The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) is a retailer of casual clothing, accessories and cologne primarily marketed toward youths of the collegiate demographic. It operates 800 domestic stores and 200 international stores in North America, Europe and Asia. The annual sales accounts for nearly $3 billion. Currently A&F features four brands: Abercrombie & Fitch, abercrombie kids, Gilly Hicks and Hollister.


1. Company history

Abercrombie & Fitch began in 1892 when David Abercrombie, a designer of tents and camping equipment, opened a store in downtown New York City. The shop started out selling high-quality camping, fishing and hunting gear to professional hunters and explorers. When a lawyer named Ezra Fitch bought into the business, the store changed its name to Abercrombie & Fitch in 1904.

Fitch had a vision to expand the business after his partner retired in 1907. He breathed life into the store display by giving it an outdoor vibe. He set up a fully equipped tent and campfire in the store as if in the middle of wilderness. The shop assistants were not professional salesmen but outdoorsmen who are knowledgeable about what they sold. In 1913, the store moved to a more fashionable and high-trafficked location near Fifth Avenue and added clothing to its inventory. It became the first store in New York to sell clothes for both men and women. A&F also published a 456-page catalog that was accessed by 50,000 prospective customers world-wide, which opened the gate for international orders to start flooding in.

In 1917, A&F had become the largest sporting goods store in the world. Fitch invested a lot of capital and creativity in impressing customers. He built a log cabin on the roof to be used as a townhouse, a pool where people could test fishing rods and flies, golf school, a floor for setting up camps and a dog and cat kennel. In addition to standard outdoor goods, A&F had a collection of exotic equipment such as hot air balloons, trampolines, treadmills for dogs, throwing knives, chainmail shirts and falconry gear. It supplied many great hunting and exploration trips, like Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition to Africa, the Amazon and Robert Peary’s excursion to the North Pole. Other famous clients included Ernest Hemingway, Presidents Hoover, Eisenhower and Kennedy, Amelia Earhart, the Duke of Windsor and Katharine Hepburn.

Despite its growth, Abercrombie & Fitch went bankrupt in 1977 and was bought by Oshman’s Sporting Goods. It and ended up under the ownership of The Limited Inc in 1988.

In 1992, Michael Jeffries was hired as CEO, and he had a vision to change the target market from mature audiences to younger generations. He took the lead in defining and marketing an “idealized American college lifestyle.” The store now “carries casual-looking teen clothing with a not so casual price tag.” By the time A&F became independent in 1998, it was one of the most successful specialty clothing retailers.

Abercrombie & Fitch is the company’s oldest brand. It is rooted in the East Coast tradition and Ivy League Heritage and marketed toward college students of the 18 – 22 age group. The company describes this brand as the “essence of privilege and casual luxury,” “confident,” “provocative,” “timeless” and “always cool.” abercrombie kids (in lowercase) is a younger prep-school version of Abercrombie & Fitch, which targets seven to 14 year-olds. Hollister is A&F’s take on the Southern Californian lifestyle, aimed toward teenagers from 14 to 18 and priced lower than the original Abercrombie & Fitch. With a theme that centers on sun, sea and surfing, Hollister embodies a laidback, “effortlessly cool” vibe.

Reuhl No. 925 was established in 2004 to appeal to a more mature, post-graduate clientele in their mid-20s to early 30s. It was discontinued in 2010 due to disappointing performance. The company’s newest creation (2008) Gilly Hicks is inspired by “Down Under” Sydney, Australia. With a “flirty and carefree” attitude and “tomboy sexiness,” the lingerie brand targets women who are 18 or older.


2. Branding

Currently based in Ohio, A&F’s mission statement is to be “ committed to providing comfortable and long lasting clothes that look good.” This statement encompasses four points about the company and its products’ attributes. The clothes it manufactures are designated to be casual (comfortable), long-lasting (high-quality), trendy and fashionable (look good). This is a complete and down-to-earth description of the product. A&F is now marketed as the embodiment of “American cool” and “casual luxury” – a trademark slogan by A&F that evokes the characteristics of its products. The company’s clothes are priced quite high but still sell well because they are associated with a youthful, privileged, inspiring lifestyle.

