants that were called “n-word brown”), some of whom made fan sites and discussed everything from A&F’s store playlist to cologne scents in forums. “It’s because [Abercrombie] had a very clear point of view, which was you either belong or you don’t belong. You can wear the clothes, but that doesn’t mean you fit in,” explains Business Insider retail reporter Mallory Schlossberg. “That’s something that’s aspirational. People want to be part of that lifestyle, whether they want to admit it or not.”

“It almost gave Abercrombie a mystique,” she adds, “an allure that attracted consumers.”

Michael Jeffries with Bruce Weber in 2005 (Image via Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic)

A&F’s success attracted widespread attention to its corporate culture. In June 2001, the New York Post published a story with the headline: “IS THIS A CULT?—AT ABERCROMBIE & FITCH’S NEW HQ, BRAND IS RELIGION.” Reporter Lisa Marsh wrote that A&F “is more like a creed than a clothing brand,” thanks to the company’s “omnipresent logos” and “aggressive lifestyle-oriented marketing that makes you feel like you’re buying a polo shirt and getting the horse and a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard along with it.” Rick A. Ross of The Cult Education Institute—which studies real cults—told Business Insider in 2015 that successful brands, much like cults, “create a kind of environment that they control—it’s reinforcing that they use likability, they use authority, they have a philosophy, they tend to think that their way is the right way, and other ways are not.” He added: “You can become embedded in a kind of subculture with either group.”

But the epitome of American teen brands would soon see darker days. A&F sales started to dip during the 2001 recession and in the following years as the retail climate shifted. Teens were shopping differently because of the rise of the internet and fast-fashion brands like Zara and H&M, but A&F failed to transition. “[Jeffries] wanted the same stuff that worked in the 2000s that didn’t work anymore,” says the former Abercrombie employee who asked to remain anonymous. “Designers couldn’t do anything because [Jeffries] had it in his mind how he wanted things to look.

The controversies also began to pile up. 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 tees featured Asian caricatures with rice paddy hats, slanted eyes, and buck teeth. Asian American teens organized a boycott, and Abercrombie stopped selling the shirts.

"IT’S ALMOST AS IF ABERCROMBIE WAS THE COOL KID IN CLASS, AND YOU WANTED TO BE A PART OF IT."

A month later, the company sold thongs for pre-teen girls, which had “Eye Candy” and “Wink Wink” printed on their fronts. Parents protested, and Abercrombie pulled those from shelves as well. Jeffries later addressed the furor over the thongs in the same Salon interview. “That was bullshit,” he said. “People said we were cynical, that we were sexualizing little girls. But you know what? I still think those are cute underwear for little girls.” A year later, A&F was sued for allegedly passing on minority candidates to work in their stores.

In May 2013, A&F was criticized after Jeffries’ comments from the same Salon interview resurfaced in a Business Insider piece about the company’s refusal to stock XL or XXL sizes in women’s clothing. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” Jeffries said in the interview. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

According to brand researcher YouGov BrandIndex, A&F’s reputation plunged following the revival of Jeffries’ controversial comments. Forbes published a piece with the headline, “How A CEO Can Wreck a Brand In One Interview.” People began spoofing A&F’s ads and protested its standards. There was even a Change.org petition calling for a boycott of A&F until Jeffries apologized. Jeffries finally did so via Facebook, saying: “We sincerely regret and apologize for any offense caused by the comments we have made in the past which are contrary to the values of diversity and inclusion,” the statement read in part.

The cover of A&F Quarterly's "Back to School 2003: The Sex Ed Issue" issue ( Image via Abercrombie & Fitch)

By spring 2013, A&F ranked third and sixth on Piper Jaffray’s survey of brands teen girls and boys, respectively, no longer wore. By fall, it rose to No. 2, just under Aeropostale for teen girls and Gap for boys. Sales continued to drop and Abercrombie closed at least 220 mall stores. What once was the cool teen brand was now struggling.

Then, on Dec. 9, 2014, Jeffries stepped down as CEO after Engaged Capital, which owned less than half a percent of Abercrombie stock, publicly urged A&F to let him go or put the company up for sale.

Upon his exit, Jeffries issued a statement, saying: “It has been an honor to lead this extraordinarily talented group of people. I am extremely proud of your accomplishments. I believe now is the right time for new leadership to take the company forward in the next phase of its development.”

