10 years may as well be a century. The once mighty Abercrombie & Fitch retail empire is crumbling like someone left the door unlocked for invading forces and they have no one to blame but themselves. Like most corporate enterprises, despite the sinking ship they plow on, doing all that they can to patch the holes before the decks are completely engulfed in icy water. But Abercrombie & Fitch, like the Titanic, is likely beyond repair, the most graceful scenario being to abandon this ship that has seen so much controversy over the last decade that it’s a wonder they’re still (for what it’s worth) floating.
So, Abercrombie & Fitch, why the hell are you still a thing?!
Abercrombie & Fitch: From Fox Tails to Chasing Tail
In 1892, David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch founded an upscale sporting goods store, whose historical clientele included the likes of presidential badass Teddy Roosevelt, aviation badass Amelia Earhart, literary badass John Steinbeck, and musical badass Cole Porter. If Abercrombie & Fitch had remained a sporting goods store, their tale might have been very different, but alas, by the 1980s, Abercrombie & Fitch, purveyor of the rugged outdoorsy man’s man and owned by now-defunct sporting goods retailer Oshman’s, was on life support and in danger of flat-lining in an age where men saying “quite” while quail hunting had fallen out for favor for men saying “ooooooh” while wearing neon tights and flammable hair.
Enter Mike Jeffries in 1988, fresh off early successes in birthing a yuppie mallrat empire with Express and Victoria’s Secret. Limited Brands bought Abercrombie & Fitch, then began to inject new life into the brand, abandoning the sport hunting image for a more casual, apparel-based brand. Abercrombie & Fitch, as we know it today, was born.
The brand would prove popular enough to warrant new stores popping up like zits on a pale-faced adolescent and would become a retail empire in its own right. So much, in fact, that it spawned several other brands, including SoCal beach-douche oriented Hollister Co., bohemian-douche oriented REUHL No.925, and even a lingerie brand, the “down under” douchette-oriented Gilly Hicks.
After we all survived Y2K, Abercrombie & Fitch was rated the sixth most popular brand out there by teenagers in the United States. In 2006, Abercrombie & Fitch became the first hostile belligerent to invade Canada since the Fenian Brotherhood. But then the Great Recession came, and not even the mighty Abercrombie & Fitch was immune. Between economic losses and bad publicity, the brand began to suffer mightily, to the point where the future of Abercrombie & Fitch is about as uncertain as whether Satan will finally come for the soul Rush Limbaugh is alleged to have had and sold.
Abercrombie & Fitch’s Douchebag Dossier
While Abercrombie & Fitch became associated with frosted tips and outrageous price tags, the brand also became synonymous with levels of corporate douchebaggery eclipsed only by a select few. Their name became a punchline, their brand hazed in the media and in the court of public opinion like the people who sported their lightweight oxfords and distressed jeans did to pledges during rush week. Hell, sketch comedy show MadTV shot flagrantly homoerotic parodies of the company not once, not twice, but seven goddamn times.
Seems like a pretty harsh criticism of a company just trying to make a buck, right? After all, it’s not like Abercrombie & Fitch is deserving of all this crap thrown at them, right?
A significant portion of Abercrombie & Fitch’s criticisms come from three areas: promotion, product, and, to put it bluntly, racism and misogyny.
In the 1990s, the company began producing A&F Quarterly, a periodical that showcased the company’s product through imagery that promoted the brand’s image. The periodical was shot primarily by photographer Bruce Weber — who was known for his erotic “beefcake” photography — and Sam Shahid — who was well-known for his sexualized Calvin Klein ad featuring then-jailbait Brooke Shields — and was purposed to further establish the Abercrombie & Fitch brand with youth and sexuality.
The above images are owned by Abercrombie & Fitch and the photographers who shot them. The Zephyr Lounge: After Dark in no way intends to profit off the images and believes the usage in this article constitutes fair use on grounds they are being used in an informative capacity.
The pages of A&F Quarterly were emblazoned with naked youth being naked youth. It’s almost like The End: Montauk, NY, only instead of portraying the blithe ethos of youthful freedom it exploits those themes for the purpose of strident, covetous capitalism.
The “magalog” became phenomenally popular, but that popularity came with a cost. Conservative and religious groups called for boycotts of the brand due to the nudity and erotic tones in A&F Quarterly, ultimately succeeding in getting the publication pulled from shelves by 2003. Then CEO Jeffries stated the removal of A&F Quarterly had more to do with it “getting boring” than public pressure.
