Abercrombie & Fitch's approach to marketing: Then and now
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The Abercrombie & Fitch brand story is a reminder that entrepreneurship is a journey that will almost never take you to the places on your itinerary.
If David T. Abercrombie were alive today, he wouldn’t recognize the brand he created. What started as a sporting goods store for elite outdoorsmen turned into a luxury clothing brand for teens blessed with generational wealth.
Abercrombie, who left the company over explosive disagreements with his business partner Ezra Fitch, would have loved that the Abercrombie & Fitch brand continued to cater to elite classes for many years after his departure. When Ezra Fitch became convinced that the secret to company growth was to make the outdoors more accessible to the general public, Abercrombie sold his shares rather than dilute his brand for the casual outdoorsman.
At the same time, Abercrombie may not have known what to think about the shirtless models manning his stores, the sexy ads, and a thong for young girls with the words “eye candy” printed on the front. (For one, Abercrombie was already dead when the first thongs made their appearance at the World’s Fair in New York City.)
No matter what Abercrombie would have thought about Abercrombie & Fitch’s past and current incarnations, he would have certainly enjoyed learning about the death and resurrection of a brand that just won’t give up. Keep reading to find out more about Abercrombie & Fitch’s peculiar history of success, failure, and controversy.
Early Abercrombie & Fitch celebrity fun facts
- In 1908, Abercrombie & Fitch supplied snake‐proof sleeping bags for President Theodore Roosevelt's African safari.
- In 1910, Abercrombie & Fitch outfitted Roald Amundsen’s South Pole expedition.
- In 1927, Abercrombie & Fitch was the official outfitter of Charles Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight.
- In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy set style trends with Abercrombie & Fitch chinos.
- In 1963, two years after Ernest Hemingway’s death, the author’s wife Mary consigned one of Hemingway's guns to the company for sale. Hemingway was a regular customer of Abercrombie & Fitch for his big game hunting expeditions.
- Almost every president from Theodore Roosevelt to Gerald Ford bought something from Abercrombie & Fitch when it was an outdoor sporting goods store.
David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch era
1892: The Abercrombie Company is founded by David T. Abercrombie in Manhattan as a camping equipment store.
1900: Lawyer and Abercrombie customer Ezra Fitch buys a large share of the company.
1904: The company changes its name to Abercrombie & Fitch and becomes an elite sporting goods store.
1907: David Abercrombie leaves the company over creative differences with Ezra Fitch.
1909: Abercrombie & Fitch mails more than 50,000 copies of its 456-page catalog worldwide at the cost of a dollar each, almost bankrupting the company.
1910: Abercrombie & Fitch starts selling clothes to women.
1913: Abercrombie & Fitch starts calling itself “The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World”.
1917: Abercrombie & Fitch opens a 12-story store on Madison Avenue, which includes a shooting range, golf school, book store, and other amenities.
1928: Fitch retires from the company and sells to his brother-in-law James S. Cobb, who makes Otis L. Guernsey vice-president.
1929: Abercrombie & Fitch sales peak at $6.3 million amidst acquisitions of Von Lengerke & Detmold, a European sporting guns and fishing tackle maker, and Griffin & Howe, a gunsmith company.
1933: Abercrombie & Fitch sales fall to $2.59 million during the Depression — but they recover by 1938.
1938: Guns, camping, and fishing equipment make up 30% of sales in the New York store.
1947: Abercrombie & Fitch net profit breaks records at $682,894.
1958: Abercrombie & Fitch opens their San Francisco location.
1960: Abercrombie & Fitch breaks sales records at $16.5 million.
1968–1970: Abercrombie & Fitch holds a series of sales as a way to recuperate lost revenue, which dilutes the brand as an elite sporting goods store.
1969: Abercrombie & Fitch runs its first television ads after years of resistance.
1976: Abercrombie & Fitch files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after failing to keep up with 1970s outdoor sports trends.
1977: Abercrombie & Fitch closes its flagship store on Madison Avenue.
Oshman's Sporting Goods era
1978: Oshman's Sporting Goods, a Houston-based chain, buys the Abercrombie & Fitch name and mailing list for $1.5 million.
1978: Oshman's relaunches Abercrombie & Fitch as a mail-order business for hunting wear and novelty items.
1979: Abercrombie & Fitch opens its revival store in Beverly Hills, stocked with random items such as stuffed leather animals, handcrafted firearms, and fishing lures.
