It's no secret that Abercrombie & Fitch has been on the outs for... well a long ass time. The brand aged poorly as modern teens tastes and shopping habits shifted; especially as the Internet removed them from suburban bubbles that mall brands like A&F thrive in. These troubles were only worsened after a series of insensitive, and out-of-touch remarks from former-CEO Mike Jeffries, leaving the brand at arguably one of its lowest points in its over 120 year history.
For all of the brand's recent blunders, A&F pulled a cinematic-like plot twist, hiring Aaron Levine (formerly of Rogues Gallery, hickey, and Club Monaco) as head of men's design. The hiring brings about several questions, which culminate to one make-or-break point: can Levine make Abercrombie & Fitch cool again?
I sat down with self-identifying menswear nerd Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon) to discuss Abercrombie & Fitch's Americana history, how A&F appears to today's consumer, and what Levine's past work hints at what he could bring to the ailing mall brand.
Greg Babcock: So let’s talk about Abercrombie & Fitch. The brand was started in 1892 by David Abercrombie, with Ezra Fitch—a New York City lawyer—buying into the brand. That’s how you get the “Abercrombie & Fitch.” Initially the brand was not meant for shirtless teens, but for New York City-based, Northeastern outdoorsmen who were wealthy enough to come into NYC.
Jian DeLeon: It was FAO Schwarz for outdoorsmen. You would go there to buy super expensive shotguns, really nice rucksacks, or field coats possible made of tweed or a really nice twill. There’s actually a shop in Flatiron called the Urban Angler, which is pretty much like a modern successor, but in this case, it’s just very fishing focused.
GB: So the first iteration of Abercrombie & Fitch initially is not what we see it as today. It’s historically an outdoorsman brand that’s truly “Americana.” It’s quite…
JD: Well “Americana” didn’t exist yet, it was an outfitter.
GB: Regardless of terms, the brand has a lot of history, not in being fashionable, but being practical.
JD: You can find plenty of vintage pieces from that era of Abercrombie & Fitch because they made it well into the '70s. When they were bought up by Oshman’s Sporting Goods in the ‘70s, A&F was turned into this mail order service—like the old Banana Republic, before Gap.
GB: You’re right. Oshman’s Sporting Goods, based out of Houston, TX, bought Abercrombie and its name in 1978. But the brand was inevitably acquired by The Limited [Editor's Note: Now known as L Brands] in the1980s, and that group owns a lot of mall brands. Honestly this is a move that really brings us into the “trendy” Abercrombie & Fitch that we’re familiar with in today’s consciousness. To state the obvious, this is one of the major reasons they’re not the outfitter they were before.
JD: And L Brands owns Bath and Body Works. What’s important to know is that Abercrombie is independent now. Its headquarters is still in Ohio, but it is pretty much its own entity at this point.
GB: For Abercrombie & Fitch to be bought in the late ‘80s by a holding company that specializes in—I wouldn’t say cheap things, but bringing clothing and merchandise to the masses through the mall—ultimately changed the way Abercrombie & Fitch sells itself and how it was presented to the public. If you’ve ever grown up in the suburbs or been into any mall across the United States, you’ve seen the Abercrombie staple of shirtless guys, lots of cologne or perfume coming out of the store, the dark club-like stores.
JD: You have the recognizable moose logo on the polos, you have the hoodies with the “A&F.” Personally, I never wore Abercrombie in high school, but I knew people who did. If you were any sort of minority, especially an Asian kid who wore Abercrombie, you’d be labeled as a “twinkie.” You know: Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. So that was my qualm with what the brand stood for. It represented everything I wasn’t. I wasn’t mainstream, white America. The logos were iconic in their own way, but I never wore the clothes.
GB: I think that when you talk about moose logos, and other forms of big branding, I think that it all really rings true of something like Ralph Lauren. Like the brand was trying to take what he succeeded so well at with Polo, and really bring it to the masses—through the mall. Inevitably that worked for a period of time.
But let’s say that while Ralph used something like the “romanticism of America,” A&F utilized something heavily drenched in sex appeal. The excitement drew in younger crowds who wanted in on the action.
JD: Now you’re talking about A&F Quarterly, where “the gawd” Bruce Weber was shooting really beautiful photos of nubile teen bodies. I remember there’s this one huge spread where it's this teenage girl, and a teenage boy both holding a dog in the water that's covering their private parts. That was the controversy-inducing side of it. How Abercrombie sort of had “fashion cred” was through that controversy. It became this thing where they sold clothes by constantly depicting people naked.
GB: If Tom Ford can make Gucci sexy, this was very small-scale, separated version of that.
JD: It was a subtle way of implying that people who wore Abercrombie & Fitch were having sex in high school.
GB: And in a way, that’s what made it cool. I think before you had the proliferation of brands like H&M and Zara, back in the ‘90s or early 2000s, fast fashion (and its attempts at upscale Euro-zone luxury) was not something we have as widespread as we have now.
JD: But the thing about Abercrombie is it had its own mythology, too. It had its own sub brands. Now you have Gilly Hicks; you had Hollister—which is actually a land-locked, working class town in California—marketed as a surf brand. There's no beach there! And for a short time you had Ruehl No.925, which was supposedly the post-grad, grown-up Abercrombie brand.