Jeffries had become synonymous with A&F. His departure signaled progress in the company, but also a new era. Still, some were unsure if A&F could ever recover from all the bad press and low sales. “I think that the history [Jeffries] has is kind of embedded into the company. Personally, I think it’s one of the challenges the brand faces,” maintains Schlossberg. “They now have cooler clothes, but I think for a lot of young people who know what Abercrombie stood for it’s a turnoff. They don’t want to be associated with that.” She acknowledges that Jeffries had an insurmountable influence on the company’s success, but his “famous attitude doesn’t really sit well with young consumers today” who, based on the studies she’s read, are much more socially conscious shoppers.

Without Jeffries at the helm, A&F continued to rebrand in hopes of redefining the company. The next year, following Jeffries departure, A&F overhauled its strict look policy. The company would no longer hire employees based on their physical attractiveness, soften its dress code to allow employees to be “more individualistic,” and no longer station shirtless models at store openings and other events. Store employees would also now be known as “brand representatives” instead of “models.” A&F would stop featuring “sexualized marketing,” sell black clothing, and add larger sizes.

“We are focused on the future, not the past, and there is complete alignment that these are the right changes,” Abercrombie & Fitch brand president Christos Angelides told CNN.

Aaron Levine, for better or for worse, has become the face of the new Abercrombie. Levine, who has a full beard and tattoos that snake down both of his biceps, has been, as The Huffington Post put it, “known in retail as a rescue man who puts out fires in struggling houses (see his work at Club Monaco, Jack Spade, and Rogues Gallery).” Would he be able to help restore Abercrombie, the “most hated brand in America” according to 2016 results from the American Customer Satisfaction Index? (A&F scored the lowest for the retail industry with a 65, almost 10 points below the entire sector’s overall score.)

Abercrombie & Fitch’s New York flagship sits on Fifth Avenue, directly across from the Trump Tower, and surrounded by high-fashion labels like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Ralph Lauren. The three-story building is almost unrecognizable. Inside are dark wood furnishing and several wall display cases with wooden skis, shotguns, and other sporting goods. The store is well-lit and the music isn’t blaring. When we visited, most of the customers were in their mid-20s and early 30s.

The store is just another one of A&F’s efforts to rebrand the company. “This was about making the Abercrombie guy a little older,” says Levine. “This was about getting back to 101, and redefining the pillars of what we wanted this brand to stand for—quality and integrity of product.”

Abercrombie & Fitch's Spring/Summer 2016 collection (Images via Abercrombie & Fitch)

Earlier this month, Levine debuted his first collection for A&F. The collection is a throwback to A&F’s history as a sporting goods company, and was inspired by artists, adventurers, and photographers. There’s still strong hints of the A&F we know, but the pieces are an updated take on the classics that are reminiscent of Levine’s work at Club Monaco. Embroidered moose college tees and polos and billowing cargo pants have been switched for logo-less safari jackets, chunky cable-knit sweaters, linen shirts (the first time A&F has worked with linen), and bomber jackets. “We’re trying to make [the A&F customer] a little older,” says Levine.

Levine says he accepted the job at A&F because of the company’s storied history. “There are very few brands in the world that when you hear their name they resonate as much as Abercrombie & Fitch,” he explains over the phone from A&F’s headquarters, better known as the “campus,” in Ohio. “I think just the opportunity to work on the next chapter of this brand was too much to pass up. If you just see the potential it’s pretty staggering.”

He’s aware of the controversies that surrounded A&F. But, he says, those didn’t affect his decision. “You think about it for a second but then just completely don’t even worry about it,” he notes. “You just see potential; you just see the opportunity.”

He’s optimistic about what he and his team can do for A&F. Right now, he’s working on three seasons—Fall 2016, Winter 2016, and Spring 2017. When asked about how he’d like A&F to be seen under his tenure, his answer is forthright: “I would love [A&F] to become the apex of iconic American casual luxury brand on the planet. We want to give you the best product in the world and we wanna make it accessible.”

He doesn’t like the moniker “savior,” which several media publications have deemed him after announcement of his new position at A&F. “We haven’t done anything yet,” he says. “We haven’t proved anything yet. We’re working on it. It’s a work in progress.”

Still, one thing is clear. “I think [A&F] needed to evolve this time,” he continues. “We have to move forward. We can’t step in the same river twice.”

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