1984: Abercrombie & Fitch returns to New York City with a store in lower Manhattan.
1986: Abercrombie & Fitch operates 26 stores.
1988: Oshman's sells Abercrombie & Fitch to The Limited, a clothing chain in Columbus, Ohio. Sally Frame-Kasaks, a former women's-wear executive, becomes president.
Mike Jeffries era
1992: Mike Jeffries becomes president and begins to focus on the teen retail market.
1996: Fashion photographer Bruce Weber is hired to shoot sexy Abercrombie & Fitch ads.
1996: Abercrombie & Fitch goes public, with sales of $335 million.
1997: Abercrombie & Fitch launches A&F Quarterly, a teen publication.
1998: Abercrombie & Fitch launches a clothing line for ages 7–14.
1999: The Limited spins off Abercrombie & Fitch, with Jeffries becoming CEO.
2000: Abercrombie & Fitch launches Hollister, a line of stores focused on the “Southern California surfer lifestyle”.
2002: Abercrombie & Fitch are forced to remove a racist t-shirt against Asian Americans from their product line.
2003: Past Abercrombie & Fitch applicants file a class action lawsuit against the company for discrimination in hiring practices against African Americans, Asian Americans, and other minorities. The lawsuit settles for $40 million the following year.
2004: Abercrombie & Fitch launches RUEHL No.925 for older consumers between 22–35.
2006: CEO Mike Jeffries makes offensive comments during an interview about hiring “good looking people” for their stores.
2008: Abercrombie & Fitch launches Gilly Hicks, an intimate apparel line.
2008: Abercrombie & Fitch loses $3.5 billion in revenue due to the recession.
2013: Abercrombie & Fitch starts to carry sizes for larger bodies.
2013: Abercrombie & Fitch closes 15 mall stores as teens begin buying from cheaper brands like H&M and Forever 21.
2014: Mike Jeffries is ousted as CEO.
2015: Abercrombie & Fitch ditches its shirtless “brand representatives” at stores.
Fran Horowitz era (present)
2017: Fran Horowitz takes over as CEO.
2018: Abercrombie & Fitch completes an eight-year store remodeling project that closes 450 stores.
2018: Business Insider names Abercrombie & Fitch the biggest retail comeback of the year.
2018–2019: Abercrombie & Fitch receives more than $1 billion in digital sales.
2019: Abercrombie & Fitch reports record numbers during Black Friday.
2020: Abercrombie & Fitch launches In the Living Room, their first Instagram IGTV series.
2020: Abercrombie & Fitch collaborate with American soccer player Megan Rapinoe for an interview series on wellness.
2021: Abercrombie & Fitch’s sister brand Hollister collaborates with TikTok creators Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and Noah Pugliano for a back-to-school campaign.
2021: Abercrombie & Fitch partners with Klarna to allow customers to pay in installments.
An expensive book for the elite sportsman
In 1909, Ezra Fitch almost bankrupted Abercrombie & Fitch with a 456-page catalog that cost $1 each to produce and mail. The company sent out 50,000 copies worldwide, which would have cost them around $1.5 million today.
Original copies of the catalog feature some racist undertones that were removed for subsequent reproductions. The cover depicts a man with a gun who is clearly too focused on his prey to steer a canoe, a task that’s reserved for his Native American guide, ever ready to serve the hunter on his mission.
Copies from 1909 show the Native American man wearing a headband and sash, items that disappear in modified versions from the 1980s. (Collectors are told to look for the headband and sash as indicators of authenticity.)
The catalog was such an important promotional piece for Abercrombie & Fitch that they advertised its upcoming release with a four-page ad in Field and Stream magazine. The catalog was sold as an “expensive book” that was free at 456 pages. You can sense the pick me energy: “The cover and the pages shown are reduced in size through lack of space.”
What the ad copy also reveals, however, is that the catalog was Abercrombie and Fitch’s first piece of content marketing. More than featuring store products, the book purports to be “full of information of the keenest interest to YOU which you can get in NO other way.” Customer interviews informed the book’s contents, which were “aided in preparation by the personal experience” of travelers and hunters.
And it worked. After the catalog was sent, Abercrombie & Fitch recuperated costs and became flooded with catalog orders. By 1938, catalog sales accounted for 10% of the company’s business — not bad for a store that wouldn’t expand outside New York until the 1950s.
