Abercrombie & Fitch has made a huge comeback. Here’s how the company made itself more than ‘a jeans and T-shirt brand’

Abercrombie & Fitch has made a huge comeback. Here’s how the company made itself more than ‘a jeans and T-shirt brand’
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Shopper walks past entrance to Abercrombie & Fitch store with photo of male model visible
An Abercrombie & Fitch store in 2008.

  • Abercrombie & Fitch was founded as a store for outdoor gear in the late 1800s.
  • It became hugely popular with 2000s teens until changing tastes and controversy led to a decline.
  • The retailer has recently found a new cohort of fans: Gen Z shoppers.

If you were a teen in the 2000s, chances are you either shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch — or felt too excluded to set foot in the store. 

The 130-year-old retailer may have gotten its start catering to fishing and hunting enthusiasts, but by the late 1990s, the brand bore little resemblance to its outdoorsy origins. Its dimly lit, heavily scented stores — known primarily for their shirtless male models and narrow range of sizes — presented a brand of cool that seemed off-limits to anyone who wasn’t thin, white, and well-off.

While Abercrombie may once have been the epitome of a certain form of cool, the brand fell on hard times in the 2010s due to a mix of changing public sentiment and numerous controversies and lawsuits, including one that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

In recent years, the brand has seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to a new, more inclusive image: it revamped its stores, expanded its size range, and made its pricing more approachable. 

And these changes are paying off: In May, Abercrombie & Fitch reported the best first-quarter results in its history, sending its shares 24% higher immediately afterward.

Here’s how Abercrombie & Fitch rose to fame, almost lost it all, then mounted a comeback. 

Abercrombie Co. was founded in 1892 as an outdoor retailer.
Group of Boy Scouts creates pretend camp inside window at Abercrombie & Fitch store
Boy Scouts camped out in the store window of Abercrombie & Fitch in New York on January 27, 1923.

Founder David Abercrombie opened the original Abercrombie store to sell camping, fishing, and hunting gear. 

In 1904, a lawyer named Ezra Fitch purchased a large share of the company and was named co-founder, and the company became Abercrombie & Fitch.

By 1910, David Abercrombie had left, and the company had opened a large department store.
Man sits at table inside Abercrombie & Fitch store with animal heads, sports equipment around him
The Abercrombie & Fitch store in New York in December 1959.

The 12-story department store on Madison Avenue sold both men’s and women’s clothing, in addition to housing a shooting range and golf school. Abercrombie & Fitch also started a mail-order catalog, mailing out 50,000 copies to consumers.

According to the Netflix documentary “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch,” the brand’s reputation in the early 1900s was as a store for stuffy, WASP-y sportsmen. Amelia Earhart and Theodore Roosevelt wore Abercrombie, and when aviator Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, he wore Abercrombie too

In a 1931 issue of The New Yorker, author E.B. White wrote that Abercrombie had “the most gaped-at window in town. Displays all the clothes men want to wear all the time and don’t.”

Abercrombie survived the Great Depression, but by the middle of the century, sales had slumped.
Crowd of people shops sporting goods sale at Abercrombie & Fitch in the 1960s
Bargain hunters jam an Abercrombie & Fitch store in New York City during its advertised “outrageous warehouse sale” in July 1968.

Abercrombie filed for bankruptcy in 1977. In 1978, the brand was acquired by Oshman’s Sporting Goods, a Texas-based retailer.

A decade later, it was sold to Limited Brands — now known as simply L Brands — the retail conglomerate run by Leslie Wexner. Wexner was widely considered a retailing genius and called “the Merlin of the Mall” due to his success at building chains like The Limited, Victoria’s Secret, and Bath & Body Works. (Wexner has since cut ties with L Brands and has been scrutinized for his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein.)

After being acquired by L Brands, Abercrombie moved its headquarters from New York to Ohio where it built a massive campus complete with a fake retail store, according to “White Hot.” 

In the 1990s, Wexner hired Mike Jeffries as CEO of Abercrombie.
Mike Jeffries
Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries, left, and fashion photographer Bruce Weber.

Jeffries turned his attention to cornering the younger retail market, making it the brand’s mission to appeal to American teens.

“We knew we wanted to be the coolest brand for the 18 to 22-year-olds,” Cindy Smith-Maglione, the former vice president of merchandising, said in “White Hot.” 

Abercrombie hired fashion photographer Bruce Weber to shoot ad campaigns and store photos, and it’s his aesthetic that defined the company’s brand in the ’90s and 2000s.

Jeffries’ formula for success mixed sex appeal with the brand’s century-old heritage.
Abercrombie & Fitch mural in 2005
A larger-than-life Abercrombie ad in New York City in 2005.

