Cult brand Abercrombie & Fitch reinvents itself
BY ANJA FAHS
At the end of the 19th century, someone stepping into ‘Abercrombie & Co’, a small shop on the waterfront in downtown Manhattan, would have found him- or herself in the midst of a large selection of expensive and in some cases quite exotic outdoor and sports equipment. The shop had everything – from tennis shoes to snake-proof sleeping bags and hunting rifles for big game. David Abercrombie had established the company on 4 June 1892, and one of his regular customers, wealthy New York businessman Ezra Fitch, soon became his partner. Abercrombie & Fitch clothing, guns, fishing tackle, equipment for camping and water-sports and expedition gear were the epitome of proper outdoor appearance and opulence in American society for more than half a century.
In 1939, Abercrombie & Fitch referred to itself as ‘The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World’. And the American upper class concurred. The customers and supporters of A&F included figures such as Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt, along with Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn and Clark Gable. The company’s illustrious list of testimonials could continue, with praise from John F. Kennedy, Ernest Shackelton and Dwight Eisenhower, among others. A&F was the official outfitter of Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
Unfortunately, the partnership of David Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch did not have a happy ending. The two men had different ideas and visions for the future of the company, and their discussions piled up even as the company continued to grow and thrive. Ezra Fitch wanted to open stores throughout the state of New York and develop the company into a speciality shop for camping gear. Abercrombie saw the extension as limited more to Manhattan and wanted to retain the existing range of professional outdoor and sporting goods. In the end, Abercrombie sold his shares to Fitch in 1907, and Fitch continued to manage the company with other partners.
In 1910, the company became the first store in New York City to offer men’s and women’s clothing. By 1917, the shop – now on Madison Avenue – occupied an entire 12-storey building. A&F continued to carry sports equipment such as hunting rifles, fishing and skiing equipment, complete gear for archery and diving – and, of course, clothing. But the store also featured a picture gallery, a book shop, cameras, parlour games and a kennel for dogs and cats. It is said that the range even once featured an underwater pedal boat.
After Ezra Fitch went into retirement, the company prospered under new management, and in the 1950s it opened additional stores in California, Florida and New Jersey. Although the company managed to expand its customer base by including less-expensive products in its product portfolio, it fell into financial difficulties in the 1970s. In the summer of 1976, after a successful business run lasting 85 years, A&F was forced to declare bankruptcy, and in 1977 it closed its flagship store in Manhattan.
After several years under ownership by Oshman’s Sporting Goods, in 1988 Oshman’s sold the company name and its activities to Limited Brands. Since then, Abercrombie & Fitch has targeted what is mainly a very young clientele, becoming a trendy brand for young adults.
The brand attained an unprecedented, iconic status in the fashion world. This was bolstered by the firm’s trademark – oversized logos on the products themselves – and selected models, and by the style-setting photo series by Bruce Weber in the catalogues that shaped the look and feel of the brand.
The big logos and the brand’s inherent elitism fell out of favour with the young clientele, however. Revenue figures fell, and criticisms were raised over the brand’s image and the A&F lifestyle conveyed in marketing.
Today, 125 years on, and with its eventful history, the company is now a corporate group with business in the multi-millions and currently in the process of reinventing itself. American designer Aaron Levine, who recently very successfully helped shape men’s collections for the ‘Club Monaco’ brand as its Vice President Men’s Design, has been tapped to take the traditional brand to the next level. Aaron Levine has been with Abercrombie & Fitch since mid-2015, where he is not only in charge of the men’s collection but more recently took over for women’s fashions as well. We visited with Aaron about the things he will change at A&F to successfully equip the American brand for the next generation.
Why Abercrombie & Fitch? What challenge did you see for yourself?
For me the choice was obvious. It was an opportunity to work for and contribute to the next evolution of an iconic American brand.
When you started with A&F, what did you question? What needed to be changed in first place, and what was the biggest challenge?
We are keeping our heads down and focussing on the product. We are creating product we love. We are passionate and tenacious from the bottom up about building an iconic American brand.
What is your personal idea of ‘cool’ fashion, what kind of styles and elements do you like?
Cool is a myth. The aesthetic that resonates most emotionally with me is when people are comfortable and confident within themselves… then their style comes off as authentic.
What inspires you?
Inspiration comes from anywhere at any time… passion and grit in others inspires me.
A&F has a long history and heritage in sporting goods and expedition gear. Are you serving that history? How do you want to revitalise it for the next generation?
We draw inspiration from all the past iterations of the brand… then we edit these ideas down and focus them into one cohesive direction that is reflective of our evolved point of view.
What kind of man do you have in mind when designing the collection? What is the new A&F target group?
We draw inspiration from adventurers… artists, painters, photographers, writers… directors of culture… and the amalgamation of this is our ideal individual…
Now the A&F women’s collection will be in your responsibility as well. What kind of styles can we expect?
You can expect a clear cohesive point of view across the store environment drawing from iconic American culture with interesting twists in our handwriting…
What is your vision for A&F? Where do you want to see the company in five years?
I’m excited for Abercrombie and Fitch to once again be the barometer for the ultimate iconic American brand.
Aaron Levine, 40, joined Abercrombie & Fitch as Group Vice President of Men’s Design in 2015. Born and raised in Virginia, Aaron attended Virginia Tech before moving into the world of fashion retail. His first role at New York-based Joseph Abboud was in wholesale, but he soon moved onto the design side at Hickey Freeman, where he helped develop the ‘hickey’ line. Roles at Maine-based Rogue’s Gallery and Jack Spade followed before joining Club Monaco as VP of Men’s design in 2011, where he was instrumental in the re-positioning of the brand.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q1 2017. Picture credit © Abercrombie & Fitch