Abercrombie & Fitch’s first death: Ignoring customer evolution at their peril
After Abercrombie & Fitch’s recovery from the Depression in 1938, the brand was unstoppable for the next two decades. Since 1913, Abercrombie & Fitch had been calling itself “The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World” — and it pretty much was.
In 1947, the company broke profit records. In 1958, they branched out of New York and opened a second location in San Francisco. The company even began to open specialty stores, such as winter-only locations in Palm Beach and Sarasota, Florida, and summer stores in Bayhead, New Jersey and Southampton, New York.
But it was really their twelve-story flagship store in New York that was the destination for the elite outdoorsman. In the 1950s, customers would walk into the store and be greeted by stuffed animal heads on the walls and endless rows of guns for sale. The basement was a shooting range that allowed customers to test a variety of guns, while the sixth floor held a picture gallery, a bookstore that specialized in outdoor sports, a watch repair shop, and a golf school.
But by the end of the 1960s, Abercrombie & Fitch seemed to be simultaneously too much and not enough for the average backpacker. In 1968, sales had been slipping for several years and the company was finally ready to open their product line to people beyond the elite outdoorsmen — except those same products were obsolete.
That year Abercrombie & Fitch held a door crasher sale to make some quick cash. Some 90,000 people visited the New York store only to find pop-up tents so old that no one knew how to put them together. Miniature antique cannons and Yukon dog sleds left people scratching their heads at their utility for the casual camper.
Meanwhile, around the same time, Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard was writing his clean climbing manifesto before opening his first store in 1973. Chouinard spent the next decade innovating on clothing technologies that would transform the experience of outdoor sports for more people … all while Abercrombie & Fitch was selling equipment made for an elite buyer stuck in the 1930s.
In August 1976, Abercrombie & Fitch filed for bankruptcy after having lost $1 million over the previous year. In November 1977, when the New York store closed its doors, the post-mortem would state what employees already knew: The company had failed to keep up with the modern buyer’s needs.
Revival at a controversial cost: Short-term growth at the expense of brand longevity
Abercrombie & Fitch wouldn’t remain in its grave for long. In 1978, Oshman's Sporting Goods, a Houston-based chain, bought the Abercrombie & Fitch name and mailing list for $1.5 million.
The brand would be a shadow of what it once was over the next decade. Oshman’s limited Abercrombie & Fitch to mail-order only at first, taking full advantage of its catalog’s former glory in generating sales. In 1979, Oshman’s opened Abercrombie & Fitch’s revival store in Beverly Hills, and they returned to New York City in 1984.
But the store’s product line still confused consumers. In March 1987, Forbes described the store’s merchandise as a “hodgepodge of unrelated items”, going so far as to say, “Sometimes it is better to bury the dead than to try reviving them.”
Finally, in 1988, Oshman’s sold Abercrombie & Fitch to The Limited, a clothing chain in Columbus, Ohio — but real change wouldn’t happen until 1992 when Mike Jeffries was hired as president.
Jeffries saw the growing teen retail market as a perfect home for Abercrombie & Fitch. He replaced all outdoor menswear with high-priced casualwear for teens. He hired executives and designers from companies that catered to teen tastes in fashion, music, and entertainment. He created a “culture of cool” that fueled massive expansion during the 90s, with revenue soaring to $335 million in 1996, the same year Abercrombie & Fitch went public.
Around this time, the company hired fashion photographer Bruce Weber — who was eventually charged with sexual assault by a group of male models — to rebrand Abercrombie & Fitch as one thing: sexy.
If you’ve ever heard the term “sex sells”, you may as well hear about an Abercrombie & Fitch ad in the next breath. In the 90s and early aughts, Weber shot countless ads of good looking teens with six-pack abs frolicking on a beach or in a warehouse, like this back to school ad featuring attire that would 100% violate most high school dress codes:
Weber’s look for the ads extended to other tactics in the Abercrombie & Fitch marketing playbook, from their in-store experience to an evolution of their catalog. True to its catalog-obsessed roots, in 1997 Abercrombie & Fitch began publishing A&F Quarterly, a magazine that featured a combination of articles for teens and product descriptions. Check out this guy’s complete A&F Quarterly collection here:
But $#!& would hit the fan when Abercrombie & Fitch started staffing their stores with shirtless male models who doubled as customer service staff. Teen girls would travel miles to a store to have their picture taken with an Abercrombie & Fitch model — a rare chance to interact with a living, breathing piece of advertising that was, at the time, otherwise kept at arm’s length by other aspirational teen brands such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.