The Abercrombie look married preppy separates with the overt sexiness popular in the late ’90s and early 2000s: Skirts were short, jeans were low-rise, and tank tops were tight, but everything was portrayed as “all-American,” a particular obsession of Jeffries’, according to the “White Hot” documentary.

In the Weber-shot ad campaigns, male models were often photographed shirtless, either alone or in groups, while female models were often relegated to supporting roles. In the early days, nearly everyone was white. 

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Abercrombie’s stores were a central component to the image the brand was looking to sell.
Two male models hold doors at entrance to Abercrombie & Fitch store
Abercrombie & Fitch employees at the brand’s flagship store in New York in 2009.

Abercrombie stores weren’t like any other mall brand. Rather than showcase its offerings on mannequins in store windows, Abercrombie covered the windows with shutters and displayed only a large photo of an Abercrombie model at the entrance — if shoppers wanted to see what the brand offered, they’d have to come inside. At many stores, shirtless male employees would greet shoppers as they entered.

Once in the store, shoppers were greeted with dim lighting, loud music, and the overwhelming scent of the brand’s “Fierce” cologne. 

“Every piece of Abercrombie was by design, by Mike’s design. The stores, the product, the whole thing, he would sign off on,” Smith-Maglione, the former merchandising vice president, said in “White Hot.”

Abercrombie went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1996.
Abercrombie & Fitch shirtless male models pose in a line outside a store in Singapore
Models at the opening of a store in Singapore in 2011.

When Jeffries took over, Abercrombie & Fitch had 36 stores and was doing $50 million in sales. By 1996, the company had about 125 stores and $335 million in sales, Bloomberg reported

Two years later, Abercrombie launched its children’s brand, and in 2000, the company opened its subsidiary, Hollister, which catered to teens but with a California-inspired influence.

Abercrombie was everywhere, and as of 1999, was a certified cultural phenomenon thanks to the song “Summer Girls” by LFO: “I like girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch,” the lyrics went. “I’d take her if I had one wish.”

But by 2002, some cracks began to show in Abercrombie’s armor.
Abercrombie & Fitch
Annie Koh, left, and Katie Lee, right, hold up racist t-shirts made by Abercrombie & Fitch as they demonstrate in front of a store in San Francisco in 2002.

Following the release of multiple racist t-shirts depicting Asian stereotypes, Asian Americans across the US protested outside Abercrombie stores, demanding that the brand stop selling the graphic tees.

In response, the company pulled the products from its shelves and burned them, according to “White Hot.”

A year later, Abercrombie was under fire over its hiring practices.
Abercrombie
Customers attend the official opening of a new Abercrombie & Fitch store in London in 2007.

In 2003, a group of former and prospective employees filed a class-action lawsuit against Abercrombie, claiming that the company refused to hire them or fired them on the basis of their race. 

According to “White Hot,” Abercrombie had a handbook that dictated what employees should look like down to their underwear, jewelry, and hair. The handbook prohibited dreadlocks and gold chains and mandated a look Abercrombie described as “natural,” “American,” and “classic.”

Former employees said in the documentary that the company dictated that store staff be attractive and often valued looks over abilities. When Jeffries, the CEO, would make unannounced store visits — known as “blitzes” — the stores would try to ensure that their best-looking employees were working that day, even keeping some workers on staff just for those visits.

Abercrombie settled the class-action suit in 2004 without admitting any wrongdoing. It agreed to pay more than $40 million and signed a consent decree agreeing to change its hiring practices and hire a chief diversity officer. 

Abercrombie was sued again in 2012 after a pilot claimed Jeffries had unusual requests for staff aboard his private jet.
Group of male Abercrombie & Fitch employees open doors of new store while waving
Models at the opening of an Abercrombie & Fitch store in October 2012 in Munich, Germany.

In 2012, an age discrimination suit filed by a former pilot revealed the “Aircraft Standards” for Abercrombie’s executive jet. 

The pilot claimed that crew were required to wear Abercrombie polo shirts, sandals, and underwear, and that men had to wear the retailer’s famous cologne. Staff were also required to wear black gloves when handling silverware and white gloves when setting the table; had to answer every question and request with “no problem”; and had to play a specific song for passengers on return flights.

Abercrombie settled the pilot’s suit without admitting fault. 

Around the same time, Jeffries was in hot water over comments made years earlier.
mike jeffries CEO Abercrombie Fitch

Jeffries said in a 2006 interview with Salon that Abercrombie made clothes for the “cool kids.”

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he told Salon. “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.”

Jeffries added that the store only hired good-looking people because they “attract other good-looking people.” 

But it wasn’t until 2013 that those comments went viral, sparking boycotts and petitions and forcing Jeffries to publish a semi-apology. 

“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,” he wrote in a Facebook post. 

That same year, the brand finally began to offer larger sizes.

