After a long battle with changing public tastes and the economic recession, the Abercrombie & Fitch logo is no more. The logo was officially pronounced dead on an earnings call with analysts. CEO Mike Jeffries announced, “In the spring season we are looking to take the North American logo business to practically nothing.”
We must also bid farewell to the A&F; logo’s dear friends: bad lighting, the banning of black clothing, and the overwhelming scent of Abercrombie perfume. Hollister stores, owned by Abercrombie, will lighten up this year, and there will be 25-percent less fragrance “spritzed among the racks.” Not only can employees now wear black clothes at A&F;, but A&F; will in fact sell black clothes, a company first.
The A&F; logo was born in New Albany, Ohio, during the revival of the long dormant Abercrombie & Fitch brand. Once the go-to safari gear shop for Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, the original store filed for bankruptcy in 1977. Abercrombie re-emerged a year later, when Sports Authority, then Oshman’s Sporting Goods, paid $1.5 million for the name “Abercrombie & Fitch.” In 1988, Oshman’s sold the company to the Limited for $47 million. It was under the purview of the Limited, and really the vision of Mike Jeffries, brought on as C.E.O in 1992, that Abercrombie became the uniform of preppy, conventionally attractive teenagers across America. A&F; went public in 1996. It is this Abercrombie & Fitch — the A&F; of logos — that we mourn today. It was approximately 21 years old.
In the logo-bearing A&F;’s heyday, about a decade ago, Abercrombie & Fitch had 700 stores, 22,000 employees and nearly $2 billion in annual sales. There is an entire generation of adults, now known as “millennials,” who remember dearly many a family argument over Abercrombie’s wares: parents refusing to purchase $90 jeans that already had holes in them and similarly priced ripped denim skirts with unfinished hems that would unravel every time they were laundered, getting mini-er and mini-er by the wash. Who among us cannot recall a peaceful family dinner disrupted by the cries of, “I told you to get NAVY and this is DARK GREY!” all because mom or dad could not actually see the colors of the clothing in dimly-lit A&F; stores?
The generation of humans older than the millennials but younger than Gen-Xers who don’t really get to have a label — they are the middle children of America — remember working at Abercrombie back when it really, like, meant something to get hired there, because A&F; only hired attractive people, and they weren’t even apologetic or secretive about it. These hires were known as “brand representatives,” and they were not allowed to speak to customers unless a customer approached them first, so as to maintain the illusion of coolness and superiority. Today if you walk into an Abercrombie & Fitch, some possibly average-looking mortal will greet you and ask how you are before your eyes even have a chance to adjust to the lack of light. This is the kind of hackery that has brought about the ruin of our nation’s Abercrombies.
The logo led a thrilling life. Abercrombie & Fitch was immortalized in the LFO jam “Summer Girls” as the uniform of girls that the band liked. Some of our country’s brightest stars, like Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lawrence, got their start as Abercrombie models during the logo’s prime, though you may find that they only bring this up to make self-effacing jokes about how terrible they were at modeling. Abercrombie bags and catalogs depicted glorified sexfests of cut, shirtless bros and bikini-topped girls. These borderline pornographic images were totally okay and really quite artsy-looking, because they were black and white and shot by Bruce Weber, and therefore they graced the bedroom ceilings and locker doors of approximately 87-percent of America’s teeangers.
But it wasn’t all spontaneous games of skins-and-shirts football with a random, photogenic puppy. In 2002, Abercrombie recalled a line of t-shirts in response to hundreds of complaints that the $25 tees were racist. One showed a man pulling a rickshaw and read “Rick Shaw’s Hoagies and Grinders. Order by the foot. Good meat. Quick feet.” Another bore the slogan “Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make It White” next to two smiling faces wearing cone-shaped hats. Company spokesperson Hampton Carney responded to the criticism, saying, “We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt.” This is probably not the smartest thing Carney has ever said.
Abercrombie was sued in 2003 for racial discrimination, specifically for favoring white hires for sales floor jobs while prospective employees of color were either instructed to work in the stockroom, where they would not be seen, or just weren’t hired at all. As the New York Times reported, “Several plaintiffs said that top managers often visited stores and examined pictures of employees to determine whether they conformed with the Abercrombie & Fitch look. Often, the legal papers say, store managers approach attractive white customers who have the “look” and urge them to apply for sales jobs.” (The very first sentence of that Times story described A&F; as “the clothing retailer that appeals to the college set with blond-haired, blue-eyed models.”) Jennifer Lu, then a student at the University of California, Irvine, was one of many ex-employees who claimed she was fired “because their ‘look’ was not consistent with the Abercrombie ‘look.’” At the time, Lu told 60 Minutes that “she was fired after corporate officials visited the store, and according to her, didn’t like what they saw: ‘A corporate official had pointed to an Abercrombie poster and told our management at our store, ‘You need to have more staff that looks like this.’ And it was a white Caucasian male on that poster.’ She says shortly thereafter that several Asian-American salespeople were fired and replaced with white males.”
The class action lawsuit, Gonzalez v. Abercrombie & Fitch, was settled: A&F; paid $40 million to rejected applicants and employees who experienced discrimination. The company was also required to name a Vice President for Diversity, provide diversity training for all employees with hiring authority, and change recruiting policies — no more “targeting particular predominately white fraternities or sororities.”
In a 2006 interview with Salon, Jeffries revealed the thinking behind the brand:
“…when I ask him how important sex and sexual attraction are in what he calls the ‘emotional experience’ he creates for his customers, he says, ‘It’s almost everything. 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.’
As far as Jeffries is concerned, America’s unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. ‘In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,’ he says. ‘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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.’”
These quotes, much like A&F; itself, had a second life years after their debut, when, last year, A&F; came under fire for not stocking XL or XXL sizes in women’s clothing. The largest women’s pants you can buy at Abercrombie are a size 10. Many of Abercrombie’s competitors, including H&M;, offer plus-size lines.
The retailer shuttered its windows, literally, to create an aura of mystery and exclusivity around its stores. But somehow, blocking the merchandise from view did not achieve the goal of luring more shoppers inside. A&F; has been closing stores and reporting declining sales for years now. Though A&F; has lowered prices, it hasn’t been able to match the cheaper offerings at, say, Forever 21, or the trendier (though also sometimes racist and/or anti-Semitic) looks available at Urban Outfitters and Zara. Recent attempts to hipsterify the brand did not go over well with Abercrombie traditionalists.
The logo is the symbol of an aesthetic, once so treasured by preppy-go-lucky football players and wannabe Marissa Coopers the nation over, that grows more passé by the minute. Seventeen-year-olds today have spent their entire post-pubescent life in the midst of an economic meltdown; they have no interest in parting with such hard-earned cash for one pair of just-so-shredded jeans when they could have three pairs, in three different styles, for the same exact price.
Here’s the real fatal blow for the A&F; we used to know: teens don’t like logos anymore. We seemed to have reached a cultural point where the young assert their taste by being different from, not identical to, their peers. Compare the matching wardrobes of the Plastics in Mean Girls, which came out in 2004, to the hyper-individualized closets of each of the Pretty Little Liars, a series that premiered in 2010 and remains insanely popular.
The cool kids just don’t think Abercrombie is cool anymore, and Abercrombie was the last to know. How uncool.