It was the one thing that made that horrid smell it pumps out of its stores bearable: the sight of attractive young athletes smiling on the door but sadly that is no more. News arrived this week that US clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch will soon end its tradition of half-naked jocks and jockettes greeting shoppers. Abercrombie & Fitch also plans to ban sexualised marketing materials and review its recruitment criteria. Black clothes can now be stocked and they can now be stacked on shelves by plebian, mid-way attractive youngsters, too. What a bore.
Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the world’s greatest brands. Not one that I’d like to wear, nor would I ever venture into its stores. But as a holistic exercise in branding, in turning a noun into an adjective, in appealing to a captive audience both emotionally and rationally, in getting cash-strapped teenagers to save up pocket money for an expensive yet utterly ordinary T-shirt? There isn’t a finer example.
The lifestyle sold by Abercrombie & Fitch – whether you aspire to it or not – was masterminded by one man, Mike Jeffries, who stepped down as CEO late last year. The ab-ban on its doors shows what happens when a visionary, obsessive-compulsive CEO is replaced by the multifarious opinions of consultants and board members. When a “new direction” is decided upon, which actually means an anodyne, pathless wandering into brand anonymity. It happened to French Connection, it’s happening now to American Apparel.
Killing the golden goose – vitamin-fed youth, in Abercrombie & Fitch’s case – will not reverse the financial decline the company has suffered. Staying true to yourself, perhaps battening down the hatches and tightening up the retail network for a few years; that is the only way for Abercrombie & Fitch to survive. Your audience has grown up. Let them. Be silent for a while and wait to pounce on fresh new eyes and abs in 10 years. It’s like Brutalism, or grandparent names like Maud and Arthur. Mark my words, hipsters will be wearing A&F T-shirts in the 2020s, just like they’re wearing Boy London sweatshirts now. Abercrombie & Fitch is a ridiculous brand, but perhaps high-street fashion needs a bit of ridiculousness (not, I must point out, horrid recruitment criteria). It certainly needs some character, which Abercrombie & Fitch has dished out for decades. What it doesn’t need though is that ghastly stench.
Tom Morris is Monocle’s design editor.