It was only a few years ago everyone from trade magazines to business publications were lamenting (some were crowing with delight) about the demise of the the big teenage retailers, or the “Three A’s,” as some referred to them. Millennials watched in fascination as the once dominant retailers of childhood — Aeropostale, American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch — descended further into a tangled slough of blustering attempts to interpret the changing taste of a new breed of teenagers.
The new generation they attempted to romance had values far removed from previous eras. They had gestated in the endless reach of the Internet, and thanks to the web’s constant stream of new, now and different, they nursed at the alter of individuality rather than conformity. Advertisements of moose-branded, muscle-bound youth no longer evoked the desire to “join the club,” but rather seemed a contrived ploy. Once spellbound audiences suddenly rejected such branding as a painfully transparent attempt to project that clothing could somehow buy a level of perfection, even Ivy League polish, if the company was to be believed. The only problem was that perfection had ceased to be desired.
In the end, even with the ousting of former CEO Mike Jefferies, who was largely behind Abercrombie’s unrelenting commodification of teenage sexuality, many still pronounced the brand on life support. However, with the introduction of Aaron Levine as the new head of men’s design, it seemed the winds of change had finally returned to the 123-year-old retailer. Levine came fresh from a stint as lead menswear designer at Club Monaco where he was credited for helping to introduce a more up-market aesthetic to the former mall brand.
Under Levine’s direction, Abercrombie released two new casual luxury lines; both will be available for retail starting June 30. While the offerings are only one aspect of the brand’s refresh they still invite the question of just how different the old Abercrombie and the newer version really are.
Here’s what we do know…
They Changed the Corporate Language…
In the 90s former CEO Mike Jeffries turn Abercrombie into a teen mecca dedicated to projecting an aspirational, All-American, Ivy League heritage. After facing declining sales and pubic backlash over its continued refusal to sell XL and XXL clothing and its discriminatory hiring policies, the company shifted its corporate language in a quarterly filing in 2014. The catalyst may very well have been a bout of legal trouble that included 62,000 employees suing over the restrictive “look policy,” and a discrimination lawsuit sparked by Abercrombie’s refusal to hire a young woman because she wore a hijab.
The company once described itself in elitist terms, stating it was,”rooted in East Coast traditions and Ivy League heritage.” Currently the language indicates that it stands for “effortless American style.” Additionally, references to being “slightly provocative” and “idolized” have been removed and replaced with more heritage-focused language meant to draw and older, more deliberating buyer.
They Cut the Moose Loose…
In acknowledgment of the post-branding era, the infamous Abercrombie moose was laid to permanent rest right along with the overwhelming scent of, “Fierce,” the signature cologne that once wafted far beyond the perimeters of any A&F store. In an interview with Highsnobiety in March of this year Levine described the process of phasing out the moose as “organic,” stating,
“The whole process has been organic. It’s felt right. We put icon and the logo where it feels natural and we don’t try to force it. We use models that feel natural for the way that we’re elevating clothing. Again, it’s organic, we’re not trying to force anything. The question is always, does this feel right? It’s guttural.”
They Phased Out The Sex…
Despite projecting a “wholesome” teen brand positioning, Jeffries-era Abercrombie was notorious for its provocative advertisements which often featured risqué black-and-white large scale photos of pubescent youth. Poised on the cusp of a sexual awakening the nameless models were meant to intrigue, intoxicate and be idolized. Young women became Lolita characters: Half girl next door, half doe-eyed teenage seductress. Their male counterparts were posed as tow-headed, good ol’ boys to be enjoyed as specimens of idealized male beauty by men and women.
Old editorials show a young Ashton Kutcher posing shirtless among a horde of other youth; an intentionally homoerotic undertone permeates the spread. Channing Tatum also modeled for A&F in the past, playing the role of a prep school athlete flanked by his two coaches.
The new more adult Abercrombie relies less on sexuality and more on its 123 year heritage of quality, craftsmanship and adventure. Levine made a concerted effort to revisit the company’s past as an outdoor outfitter in the updated collections, hoping to add a level of authenticity that had formerly been missing. Even the models have changed; they are older, scruffier and more world worn. In essence, they’re real adults.
Design Principles Have Shifted…
With the on-boarding of Levine came a refreshed design philosophy, one that sees Abercrombie reclaiming its past as an “iconic American casual luxury brand.” Rather than depend on the trend cycle and the unforgivingly short attention spans of its former consumer, teenagers, Abercrombie has shifted its focus to an older audience. As a result, the label has also re-engaged with its archives in hopes of creating a sense of integrity and timelessness. Levine explained the choice by saying,
“When building on a foundation you maintain the handwriting so it doesn’t look inauthentic. It needs to feel honest, the product needs to feel as though it has integrity. So we look at different aspects of the history and rework them: apply new fabrics, new trim, new fits, engineer the garments so they fit a little differently. Through that we end up with a clear, concise point of view about who we are and where we’re going.”
Is It Enough?
In short, Abercrombie has shifted its corporate language to feel more inclusive while still remaining aspirational. The company has also updated its policies diversity, something that is now also reflecting in its actual advertising and branding. And, under Levine’s supervision it has redesigned its men’s line to feel more authentic, luxe and timeless, but are these changes enough?