But by that time, Abercrombie’s sales were already beginning to wane.
Abercrombie & Fitch
Abercrombie & Fitch logo sweatshirts on display.

By 2014, same-store sales had declined for 11 straight quarters. Two subsidiary brands, Ruehl No.925 and Gilly Hicks, were shut down only a few years after launch, and Abercrombie had begun shuttering some of its mall stores.  (Gilly Hicks was later resurrected and still exists today.) 

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The slow sales were due in part to the company’s controversies, but also due to shifts among the younger demographic. Teens had grown tired of logo t-shirts and hoodies and started opting for cheaper, fast-fashion brands like Forever 21. Nike took over as teens’ aspirational brand. 

At the same time, the power of the mall was beginning to shrink: by 2014, the number of teens who preferred to shop online was rising.

Abercrombie became embroiled in another lawsuit that would make it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Samantha Elauf stands outside Supreme Court smiling with mother
Samantha Elauf, center, outside the Supreme Court on February 25, 2015.

In 2008, an Oklahoma teen named Samantha Elauf applied for a job at her local Abercrombie store and was recommended for hire. But the store later said it couldn’t hire her because she wore a black headscarf, which the company said violated its policy that salespeople couldn’t wear caps at work. 

In response, Elauf, a Muslim, filed a religious-discrimination lawsuit. While Abercrombie had settled other lawsuits in the past, this time, it dug its heels in and allowed the case to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. 

In 2015, the court ruled 8-1 against Abercrombie. Its opinion stated that religion was a protected characteristic and must be accommodated.

In late 2014, Jeffries retired as Abercrombie’s CEO.
Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries gets into black car in Paris
Mike Jeffries leaves a store on the Champs Elysees in Paris in 2012.

Jeffries reportedly retired with an exit package worth $27 million

“It has been an honor to lead this extraordinarily talented group of people,” Jeffries said in a statement at the time. “I believe now is the right time for new leadership to take the company forward in the next phase of its development.”

A committee formed by three senior executives and the Abercrombie board chairman managed the company until a successor could be selected.

Following Jeffries’ departure, Abercrombie attempted to shift away from its sex-heavy, logo-heavy past.
Abercrombie
Abercrombie shopping bags.

The company decided to phase out large logos, replacing them with smaller, more subtle designs and putting leftover logo apparel on clearance. 

In 2015, Abercrombie got rid of its shirtless male greeters and overhauled its appearance policies for sales clerks, though some rules remained, including “no extreme make-up or jewelry.”

Also gone were the dimly lit stores and pulsating music — the stores became brighter and free of the overpowering scent of cologne. 

Even the ubiquitous shopping bags, which featured a bare male torso, were nixed in favor of a subtler logo bag. 

Fran Horowitz took over as CEO in 2017.
Abercrombie & Fitch Co. CEO Fran Horowitz
Fran Horowitz, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch.

Horowitz had joined Abercrombie in 2014 from Ann Taylor Loft, working as brand president of Hollister and as president and chief merchandising officer for Abercrombie & Fitch.

Under Horowitz, sales began to improve. Abercrombie shut down unprofitable locations while investing in stores that worked. Between 2010 and the 2018 fiscal year, the company closed 450 stores and remodeled others in an effort to reconnect with consumers.

Abercrombie also refocused design and marketing, shifting toward a more mature look and nixing the brand’s super-preppy aesthetic. The company also began targeting consumers between 18 to 25 rather than young teens.

By the end of 2018, with improved sales and a new aesthetic, the brand was ready for a comeback.
Mannequins wearing summer clothes are visible inside window of Abercrombie & Fitch store
An Abercrombie & Fitch store window in May 2018.

In November 2018, Abercrombie was on a positive trajectory, reporting its fifth consecutive quarter of positive same-store sales growth.

The brand closed 40 stores — mostly kids stores — while planning to open 40 new locations with a more boutique-like feel. 

But it was the clothes that really stood out: Abercrombie had started offering similar styles and trends to higher-end brands like Reformation at a much more affordable price point. The product assortment became “more sophisticated, is more on-trend, and better reflects what modern consumers want,” Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, wrote in a note to clients at the time. 

That year, Abercrombie exceeded $1 billion in annual digital sales for the first time in its history, according to the company.

“We are not the Abercrombie & Fitch that you once knew,” Horowitz said during investor day that April.

Like other retailers, the pandemic brought about change and uncertainty for Abercrombie.
Two women Abercrombie models in jeans and white tank tops pose back to front
Abercrombie models pose in the brand’s fan-favorite denim.

Abercrombie saw a 43% increase in digital net sales in 2020, despite the challenges of the pandemic. The company credited that success to data analytics and learning more about their customers’ needs, even during a time when the apparel industry was in a state of upheaval. 