GB: So the brand had enough pull and cache to create a number of sub brands that would hit you at every point in your life really into young adulthood. It’s genius really, graduate your consumer, and keep them in your stores from puberty into their 20’s.
JD: Gilly Hicks is their Victoria's Secret competitor, sort of loungewear and intimates. The craziest thing to me—and the thing I’ve always hated about Abercrombie—is they have created fake personas that embody each brand. They have these fake stories behind each brand. With Hollister they made it seem like it was an old surf brand that they resurrected. For Gilly Hicks they pretended like it was an Australian socialite that opened a store way back when.
Abercrombie & Fitch is ironically the most authentic label in that it actually was an old brand, but nothing with Abercrombie & Fitch has anything to do with its predecessor. The concept of Ruehl No.925 was to be an upscale line with really expensive leather goods. It was supposed to help graduate the A&F consumer to a whole new wardrobe... and it failed miserably. As a result, they just ended up making more expensive versions of the washed denim and the polos and pretty much all the core staples that the Abercrombie has. There was a crazy amount of bullshit that they had thought of behind each brand.
GB: Which was ironic because the brand’s original story is so authentic and so legitimate and really could, and should be, at the core of the brand. I think today’s consumer really wants that. But to be honest, I think a lot of brands to create stories for their consumer and for their product lines because that’s how they can really feasibly sell it.
JD: I know that Lululemon has two similar figures: Duke and Ocean, meant to represent their ideal male and female customer. That's a little different to me. It’s fine to have a target.
GB: To create a persona is not necessarily a bad thing, I just think that today’s consumers can see when something is very inauthentic.
JD: The bullshit meter is more on point than ever. We live in an age where people are hyper aware of branding. There’s an old BBC video with Stüssy and you have one of the guys in the video like “you know the real shit when you see it.” That’s every consumer now, especially teens.
GB: And I think today’s teen wants to be fashionable now more than ever. Inevitably Abercrombie sunk itself into its aesthetic so much that it changed its fate. There’s been so many discussions on “Internet culture” and how that’s impacted style for teens and young adults.
I think that now, more than ever, teens don’t want to wear the same thing throughout high school. They don’t want to sit with one overarching brand cycle. They’re constantly changing. People are on Tumblr, and on their favorite style blogs, and they’re not trying to stay within one aesthetic until the store tells them to graduate into another one.
JD: And in many ways Abercrombie was a victim of the teen consumers being able to shop outside the mall. Abercrombie is good at creating coolness within a bubble, and the bubble is small towns and certain cliques in high school. If one kid wears Abercrombie, all the kids wear Abercrombie.
But it’s not like all high schools look like Mean Girls anymore. We’re not all trying to wear Cady Heron's army pants and flip-flops. Everything now melts together more, and everyone’s borrowing shit.
GB: So fair enough, we’ve established that the A&F consumer has evolved. But on the topic of changing tides, let’s move on to Aaron Levine.
Aaron Levine has been recently tapped to be the head of menswear for Abercrombie & Fitch. This move reeks of, like many designer influxes before him, an attempt to revitalize the brand and create a new look for what Abercrombie & Fitch was, and will be. I mean, shouts to Moschino for bringing on Jeremy Scott.
So going back to Aaron Levine’s past, Aaron has a lot of hand in what we would consider to be Americana today. He’s worked with Rogues Gallery, and Hickey Freeman, which is a classic American outfitter.
JD: hickey is the now-deceased offshoot brand of Hickey Freeman, which was actually ahead of its time. For those who don’t know, Hickey Freeman is the New York-based brand that's owned by Hartmarx, the company that makes Obama’s suits. hickey was supposed to be the rebellious, younger brother of the Hickey Freeman man. You had really amazing pieces like a black watch toggle coat, or a corduroy suit. I actually have a donegal tweed tuxedo from hickey that I found at Filene’s Basement and this shit was really expensive. Sadly, hickey was a commercial failure, partially because it was so expensive and you could always find it on sale. But that doesn’t mean the shit wasn’t good.
GB: So hickey was in a time when America was returning, and American craftsmanship was returning, but the consumer wasn’t ready.
JD: It’s like hickey had been established, I think the last season was fall 2010, and menswear bloggers couldn’t get enough of it. If you look at the Sartorially Inclined archives, there are mad posts dedicated to hickey. But it’s one of those brands that was ahead of it’s time. Aaron Levine ultimately excelled at taking previous ideas and collections, and just revisiting them on other platforms and the bigger brands that he’s worked for.
GB: And the same for the Rogues Gallery, that’s a little bit younger like hickey and Hickey Freeman. There’s not classic tailoring history, but it is in the same aesthetic.
JD: Rogues Gallery was a Portland, Maine-based brand, and the original founder was Alex Carleton who then went on to start L.L. Bean signature, and it was very much rebel prep. Your basic oxford shirts, loose fitting pea coats, you know, Northeastern-type gear. My favorite things from Rogues Gallery were often resurrected in Club Monaco’s menswear.
