Abercrombie & Fitch. What does that name mean to you? If you’re the average American consumer it's disappointment. A&F was rated the worst retail brand in America for 2016. The brand is defined by the deeply cynical antics of former CEO and creative director Mike Jeffries. Jeffries had saved the brand when he came on board in 1992, largely by jettisoning everything it stood for. A&F went from being a storied but stuffy outfitter to a place for aspirational teens to buy heavily branded sweatshirts and washed jeans. It leaned heavily on erotic imagery, bare chested young men and nightclub-esque shopfronts.
This was a recipe for success in the 90s and 00s with Abercrombie racking up impressive profits and expanding rapidly. Once on death’s door it was now a major American retailer. Half-way through that last decade this formula started to run into trouble. Jeffries had taken ever greater control of the company, even as it was beginning to run into financial difficulty. Controversial remarks about not catering to the overweight and a lawsuit that revealed the companies mistreatment of minority staff further damaged their fraying reputation.
Damningly for a brand as youth obsessed as Abercrombie, the company had simply fallen out of touch. The conformist, sexualised imagery seemed tired and contrived. Their target consumer—high school and college aged youth—were no longer interested in overpriced flannels and billboard sized branding. They stayed away in their droves. Without the vast profits he had once brought to the table, Jeffries antics were no longer tolerated and he departed the company in 2014.
The problems of post-Jeffries Abercrombie were two-fold. First was that while the company had an incredibly strong brand identity, it was one that the public had soured on. Secondly, the brand was inextricably linked to the personality and tastes of its former boss, his vision had made it into what it was. Its path back to relevancy would require a complete overhaul. Enter former Club Monaco creative director Aaron Levine.
Levine was the man who had taken the tired Gap-like Canadian mall retailer Club Monaco and reinvented it into a highly covetable, up-scale take on J.CREW. The brand now boasts prestigious flagships in New York and London, it engages in collaborations with people like specialist Italian clothiers Lardini. It was a company transformed at the end of his tenure. Levine seemed to have the ability to look at a brand, see it's best qualities and subtly emphasise them.
Few consumers now remember what Abercrombie once was. Its history dating back to 1892, was that of a high end sports shop. A Brooks Brothers for the outdoors life. It had prestigious clients like President Theodore Roosevelt and the famously adventurous author Earnest Hemingway. A bankruptcy in the late 1970s saw the end of this once glamorous, gilded age era company. When Jeffries took hold of the brand he buried what little of this legacy was left, but it always seemed clear that whomever followed him would be wise to look back.
Looking to this legacy has been Levine's approach. Polos and hoodies with massive moose logos are out. The beautiful monogram the brand traded under is back as a subtle signifier. The focus is on quality, traditional, American-style clothing. While there are still plaid flannels and jeans the outlook has shifted. His first collection for SS15 played it safe but there was a sign of what was to come in the suede jacket produced in collaboration with San Fransisco's Golden Bear.
It's with the current AW16 that the beginnings of a new Abercrombie can be seen. Inspired by Linda McCartney's Life in Photographs, it boasts pieces that would fit in nicely alongside the low-key heritage inspired workwear of Beams + and MHL. Standouts include washed herringbone fatigue trousers, a ecru wool overshirt with a flap pocket and a beautiful '70s style down jacket.
The question moving forward is whether the consumers who will appreciate this move toward the brand’s roots find their way back? The consumer rating implies that Levine has a lot of hard work ahead of him.