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That strong performance continued in 2021, despite the inventory delays many retailers experienced, particularly over the holiday season. In its full-year results posted in March 2022, Abercrombie reported $3.7 billion in net sales

Still, Abercrombie has been pummeled by inflation, which caused a dip in sales in 2022.
Shoppers stand outside Abercrombie store as man walks toward entrance
People walk past an Abercrombie & Fitch store on Fifth Avenue in August 2022.

In the second quarter of 2022, Abercrombie said that the brand was experiencing the impact of inflation, which has caused shoppers, especially lower-income shoppers, to buy less apparel. 

Though Abercrombie delivered its highest second-quarter sales since 2015, Hollister saw “a greater than anticipated impact from inflation” that resulted in low conversion and smaller basket sizes, Horowitz said in a statement. Abercrombie lowered its sales outlook for the remainder of the year, causing shares to drop sharply

But Abercrombie wasn’t alone: other retailers — including Gap, Macy’s, and Nordstrom — reported similar uncertainty in 2022.

Part of the brand’s strategy has been pulling away from malls.
Exterior of Abercrombie & Fitch store on street corner in London

Abercrombie historically thrived in malls, but is moving towards using online shopping transactions to determine where its customers are and opening stores closer to them.

In Chicago, for example, the company closed a large store in the Water Tower Place mall and opened a new, boutique-style shop in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood in 2021. A large swath of customers in that area had been making online purchases, according to Bloomberg

“Specifically with our Abercrombie & Fitch brand, that consumer is maybe going to the mall a little bit less,” Samir Desai, Abercrombie’s chief digital and technology officer, told Bloomberg. “So that really favors neighborhood mall streets where there might be a fitness experience or something else that they’re engaging in and that’s taking them there.”

During its most recent quarter, Abercrombie surprised Wall Street by reporting a net profit of $16.6 million, after posting a loss of nearly that much during the same period a year earlier. It also boosted its full-year sales outlook. First-quarter sales of its namesake brand grew 14% year-over-year.

The brand is continuing to open new stores and update its interior designs to attract millennial and Gen Z shoppers.
abercrombie and fitch fifth avenue store tour new york city
Abercrombie & Fitch’s new store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

In Abercrombie & Fitch’s newly opened and renovated stores, there are virtually no traces of the retailer’s early aughts store era. There are no shirtless Abercrombie model posters, dark lighting, club music, and suffocating cologne — everything that used to be trademarks of the Abercrombie & Fitch experience. Instead, the stores are designed with bright lighting, white and cream paint, and elegant touches, such as wood paneling and glass chandeliers.

The brand’s clothing line is attracting Gen Z shoppers with linen suits and satin gowns.
dresses are displayed inside abercrombie and fitch fifth avenue store in new york city
Abercrombie has a “best-dressed guest” collection which includes dresses, pantsuits, and two-piece sets.

Abercrombie has traded its early 2000s logo-emblazoned T-shirts and polos for a range of formal and floral dresses, suit sets, and sophisticated knit polos. And the brand is catching on with Gen Z shoppers, some of whom are in college or entering the workforce, Fast Company reported in January.

The rebrand is paying off: Abercrombie & Fitch is defying sales expectations.
people sit on a couch inside abercrombie
Abercrombie has regularly blown past analysts’ estimates over the last several quarters.

The company’s first-quarter sales grew 22%, Abercrombie & Fitch reported in May.

On June 10, its shares had nearly doubled their value since the start of 2024.

Nine years after his exit, Jeffries was accused of exploiting men for sex.
Mike Jeffries

In October, a two-year BBC investigation found that ex-CEO Jeffries and his British partner Matthew Smith were behind organized events that recruited men and involved sex acts. Some of the men who were paid to attend these events alleged they were exploited or abused. Others told the outlet that opportunities to model for Abercrombie & Fitch were tied to their participation in sexual activities. 

Abercrombie & Fitch told the news outlet that it was “appalled and disgusted” by the allegations. The FBI is investigating the claims, the BBC reported in January.

Jeffries has called a lawsuit that makes many accusations “meritless,” while Abercrombie & Fitch has said that it’s not liable since the lawsuit doesn’t prove that the company knew about the behavior, the BBC reported.

 

Part of Abercrombie’s success has been its growth beyond the jeans that helped make it famous.
jeans on display in abercrombie
Abercrombie has been known for denim, but has also seen growth in the non-denim pant category.

In an earnings call last year, CEO Fran Horowitz told investors that while denim continues to be an important part of the business, “we are really focused on the fact that bottoms are much more than denim today,” she said on the August earnings call. 

Furthermore, Horowitz highlighted that several categories have led to the company’s tenth consecutive quarter of growth. “The playbook is working,” she said. “We are no longer a jeans and T-shirt brand. We certainly are a lifestyle brand today, and what’s driving this win is several categories.”

Matthew Wilson contributed to an earlier version of this article.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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