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Abercrombie & Fitch Draws on Legacy for New Look

After years of declining sales, Abercrombie & Fitch is reinventing its namesake brand, shunning the exclusionary preppy stereotypes that made it a powerhouse of teen clothing.
Abercrombie & Fitch's new look | Source: Abercrombie & Fitch
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  • Bloomberg

OHIO, United States — Abercrombie & Fitch's new television commercial — its first in more than a decade — lacks the bare skin and chiseled torsos that once defined the label. Instead, there's a man in a rugged coat gamely trudging through the snow, a bicycle atop his car. Twenty-somethings slingshot pumpkins on a farm. Two women kiss at a club.

After years of declining sales, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is reinventing its namesake brand and shunning the exclusionary preppy stereotypes that made it a powerhouse of teen clothing. Its new merchandise and accompanying campaign portray a more mature version of Abercrombie, pushing adventure and playfulness over exclusivity and sex appeal. They hark back to the original brand motif, an outfitter that catered to adults going fly fishing or mountain climbing, not high school kids amped up on pheromones. The new spot even uses the old A&F logo, a relic of the company's early days.

All that history allows the label to be “very genuine, very realistic,” said Fran Horowitz, chief executive at Abercrombie & Fitch. “It’s a chance to move off some of the misnomers of the brand.”

Abercrombie has been undergoing a years-long transformation since former chief executive and lightning-rod Mike Jeffries stepped down in 2014. Some of the changes have been retail 101: adding window displays, dialling back the music, and turning up the lights. The store also put the kibosh on pumping cologne smells into its stores. Others have been to build a new following — in July, Abercrombie launched on Tmall, China’s largest consumer platform.

Some remain skeptical the brand can regain its status. Abercrombie abandoned talks with potential suitors in July to pursue its own turnaround plan. The company pledged to generate better returns for shareholders, but so far, success has been hard to come by. The chain has posted falling comparable sales for five straight years. While sister brand Hollister made a comeback by dropping logos and repositioning itself as a more carefree version of its former self, Abercrombie hasn’t been able to stop its overall decline.

“It’s definitely not the traditional Abercrombie,” Simeon Siegel, an analyst at Instinet said of Abercrombie’s new look. The ad, he said, tells a good story, but he’s unsure if it’ll win over shoppers. “The question is, does it resonate?”

It's definitely not the traditional Abercrombie. The question is, does it resonate?

In the early 1900s, Abercrombie’s store on New York’s Madison Avenue was a 12-story outdoorsman wonderland full of outdoor gear and clothing. It sold surf boards and skis for sports lovers. Hunters bought guns and military jackets; fishermen perused rods and reels. Shoppers took golf classes or practiced shooting at a range down in the basement. There was even a summer shop in Cape Cod for the yachting crowd. Over the years, it boasted legendary adventurers as customers, such as Theodore Roosevelt and polar explorer Roald Amundsen.

Back then, Abercrombie’s fashion aesthetic represented utilitarian pragmatism. They were hardy goods for pioneers and pathfinders. These days, that vintage outdoor style has seeped into trendy urban lifestyles. Rustic brands are often seen on concrete sidewalks and inside glass office towers. L.L. Bean duck boots are worn by sorority girls and Carhartt jackets can be seen hanging from cubicle chairs. The patch of Canada Goose, which makes parkas built to withstand the planet’s most extreme environments, is now commonly seen on city streets.

The new merchandise at Abercrombie reflects that trend. Sure, it still sells a collection of moose logo polo shirts and hoodies with the brand name flashed across the chest, but much of the offering is now made up of more vintage looks. There are plenty of field jackets and sweaters with chunky knits. It sells flannel shirt dresses and jumpsuits that look like overalls. Plaid wool duffel coats look like they’re straight from Abercrombie’s 1949 catalog.

Abercrombie may not be outfitting East African safaris and Antarctic expeditions in 2017, but it’s leaning on that legacy. Horowitz hopes the adventurous image will endure in more reasonably applicable ways, such as a hike away from the city with friends or a spontaneous night out after work.

“It’s a modern adventure,” said Horowitz. “It’s what made us great in the past.”

By Kim Bhasin and Lindsey Rupp; editor: David Rovella.

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