You may not have heard of Lasse Hansen, Carter Czech or James Flook, but chances are you’ve seen them naked. Or nearly so. How? You’ve seen their chiseled torsos in the stores, bags and ads of Abercrombie & Fitch.
Ah yes, the mere mention of the store’s name is enough, isn’t it? Lots of fashion brands use sex to sell clothes, but only Abercrombie pushed the all-American college kid into the orgy pit. The shirtless guys hired as store greeters, the A&F Quarterly issue that discussed oral sex, the skimpy underwear line for preteens—all of it turned heads, piqued parents and sold billions of dollars’ worth of merchandise.
The tactic worked for two decades—until it didn’t. Last summer, some long-buried quotes from CEO Mike Jeffries surfaced and went viral—stuff about how A&F only wanted “cool, good-looking people” as customers and how “a lot of people don’t belong, and can’t belong” in its clothing. Suddenly, those beefy bods didn’t seem like such a hot idea. “We’re all tired of the scantily clad teen ads,” analyst Jim Cramer raged on CNBC. “If I want a six-pack, I’ll buy a Coors Light.”
And so Abercrombie & Fitch is legendary for two reasons: It’s the brand that showed marketers how to push the envelope and showed what happens when it gets pushed too far. As The New Yorker put it, Abercrombie is “one of the most successful—and most hated—brands in retail history.”
It’s all a far cry from where the teen-chic label started—which was, oddly enough, selling to grown-ups. Abercrombie originally catered to gentlemen adventurers with its flasks and fly rods, club bags and hunting rifles. When Teddy Roosevelt left for his African safari, he stopped for provisions at Abercrombie first.
But times changed, and A&F was losing $25 million a year by the time Jeffries showed up in 1992 with the crazy idea of turning A&F into a “young, hip” brand. The flip-flop-wearing, Ivy League-educated CEO brought in photographer Bruce Weber, and the pair inaugurated A&F’s relentless, unapologetic worship of all that was young, beautiful and barely clothed. Naysayers laughed, but not for long. The chain’s earnings climbed steadily for 52 quarters. The run would have continued, say some, were it not for those ugly quotes and the news that the store didn’t make large sizes for women. A&F sales fell 11 percent in 2014’s second quarter.
But veteran fashion consultant Robin Lewis points out that the brand’s real mistake went beyond sins of the flesh. “Jeffries did a brilliant job 20 years ago when he locked into the zeitgeist of the times,” he said. “But Abercrombie didn’t look over their shoulder at the younger millennials coming up—this group had a whole different set of values. And they’re going to H&M and Forever 21. And that’s why this brand is in the shitter.”