GB: You mention Club Monaco… Club Monaco is really the other side of J. Crew. If J. Crew is one pillar and Club Monaco is another, these are brands defining “middle fashion.”
JD: That’s kind of a discredit to compare J. Crew to Club. Sure they’re both menswear brands or mid-market retailers, but on the opposite side of the coin they did take some of the strategies that Todd Snyder brought to J. Crew. Club Monaco did do what J.Crew did—introducing third-party brands like Barbour, wings + horns, [Mark] McNairy… But Levine also spearheaded some awesome collaborations. He made a Reigning Champ collab with Club Monaco that resurrected the classic Club Monaco graphic sweatshirt from the late ‘80s. It was actually super popular in Canada.
Levine ignited brand synergy there; he oversaw the Lardini collaboration, and he also spearheaded the “Made in the USA” line at Club Monaco. He bought Club Monaco into a new suit resurgence. He brought in the “Grant fit” which was Club Monaco’s answer to J.Crew’s Ludlow. Club Monaco pushes the envelope even more, it was the best store at the mall if you are a menswear nerd. I mean, you can get Lardini Bouclé topcoat at Club Monaco…
GB: Which, for the record, is an Italian brand with a lot of luxury attached to it. Also, it’s worth saying that while Club Monaco does have a presence in the mall, most of its stores are independent of a shopping center. They are their own build out.
JD: The 5th Ave. flagship is dope. It feels like a Ralph Lauren store, but it’s Club Monaco. You have marble and wood floors, there’s a Toby's Estate coffee shop, there's even a Strand bookstore and a florist, it's crazy.
GB: So noting all this, and now with Aaron Levine brought into the fold at Abercrombie & Fitch, what is that supposed to do for A&F?
JD: It’s a step in the right direction for sure, but the brand’s problems are beyond the designs. Abercrombie makes jogger pants, they make slim fitting cargo pants, they garment wash the shit out of everything so that it fits in the same color scheme. Abercrombie is notorious for washing their shit to the point that, if you try to mix it in with other brands, it doesn’t quite look right. But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t inspired by the A&F history.
There are rumors that the design team from Brunello Cucinelli apparently loves the lifestyle and aesthetic of Abercrombie, and referenced it in their designs sometimes. I’ve heard about people from higher Italian brands buying Abercrombie by the boatload and referencing it in collections that cost 10 times more—if not 100 times more.
GB: So really, the question here is: What is the new design aesthetic now that Aaron Levine has come on board? It’s not so much that’s he’s going to be designing new clothes, new cuts new, fits, but rather overhauling the aesthetic—back into the brand’s former glory.
JD: Yeah. People don’t shop at Abercrombie because 1. It’s boring, and 2. Mike Jeffries has shown himself to be an asshole. Who wants to support that kind of business?
GB: But you personally don’t think that Aaron Levine is going to overhaul the design? I think a lot of people, when they think of Abercrombie and the design, (maybe rightly or not rightly so) they’re thinking of poppy pink polos or light wash cargo jeans; light denim with a lot of rips, and flip flops.
JD: The most important thing we have to establish first is that that’s the shit that’s selling overseas. Honestly, Abercrombie is one of the most counterfeited brands globally. It’s to the point where they’ve had to take action to make sure that their shit is not getting bootlegged. You remember the controversy a couple years ago? There were a pair of pants that were colored “n-word brown” on a bootleg Abercrombie site. The issue was the result of faulty translation software, but goes to show that A&F is still in demand outside of the United States.
Friends that I know that make shit in China, when they ask their Chinese factory liaisons about what American sportswear is today, they’re citing brands like Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie in equal measure. That is what most people think “American style” is across the globe.
GB: Here in America we obviously have a much different perspective. I think the bigger question is what Aaron is going to bring to the storied brand— the Abercrombie & Fitch with over 100 years in the game. What is he going to bring to a brand like that that’s going to revolutionize its standing in the eyes of the American consumer?
JD: If he does what he did at Club Monaco—have other brands with a higher cachet than Abercrombie sit on their shelves and make it a little more accessible to that consumer—then he’ll be on the right track.
There’s a reason why cultivating a pseudo-multibrand retail environment works. You’ll put in the $300 wings + horns M-65, and then you’ll make an in-house version that costs half that. The average consumer will obviously go for the cheaper one because it’s creating a situation where you can “get the look” in the same building for less. In that environment, if you want to splurge on the high-end piece you can, but you can still feel like you’re splurging on the in-house line.
GB: Do you think that Abercrombie & Fitch could reach a level of style—and we aren’t saying fashion week style—but, you know, J. Crew has a nice clean aesthetic that they’ve culled a fan base out of. Do you think Aaron Levine can do that for Abercrombie & Fitch here in the menswear market?
JD: The clothes actually aren’t bad, it’s menswear staples like oxfords, cargo pants, chinos, denim. Can it use a branding overhaul? Absolutely.
The way it’s put together right now sucks. How people perceive it sucks. Aaron Levine has a lot of work on his hands, it will be interesting to see what he does. But ultimately, a lot of Abercrombie’s problems precede him, and are above what he, as men’s creative director can do.