In a 2006 Salon profile, CEO Mike Jeffries was explicit about his rationale behind the strategy when he said, “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. 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.”
But as it turns out, you can’t be exclusionary with your staff because it’s discrimination. In June 2003, nine people filed a class action lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch for hiring discrimination against African-American, Latino, and Asian American applicants and employees. The lawsuit was a result of the company’s “Look Policy”, which treated the hiring process like a modeling casting call and dictated everything from an employee’s hair, makeup, and nail length.
In 2008, just as Abercrombie & Fitch’s controversies were beginning to take their toll, the recession triggered a $3.5 billion loss and signaled the beginning of the end for the second time in the brand’s history. Just as they had failed to pay attention to backpacker trends in the 1970s, Abercrombie’s price point fell out of favor as teens from families hit by the recession started shopping at cheaper stores like H&M and Forever 21.
In 2013, Abercrombie & Fitch started closing mall locations. The following year, Mike Jeffries was ousted as CEO — and the brand was back at square one yet again.
Going to brand rehab: Abercrombie & Fitch shoots for a post-discrimination era
After Jeffries left the company, Abercrombie & Fitch made a few key changes to rehabilitate its image. In 2015 they put shirts on their store models and started calling them “brand representatives”. After the company was sued as part of yet another class action lawsuit over their dress code, they stopped forcing employees to purchase and wear clothes from the store as a condition of employment.
In 2017, Fran Horowitz became CEO and started to execute an aggressive brand rehabilitation strategy that included redesigned stores, a more responsive supply chain, a better online shopping experience, and an expanded loyalty program. In 2017, the Abercrombie & Fitch loyalty program had 14 million members; the following year it had grown to 30 million members.
In 2018, Abercrombie & Fitch tackled some low-hanging fruit. They started accepting Venmo payments and offering online checkout on Instagram, so that paying for clothes was a no-brainer process for teens. The changes began to work — that same year, Piper Jaffray’s biannual survey of 9,500 teenage shoppers showed that Hollister, Abercrombie and Fitch’s sister store, ranked fourth among all clothing brands.
In 2019, Abercrombie & Fitch “partnered” with the Trevor Project and interviewed LGBTQ+ staff members as a continuation of their brand rehab efforts, although you won’t find out the details of the partnership when you watch.
Still, it’s interesting to see how Abercrombie & Fitch has maintained messaging to their target audience — urban, cool young adults with money — while stripping away some of the more obnoxious facets of their Mike Jeffries-era selves. Their 2019 “Do 96 Hours in New York” video shows that Abercrombie & Fitch still wants to be aspirational, but they don’t want to make you feel as bad in the process.
Digital during lockdown: Abercrombie & Fitch holds on
When the pandemic hit, high-end apparel companies suffered. If your brand made clothes for the office or for going literally anywhere besides your couch, you either needed to pivot quickly or expect a crash in sales.
But in 2020, Abercrombie & Fitch managed to see sales growth of 0.92% — it’s not much, but it’s not nothing during one of the most collectively traumatic years in recent memory. While that same growth story did not carry over to 2021 (the company saw a 13% decrease in sales), Abercrombie & Fitch has made some interesting moves that may be keeping them afloat more steadily than you’d think.
First, the company made immediate changes to their product line to include more comfortable, casual clothing. The company was likely able to do this due to their investments in a more nimble supply chain in 2018. But they also switched up their social media strategy to include a lot more loungewear on their feeds.
But more substantially, Abercrombie & Fitch launched their first IGTV series, In the Living Room, featuring expert tutorials on home activities during lockdown, like ballet lessons or cocktail making. The brand also teamed up with soccer star Megan Rapinoe on a seven-part interview series on mental health and wellness, which received wide reach with people stuck at home with nothing to do.
More recently, Abercrombie & Fitch has been investing heavily in a TikTok account for its sister brand Hollister, which has always catered to a younger audience. With nearly 225k followers, their “official dad jeans stan account” seems to understand the TikTok assignment: Don’t take yourself too seriously and trust a ton of creators to speak for your brand. In May 2021, Hollister announced a collaboration with TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio on Social Tourist, “a new trend-forward apparel brand within the Abercrombie & Fitch Co. portfolio.”
“Elite cool” seems to be embedded in the Abercrombie & Fitch DNA. Maybe now in 2022 they’re ready to follow market signals about what “cool” means, in all its elusive forms.