The A&F appears on its products in several forms but primarily consists of the name “Abercrombie & Fitch” in a serif font and the image of a moose. The animal logo probably originated since the beginning where the company used to cater hunting and camping gears. A&F still tries to maintain the outdoor vibe in its products and lifestyle, evident through its photography and store decorations.

abercrombie & fitch ad
With a history of selling first-class professional equipment, A&F continues to position itself as a high-quality, upscale retailer of casual clothing. Learning from the early visionary Ezra Fitch, the store sells not only clothes and accessories but a lifestyle. This approach is reflected in the consistent clothing designs, in-store music and decorations, ad campaigns, catalogs and overall aesthetics. The all-American, cool ideal that A&F constructs is a very wholesome, provocative one. The company’s advertising materials heavily feature young, scantily-clad white male models with sculpted bodies. A typical Abercrombie look for girls entails a slender body, natural hair and makeup, jeans, a moose-logo tank top or T-shirt layered under a sweater and flip flops. The sales representatives working in the store are referred to as “models,” and they have to look the part.

President and CEO Mike Jeffries doesn’t deny this exclusionary attitude that is based on looks and sexuality attraction. He was quoted in an article, saying: “We hire good-looking people in our stores. 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.”

One of the company’s weaknesses in previous years was its narrow focus on male clothing. However, A&F has begun to target women and children and benefited from the lucrativeness of these markets. Florals, bright colors and sexy silhouettes are added to the clothing lines to attract women. The new Gilly Hicks carries exclusively female lingerie. The abercrombie kids brand caters to children aged seven to 14, and Hollister is geared toward the next age group – 14 to 18 year olds.

Abercrombie.com is a very important marketing and e-commerce tool. The website has an understated but classic, chic design. It’s estimated that customers pay one million visits per month to the site. The men’s clothing items are named after outdoor locations such as Bradley Pond, Calkins Brook, Mount Armstrong and Boundary Peak, while women’s clothes bear American girl-next-door names such as Kaylin, Natalie, Addison, Lucy and Jessica. Abercrombie.com has a tab for investor relations and a “Diversity” page that boasts an inclusive corporate culture.

A&F’s success has evoked aggressive competition from companies like American Eagle Outfitters, Inc, Aeropostale, Gap, Inc and The Limited. In 1998, A&F sued American Eagle for copying its trademarks, offering the same type of merchandise for lower prices. However, the lawsuit was dismissed when the judge decided that clothing style and image were not copyrightable.

3. Marketing and criticism

Since Mike Jeffries became CEO, A&F has presented a sexualized, idealized brand image and persuaded consumers aspire to it. The company maximizes in-store advertising by hiring attractive employees to represent the Abercrombie look. A&F stores are usually dimly lit, heavily sprayed with cologne and blasted with music. The first thing that greets customers as they walk into an Abercrombie and Fitch or Hollister store is a wall-size poster of a topless male model. A&F is also known for having male models wearing unbuttoned or no shirts pose in front of its stores.

A&F has faced considerable criticism, boycotting and lawsuits regarding its overtly sexual materials as well as controversial products and employee discrimination. Since the 2000s, A&F has received severe complaints from customers and advocate groups for selling T-shirts with offensive, degrading, racist and sexist slogans such as: “Wong Brothers Laundry Service – two Wongs can make it white,” “Who needs brains when you have these” (referring to a woman’s breasts), “I had a nightmare last night I was brunette,” and “It’s all relative in West Virginia” (stereotyping widespread incest in the state). The company angered parent groups when they started selling thong panties, emblazoned with “Eye Candy” and “Wink, Wink,” in the abercrombie kids store.

In the 2003 holiday season, A&F’s quarterly publication titled “Christmas Field Guide” was pulled from the shelves early because it was too racy. Advertised on the cover as containing “group sex and more,” the catalog features partially and fully nude teen-looking models in very suggestive poses. Although the company maintained that the models and purchasers of the catalog had to be 18 or older, it was obvious that A&F appealed to teenagers. The National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families launched a boycott against A&F on the basis that this publication promoted “sexual promiscuity.” It also collected anecdotal evidence of teens as young as 13 and 14 purchasing the magalog.

In 2004, A&F was ordered by the court to pay $40 million to several thousand minority and female plaintiffs. This was after multiple allegations that the company discriminated against female and colored workers. Hispanic, black and Asian employees complained that when they applied for jobs, they were steered to low-visibility positions that involved stocking and cleaning up in the back of the store. The settlement wanted A&F to increase diversity not only in hiring but also in its advertising materials, which had been dominated by white, preppy models. As a result, A&F agreed to hire 25 diversity recruiters and a vice president for diversity.

In conclusion, A&F is a highly successful and profitable retailer of high-quality casual clothing thanks to its lifestyle brands. However, its marketing tactics are not healthy and beneficial to the target market because they promote sexual promiscuity and unrealistic body images. The company’s reputation has and will suffer if it continues pushing shock-value marketing at the cost of political correctness.

(Statistics as of November 2010)

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