The teens who hated Abercrombie are the adults shopping there now — and they can’t believe it either

Abercrombie & Fitch is opening at 3551 N. Southport Avenue in Chicago on December 17, 2021. It will be the city of Chicago’s only store as Water Tower Place has closed.

If you walk into an Abercrombie & Fitch, the first thing you’ll notice is this: It smells exactly the way you remember. It smells like a hot upperclassman leaning up against your locker, toying with his puka shell necklace, asking to “borrow” your algebra homework. It smells like popping the collar of not one but two polo shirts, worn one on top of the other. It smells like a ripped miniskirt that costs $98.

Abercrombie & Fitch Southport Avenue now under construction

Most of the identifying features of Abercrombie that shoppers recall from the early 2000s have been vanquished like so many other badly-aging artifacts of the era. But the Fierce fragrance has endured, still spritzed judiciously among the racks and now infused into the gel hand sanitizer available for use while you shop. Fierce has been around since 2002 and will probably outlast us all, but the sameness of the scent only throws into relief the fact that almost everything else about Abercrombie & Fitch has changed beyond recognition.

The stores, once dark and loud, are light and airy. The A&F brand and its mascot, the moose, were once emblazoned across nearly every garment, but no more; save for a few vintage-looking tees, the name “Abercrombie” is nowhere to be found, and their best-selling tops are logoless. Men’s jeans, once exclusively button-fly, have zippers now. Black clothes, formerly verboten, are all over the racks.

Spend any time on social media, especially TikTok, and you’ll soon spot Abercrombie’s newer wares, which do not readily announce themselves as such: they’re understated and modern, stylish but not aggressively trendy. Much more 20-something than teenage. Perhaps you clicked through an outfit on Instagram expecting to land on Everlane or Aritizia’s website only to find yourself on Abercrombie.com where, in the place of softcore-looking photographs of jocks fondling footballs, were smiling models of varying ethnicities and body types.

That last part is the real twist. The store’s shelves were once stocked with sizes ranging from extremely skinny to still-pretty-thin. Now it offers extended sizes, lengths and fits. Ashley Lopez, a 28-year-old plus-size fashion influencer, approached Abercrombie last year with some serious trepidation. As a Puerto Rican raised in Brooklyn by a single mother, Lopez says she’d never been able to afford to shop at A&F as a teenager. “I was maybe a size 4 in high school,” she said. “And I didn’t think anything would even fit me … [And] even if you could fit into the clothes, you didn’t feel included. You were either too fat, not cool enough, or not rich enough.”

But Lopez was committed to trying on every jeans brand she could find, which meant she inevitably landed at Abercrombie’s Curve Love line, which was launched in 2019. “I literally have a 15-inch difference between my hips and my waist,” she said, so she knows the classic curvy conundrums: if it’s snug in one spot, it’s too loose in another. She didn’t know what to expect. “But I have to be real: They are my favorite brand of jeans right now.” Lopez loves the “shock factor” of telling her followers where she’s found the goods. “You’re not going to believe me when I say … they’re from freaking Abercrombie.”

Olivia Tierney, a 30-year-old midsize content creator, had a similar experience. “I definitely immediately had flashbacks of being 15 … sweating, trying to put on a pair of jeans that are just not going over your thighs,” she said. A size 10 in women’s denim, she too went from skeptic to evangelist.

The dissonance of Abercrombie & Fitch now being known for its Curve Love jeans is arguably one of the wildest reversals in recent retail history. It’s like if your high school bully showed up at your 10-year reunion to tell you she’s really sorry, and actually, she’s a guidance counselor now, specializing in boosting teens’ self-esteem.

Janine Stichter, a senior vice president of apparel and footwear research at Jeffries Financial Group, covers all teen brands, and has followed Abercrombie since 2008. “I think back in the day people were buying the product because it’s Abercrombie,” she said. “And now people are buying the product in spite of the fact that it’s Abercrombie.”

The mid-2000s Abercrombie aesthetic, as featured on its shopping bags. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

In its 2000s prime, Abercrombie & Fitch was beloved (and in some corners, reviled) for its “all-American” aesthetic. The clothes were the sartorial equivalent of famous for being famous; wearing Abercrombie transformed a person into “Someone Who Wore Abercrombie.” Employees were instructed to be standoffish and aloof, to only speak to customers if spoken to first. Shirtless male models famously stood sentry at the stores’ doors during the holidays. The marketing was salacious: Bruce Weber black-and-white photography that featured some stars on the rise — a pre-Katniss Jennifer Lawrence, a pre-Captain America Chris Evans — but mostly anonymous blondes. All the women were thin, all the men were buff, and everybody was always touching each other. In 2006, Abercrombie was valued at $5 billion, doing nearly $2 billion in annual sales with over 800 stores around the world. It was the unofficial uniform of the preppy, the popular and the privileged.

A&F reached these heights under the leadership of CEO Mike Jeffries, who had been brought on in 1992. He was widely known for being intense and odd, a man in late middle age set on molding himself in the image of his ideal teenage customer: dyeing his hair blond, whitening his teeth, smoothing his skin, plumping his lips. He had no qualms about his vision for the brand. As he told Salon in 2006, “We want to market to cool, good-looking people … 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 … Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Jeffries’ definition of “cool” and “good-looking ‘’ did not include women over a size 10, the largest pair of pants they stocked (the average American woman is a size 16). Nor did it encompass people of color. Just three years prior, Abercrombie had been sued for racial discrimination; plaintiffs argued that White hires worked the store floor while employees of color were sentenced to the stockroom for lacking the Abercrombie “look.” (The class-action lawsuit was settled, with A&F agreeing to pay $40 million to rejected applicants and employees who’d experienced discrimination.)