When it comes to product controversies, very few companies achieved more social backlash than Abercrombie & Fitch. The company has been criticized for offering products that sexualize and offend, including:
- a graphic t-shirt featuring racist depictions of Chinese immigrants that said “Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make It White;”
- a line of thong underwear at abercrombie kids in sizes for pre-teen girls that had phrases like “Eye Candy” and “Wink Wink” printed on the front;
- a graphic t-shirt that said “It’s All Relative in West Virginia,” jabbing at incest stereotypes attributed to the Appalachian states;
- a series of t-shirts for women that contained the slogans “Who needs brains when you have these?” (a reference to female breasts), “available for parties,” and “I had a nightmare I was a brunette;” and
- more t-shirts, part of the companies 2009 back-to-school line, that contained such gems as “show the twins” (over a picture of a woman with her blouse open to two men), “female streaking encouraged,” and “Female Students Wanted for Sexual Research.”
These are just a few. Abercrombie & Fitch made the offensive t-shirt an art form, at least as it applies to general retail. Their products have been boycotted as a result of their offensiveness, with these boycotts routinely the subject of news coverage.
I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that Abercrombie & Fitch is the retail embodiment of both your casually racist grandfather and your Miller Lite-swilling uncle whose drunken Thanksgiving rants criticize “liberals and their political correctness.” After all, the corporate culture at Abercrombie & Fitch cultivated ignorance and bigotry.
In 2004, the company found a class-action lawsuit staring it down. Eduardo Gonzalez, et al. v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, et al. alleged that the neo-preppie douche-canoes at Abercrombie & Fitch “violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by maintaining recruiting and hiring practices that excluded minorities and women and adopting a restrictive marketing image, and other policies, which limited minority and female employment.” The plaintiffs included female, African-American, Latino, and Asian-American applicants who charged that they were either not hired by the company despite strong qualifications for the positions in which they applied, or if they were hired, they were not given sales-oriented positions in the front of the store, but low-visibility positions in the back, mostly stocking and janitorial roles.
The case had significant press coverage.
The lawsuit was approved by a U.S. Federal court and Abercrombie & Fitch were forced to pay out over $40 million to the plaintiffs who were part of the suit. The company also promised to be more diverse in their operations, going so far as to hire 25 diversity recruiters, as well as a vice president of diversity, to ensure their hiring processes were no longer exclusive of women and minority candidates. The lawsuit also forced Abercrombie & Fitch to increase diversity in its marketing and advertising practices, which had long-featured white, athletic models fitting fraternity and sorority archetypes. Abercrombie & Fitch’s recruiting practices were also forced to change and become more inclusive, as the company had handled recruiting primarily in campus fraternities and sororities.
In 2006, then-CEO Mike Jeffries, the Dr. Frankenstein to Abercrombie & Fitch’s Monster, spoke of target demographics with Salon. Jeffries, channeling his inner Michael Kelso, stated that his brand was only suitable for “the good-looking, cool kids,” and that there were people who did not belong in his clothes, namely overweight people.
“That’s why 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… In every school there are cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. 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.”
His comments went largely ignored until 2013, when Kirstie Alley referenced them in an Entertainment Tonight interview. Alley’s reference would later prompt talk show hosts and other television personalities to speak out against the company, notably Ellen Degeneres’ sharp “oh, Fitch please” monologue.
The 2006 Salon article suddenly sprang back to life and spread like wildfire on social media, prompting the 68-year-old campus predator to offer a rebuttal to his own words.
“I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense… We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics.”
Mike Jeffries stepped down as CEO in December 2014, following 11 straight quarters of same-store sales declines.
The Future of the World’s Purveyor of Expensive, Douchey Products
At the end of May 2016, Abercrombie & Fitch, now operated by Executive Chairman Arthur Martinez (believe it or not), posted a 17.3 percent plunge in share value. The brand has been enduring financial woes since the Great Recession. The brand has fallen out of favor with the über-attractive, All-American youth it targeted like a U.S. Army drone in Yemen. Stores are closing. Brands have disappeared. Even an attempt to revive A&F Quarterly was met with lukewarm response, at best.
The damage has been done. Jeffries expanded the company too quickly and caused too much PR trouble. Even his successor is having a difficult time digging Abercrombie & Fitch out of the grave it had been digging for over a decade-and-a-half.
Falling profits. A tarnished image. A company that clings to its ways despite a new generation of retail shops like Forever 21, H&M, and Zara, more focused on changing fashion trends and affordability, vying for space in America’s dying malls. The storm that could spell the end of traditional mall retail is brewing and it seems unlikely that Abercrombie & Fitch has the wherewithal to endure it.
Three decades ago, Abercrombie & Fitch was a sinking ship. Now, those patches to her hull are once again opening and she’s filling up with water, but this time, there isn’t a Mike Jeffries to save her.
Abercrombie & Fitch is a dog riddled with cancer, whose quality of life is deteriorating, which brings us to a single, glaring question:
Abercrombie & Fitch: why the hell are you still a thing?!
Featured image by Iflwlou, available under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.