You drive to the bar the night before Thanksgiving hoping to "re-connect" with that girl you almost hooked up with after prom, that was one spin the bottle rotation away, who you never had the nerve to talk to in your younger, more sober days. You walk into the bar, and instead of the one that got away, you see that guy you hoped you would never see again. The deposed homecoming king with sunken eyes, scraggly facial hair, and a beer belly that normally belongs to a much older drunk. Whether it's been ten years, five years, or a single summer, somehow he looks like he has aged a few decades from the glory days of putting his hand up his girlfriend's denim skirt to kill the boredom of study hall. One look in his eyes bears out those words from David H. Hwang's M. Butterfly, "There's no guarantee of failure in life like happiness in high school."
Abercrombie & Fitch crawled out of the awkward memories of our adolescence and made some news recently, announcing it was dropping its logo from its clothing following plummeting sales. Hearing this news was like encountering that asshole at the bar in his faded varsity jacket. Though I took some satisfaction from the brand's failure, long forgotten images of pre-wrinkled plaid shirts and pre-faded tees I could never afford came flooding back, giving me a bout of high school style PTSD. I had visions of the years when the absence of a moose logo on my shirt was a constant reminder that I wasn't good enough.
Between 1999 and 2004, the name Abercrombie & Fitch, the letters "A" and "F," and its moose mascot were the high school status symbol. Abercrombie & Fitch wasn't just hip or cool, the brand represented All-American perfection. A&F made the clothes that beautiful people threw on the ground as they ran toward the late-night drunken skinny-dipping make-out sessions you weren't invited to.
As with all great empires, Abercrombie eventually fell. Hollister, American Eagle, and Aéropostale fought amongst themselves for preppy supremacy in the wake of A&F's demise. As these pretenders to the throne fell by the wayside, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel attempted to merge culture and counterculture with their brand of cool. But, for a brief moment there, well before A&F's collapse, beautiful scantily clad girls traipsed through shopping malls carrying oversized navy and yellow bags plastered with beautiful scantily clad men running through wheat fields. In those days, Abercrombie & Fitch reigned supreme.
Where I grew up in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the home of pasty white Pennsylvania Dutch sons of sons of former farmers, the boys wore their Abercrombie plaid with loose fitting jeans and Timberland boots. Underneath the plaid was a white T-shirt with a shabby chic "A.F." stitched on the front. Their girlfriends wore Abercrombie V-neck sweaters with a small moose on the left nipple that showed off what cleavage they could muster with a burgeoning B-cup and a push-up bra. I'm sure the uniform looked different as you moved across the country—in SoCal the shirts were worn with floral print board shorts, in Texas with cowboy boots—but the AF and the moose were constants of cool from sea to shining sea.
No amount of plaid was going to make my gangly, swarthy frame look like a burly corn-fed farm boy. Besides, even if the clothes were just the popularity panacea I needed, there was no chance I would ever be blessed with A&F. My hippie parents had parents who were children of The Great Depression: my grandmother had a collection of decades-old newspapers in her basement until the day she died, just in case she may need them. My parents' anti-establishment bent combined with their hereditary thriftiness meant that the odds of me wearing Abercrombie gear were about as likely as our family's library getting stocked with the latest from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.
To their credit, my parents did take me to the mall to buy clothes. Well, they took me near the mall to buy clothes. While the Abercrombie store took up prime real estate—viewable from the food court, but not near enough to have its overpowering in-store scent sullied by the stench of Auntie Anne's buttered pretzels—in the mall itself, my parents took me to the Kohl's located across the street from the mall, nestled between a Target and a Michael's. At the time, Kohl's best selling item seemed to be the camouflage T-shirt that said, "Ha! Now you can't see me." I'm no fashion expert, so I can't say that this was the least cool shirt ever printed, but it has to be in contention. Kohl's also offered clothes that looked kind of like what was sold at Abercrombie, but without fail, its offerings were exactly 34 percent uglier and precisely 87 percent frumpier. A men's small hung off of my lithe teen frame like a college co-ed's walk of shame hoodie.
A Kohl's-centric wardrobe meant a one way ticket to the lunch table with the kids for whom the annual social highlight is the Renaissance Faire; I knew I had to develop another plan. My friends and I decided that because "If you can't beat 'em, join them," wasn't an option, the next best option was "If you can't join 'em, shop at Hot Topic."
At the time, the prevailing mode of counterculture was "emo kid." Each generation's approved counterculture looks different but is comprised of the same group of disenfranchised teens: kids that are in bands, kids in the school band, kids who work on the yearbook, kids who don't get a yearbook. Our particular uniform was Dashboard Confessional T-shirts, swooshy long hair, and skinny jeans. Today, I imagine teens of a similar ilk might be preaching the gospel of Future and Kendrick Lamar in a post-Macklemore landscape and sporting streetwear even if their town has more cul-de-sacs than streets.
The jocks, for their part, have been wearing loose jeans, plaid shirts, and graphic tees for the last thirty years, and it looks like that isn't going to change any time soon, except that the graphics have new words on them every few years.
The brilliance of Abercrombie in its prime went deeper than merely excluding the easily excludable. Abercrombie even made the people who bought its clothes feel left out. A few years ago, I was drinking with a friend who now wears Italian leather shoes and $300 jeans to his job at a New York ad firm on one of those aimless nights between Christmas and New Years. I asked him about an ad I had seen for Hollister, Abercrombie's sister brand. The ad featured one model dressed like he was at the beach, another dressed like he was ready for a day on the slopes, and another made up as an all-middle-American boy.
"What are they selling?" I asked.
"Everywhere you're not." he replied.
That was what made Abercrombie & Fitch so powerful back then. It wasn't just that it didn't want overweight women shopping in its stores. It didn't want anyone shopping in its stores. No one was good enough. Even the half-naked models on its bags weren't quite good enough for its clothes, or at least they weren't good enough to be rewarded with an entire outfit. This meant that if you looked in the mirror and saw something close to an Abercrombie-worthy body, you were obliged to max out your parents' credit cards in pursuit of A&F's approval, knowing deep down that you would always fall short. Abercrombie practiced a kind of hip Eugenics. Not only did you have to be sinewy with sharp features and a youthful face; you had to live on the beach, and on the slopes, and on the farm all at the same time.
On second thought, maybe Abercrombie & Fitch hasn't lost at all. In a way, this is what Abercrombie & Fitch always wanted. Perhaps a truly aspirational brand hasn't reached its goal until no one is left wearing its clothes.
Brenden Gallagher still refuses to shop at Kohl's even though his parents send him Kohl's Cash during every Back-to-School sale. High school spin the bottle partners are welcome to rekindle what might have been on Twitter at @muddycreekU.