This helped speed up A&F’s downfall, which was already underway due to a collision of cultural forces: Fast fashion came in, along with a frenzy for $5 tank tops from H&M and a distaste for anything logoed. Athleisure exploded, and leggings dethroned jeans. At every turn, Stichter said, “Abercrombie failed to evolve.”

“Teens and consumers are fickle,” said Stichter. “You can only stay cool for so long before people move onto the next thing.” Not to mention, she added, that “the world moved away from where their positioning was … [and] toward a place that was more inclusive, not just about the cool kids but about including everyone, more focused on body positivity.”

By the 2010s it was a brand well behind the times. “What they were doing was really going out of trend,” said Neil Saunders, a retail analyst. “It was a company that was built for the 1990s and 2000s, and we weren’t in that era anymore … It just became a bit tragic.”

The inside display at Abercrombie & Fitch in New York. (Jackie Molloy/For The Washington Post)

After Jeffries retired in 2014, Fran Horowitz was tasked with rescuing the Abercrombie brand. She was first named brand president of Hollister (another brand owned by A&F) and by 2017, she was promoted to CEO, tasked with finding the next generation of Abercrombie customers. One of the most important realizations she made was that Abercrombie needed to graduate from high school and target a new consumer — the young millennial. Horowitz wanted Abercrombie to be the place to shop for everything you’d throw in a carry-on for an ideal four days away. (You may notice A&F is not selling anything to wear to the office.)

Horowitz also prioritized the unsexy but critical work of just making the clothes nicer. The company invested in better fabrics, zippers and buttons. They expanded sizing; women’s denim now comes in sizes 23-37, extra-short to long.

And when it came to jeans — one of the products Abercrombie was best known for back in the day, and the item that can turn a doubter into a devotee — they went into research and development mode with a focus on fit. For Curve Love, the goal was twofold: eliminate the waist gap in jeans that are snug in the hips, and come up with a fabric with enough stretch to flatter without sacrificing the “design character” that makes jeans feel like denim and not leggings.

The proof is in the balance sheet: Abercrombie earnings in the first half of 2021 are higher than they were in 2019. This year, they had their best second quarter since 2008. Stichter says she upgraded the stock from hold to buy in June. “Some of it was quantitative: the brand is trending positively versus two years ago in the United States,” she said. “The margins are better. And we looked at social media engagement data that showed a big ramp in earned media value, which is how much people are talking about the brand online.”

But some of that decision was qualitative, more subjective. When Stichter swung by the store to scope out the product, to her surprise, she bought a pair of jeans. “I sent some friends pictures from the dressing room,” Stichter added, laughing at herself. “I’ve come full circle. I’m shopping at the same place I shopped 18 years ago.”

Just as Abercrombie started stepping up, many of its would-be competitors were hitting the skids. J. Crew filed for bankruptcy last May after years of customer complaints about deteriorating quality and inflated prices. American Apparel, once the hipster city cousin of Abercrombie’s strait-laced suburbanite, lost its cultural pop (and skeevy CEO) in the mid-2010s; it was bought out of bankruptcy by a Canadian company and most of its clothes are no longer made in the United States. The Limited filed Chapter 11 in 2017; Ann Taylor did the same last July.

Abercrombie’s brand evolution mirrors the evolving sensibilities of the customers it hopes to dress. Inaccessibility is out; inclusivity is in. “Right now it’s about belonging to the community within the brand,” said Horowitz. “Before it was [about] fitting in. And there is a very, very big difference between belonging and fitting in. We no longer want people to change who they are just to fit in to be part of the brand. We want you to belong to the brand as you are.”

Shoppers are no longer reliant on brands’ choice of models and marketing but can see for themselves what people just like them are wearing and what real people think of their clothes. Things were already moving in that direction with YouTube and Instagram, but TikTok has served as a particular accelerant. “TikTok has democratized the haul video, the outfit video,” said Rebecca Jennings, a Vox senior correspondent covering Internet culture. “If you were posting that on YouTube or Instagram, you would’ve had to build an audience and already be a content creator. But on TikTok, anyone can do that … [so] we’re seeing a lot more regular people’s clothing. It can spread fashion trends really, really fast.”

Lopez says her followers haven’t forgotten Abercrombie’s recent history, and a lot of people have brought up Jeffries’ fatphobic comments to her. “Honestly, the world back in 2006 to 2010, when I was in high school, was so different,” she says. “It wasn’t good, but there was no inclusivity back then. I just really appreciate a brand that can say, ‘Hey, sorry we weren’t doing this before but we realize it’s important now.’ ”

Fierce — the torso version. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images for Abercrombie & Fitch)

“We are owning it,” Corey Robinson, senior vice president of design and merchandising at Abercrombie, said of company’s past. “Because we wouldn’t have made these changes without it … And people are seeing that we’re changing, just like they change.”

Abercrombie, which is 130 years old, has gone through plenty of reinventions. It started out as a sporting goods store, frequented by Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt. Horowitz likes to think she is carrying on the heritage of the first Manhattan A&F, which opened in 1892. “You could go to the rooftop of the store and hit golf balls,” she said. “You could learn how to fly fish. Kind of crazy.”

Even that signature fragrance, Fierce, has undergone a bit of a makeover. The formulation is the same as it ever was — marine breeze, sandalwood, sensual musk and sage. It’s the bottle that’s changed. It used to bear the photo of a chiseled male chest. But customer feedback came in: they loved the smell, but the packaging … not so much.

“They wanted a fragrance bottle without a torso,” said Robinson. “So we still offer both online: torso and no torso. But we’ve transitioned in stores to offer the torso-less Fierce.”

[The Washington Post]

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