The Rise And Fall Of Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie fitchREUTERS/Claro CortesA tourist poses for photographs with a shirtless model outside an Abercrombie & Fitch store in Singapore’s Orchard Road shopping district December 14, 2011.

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries is stepping down from the teen retailer following a rocky few years.

It’s the latest upheaval for the brand, which started as a store for outdoorsmen and evolved into the epitome of preppy cool in the ’90s.

More recently, Abercrombie has been criticised for excluding large women and promoting unrealistic standards of beauty.

The retailer has suffered 11 straight quarters of same-store sales declines as alternative fashion trends have superseded Abercrombie’s sporty, logo-heavy look.

Michael Thrasher wrote the original version of this story. Hayley Peterson, Ashley Lutz, and Julie Zeveloff contributed to this story.

A&F started as a store for outdoorsmen.

David T. Abercrombie founded the waterfront company at South Street in Manhattan in 1892. It sold hunting and fishing equipment and was called Abercrombie Co.

A few years later, Ezra Fitch, a high-profile lawyer and regular customer, purchased a large share of the growing company. In 1906, when he was officially named a co-founder, the store was renamed Abercrombie & Fitch.

Abercrombie wanted to continue to provide outdoor gear while Fitch had a greater interest in the general retail so the two eventually parted ways.

In 1939, A&F branded itself 'the greatest sporting goods store in the world.'

Abercrombie & Fitch was the official outfitter of Charles Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Earnest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt were also patrons of the store.

The company hit some financial road bumps as it grew.

Like many others, Abercrombie & Fitch struggled during the Great Depression, but prospered again shortly after.

The company reached its sales peak in 1947 and continued to expand into the 1950s.

Stores opened in Florida and San Fransisco but sales slumped in the 1960s when then company president John Ewing refused to reduce prices.

In 1977, it filed for bankruptcy and was acquired.

Abercrombie & Fitch ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 1977 and was acquired by Oshman's Sporting Goods.

Oshman's opened stores under the A&F banner, including the first in Beverly Hills, California, but sales were still slow.

Limited Brands bought A&F in 1988, and refocused it on apparel.

Limited Brands purchased Abercrombie & Fitch in 1988 and the retailer made apparel its focus.

Abercrombie & Fitch's headquarters also were moved to central Ohio, where they remain to this day.

Mike Jeffries joined as CEO in the early 1990s, and built the company into a teen retail mecca.

Mike Jeffries

Company president Sally Frame-Kasaks left Abercrombie & Fitch in 1992 and was replaced by Mike Jeffries.

Jeffries foresaw the expansion of the teen retail market in the 1990s and made it the focus of Abercrombie & Fitch.

Under his leadership, things got steamy.

Jeffries took Abercrombie & Fitch in a preppy, casual direction while maintaining some of the of the outdoor flair in the brand's marketing.

He also turned up the heat and hired photographer Bruce Weber to shoot sparsely dressed models for the brand, frequently in provocative poses.

The company hit its cultural zenith in 1999.

LFO, a pop/rap group comes out with the single 'Summer Girls' in 1999 that includes the lyrics: 'I like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch, I'd take her if I had one wish.'

The song spent four weeks at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year.

Teens loved Abercrombie, but their parents did not.

Parents grew concerned about the message and impact Abercrombie and Fitch's racy campaign was having on its targeted adolescent market.

But the company's popularity with American youth grew and consequently, Abercrombie & Fitch expanded rapidly under Jeffries.

When he took the reins of the company with the moose logo in 1992, there were 36 stores that generated approximately $US50 million in annual sales. In 2012 the company had grown to include more than 1,000 stores with annual sales surpassing $US4.5 billion, according to its annual reports.

In 2002, the company felt backlash for products that were perceived as offensive.

According to the San Fransisco Chronicle, in 2002 Abercrombie & Fitch recieved substantial public backlash from Asian Americans for T-shirts featuring caricatures with slanted eyes and rice-paddy hats.

Trouble continued one year later when WWD reported that the company's 'magalog,' A&F Quartlery, was discontinuing. Though the publication, frequently featuring nude models, received public protest, a lack of interest was the reason it folded.

Issues were released in 2008 and 2010 but there haven't been any since.

A&F employees accused the retailer of discrimination the following year.

A class action lawsuit was filed against Abercrombie & Fitch in 2003, alleging the company engaged in discriminatory hiring practices against African American, Latino and Asian American applicants.

The complaint claimed store managers were instructed to deny that their store was hiring if applicants didn't fit the 'A&F look,' amongst other illicit practices.

In November of 2004, Abercrombie & Fitch agreed on a settlement and was required to pay $US40 million to applicants and overhaul its hiring practices.

Things got worse when a company model claimed he was asked to masturbate at an A&F photo shoot.

Former Abercrombie & Fitch model Benjamine Bowers sued the company and a modelling agent after he was asked to masturbate at a 2011 photoshoot, The New York Daily News reported at the time.

The agent, Brian Hillburn, allegedly told Bowers to masturbate so he would appear more 'relaxed.'

Hillburn then allegedly exposed himself to Bowers.

Bowers claimed that he was asked to do the photoshoot entirely for Hillburn's own interest and filed a $US1 million suit against him and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Jeffries' bizarre rules for employees aboard his private jet surfaced in another lawsuit.

A Gulfstream G550

A former pilot who filed an age discrimination lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch in 2012 disclosed an 'Aircraft Standards' manual for Jeffries' private jet that raised some eyebrows.

The 40-page manual explicitly required the male models to wear Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts, underwear and flip flops when on board. They also had to wear Abercrombie & Fitch cologne.

Black gloves were required to be worn when handling silverware and white gloves when setting the table aboard the G550 jet.

And the brand lost its luster with its core consumers: teens.

'The logo is no longer cool, unless you are a middle schooler in a rural middle school,' Erik Gordon, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan's business school told Business Insider.

Cash-strapped teens have grown tired of wearing logos and they are opting for cheaper brands such as Forever 21 and H&M.

'Half the time I don't really buy any brands,' Olivia D'Amico, a 16-year-old from New York, told The New York Times in a recent interview. 'I just bought a pair of fake Doc Martens because I don't really care.'

Jeffries comments about the brand's stance on plus-sized women didn't help.

In a 2006 interview with Salon, Jeffries said sexual attraction was important to the 'emotional experience' in the stores.

'That's why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that,' he said at the time.

His comments resurfaced in a Business Insider article on why Abercrombie & Fitch doesn't sell XL or XXL clothing for women, and the company faced major backlash from everyone from
Ellen DeGeneres to Kirstie Alley.

In a Facebook post shortly after, Jeffries issued what was viewed as a pseudo apology for his 2006 comments.

In December 2014, he left behind a flailing company.

Jeffries stepped down in December 2014 after more than two decades at the helm of the company.

His exit followed 11 straight quarters of same-store sales declines. The retailer's same-store sales fell 10% in fiscal 2013, and in its most recent earnings report, the company cut its profit outlook for the year.

At the time, Eric Beder, specialty apparel analyst at Wunderlich Securities, said in a note to clients that Abercrombie was running out of options, noting that company has already exhausted numerous turnaround strategies, to no avail.

'What is going to turn the tide? Frankly, we have no idea,' he wrote. 'Abercrombie has already aggressively closed domestic locations, cut back on inventories, shifted away from logo products, cut costs…'

This lingerie brand is still going strong.

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