The Abercrombie & Fitch you know is gone

Abercrombie & Fitch men's spring 2016Zackery Michael/Abercrombie & FitchAbercrombie & Fitch’s latest campaign stars Alex Libby.

The Abercrombie & Fitch you know from the past is gone.

The old A&F, no doubt, had a certain reputation embedded into its cargo pants and logo shirts.

Over the past few months, the company has been executing a bevy of changes to shake its sordid past and prove to shoppers it’s completely switching gears.

The company’s latest effort is its men’s lineup, which shows the retailer is fusing its heritage roots as a hunting and fishing store with some contemporary trends.

Thanks to its head of men’s design, Aaron Levine, the new Abercrombie man certainly has a defined look. Call it hipster, if you will.

Levine joined the company in June, Fashionista reported. He previously worked at Club Monaco, which has a defined and polished aesthetic.

Abercrombie’s women’s line also been featuring a more sophisticated, conservative, and classic look, rendering the brand nearly unrecognizable. The fall lineup began to show that the brand was changing and the spring line solidified that.

Abercrombie & FitchAbercrombie & FitchA look from Abercrombie & Fitch’s spring line up for women.

With simplistic logo tees, cargo shorts, and polos, Abercrombie & Fitch — up until now — has not been known for its visionary fashion. The clothes were mostly for those who subscribed to what malls told them to wear.

In May, the company’s overall brand seemed to be philandering. A look on its website proved that it wasn’t clear who it wanted to be — a fast fashion retailer? An athleisure brand? The preppy name people once loved and then came to hate?

At the time, Neil Saunders, CEO of Conlumino said the the brand was at risk of not having an identity at all.

“A&F now needs to be much more decisive about what it stands for and who it wants to serve: in essence it needs a much clearer and more relevant brand identity,” Saunders wrote in a research note.

After all, the company was known for its oversexed interpretation of teen life. Who could forget the scantily clad models who appeared in sensual positions plastered on ads and shopping bags? Teens everywhere were embarrassed to walk through the store with their parents.

The company, however, has eschewed those advertising campaigns in exchange for something tamer — which, while potentially more consumer-friendly, put the company at risk for being too tame. It lacked that special something that made the retailer distinct.

“Abercrombie has removed their brand differentiation from what it used to be, and by trying to be nice — or maybe, more kosher — [concerned with the] sensitivity of the Americans,” Erich Joachimsthaler, CEO and founder of Vivaldi Partners, told Business Insider this past summer. “I think that has made Abercrombie bland.”

Abercrombie & Fitch men's spring 2016Zackery Michael/Abercrombie & FitchWill this look get men to shop at Abercrombie & Fitch?

But it shouldn’t be too surprising that the brand made such a sharp turn. After all, Abercrombie & Fitch was the bully that ruled the mall, if the mall was the retail world’s school hall. Former CEO Mike Jeffries infamously told Salon in 2006 that he aimed to sell apparel to “cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”

Flash forward a full decade later when being exclusionary and mean is the furthest thing from in style. This shift in mentality might be Abercrombie’s biggest uphill climb — more so than mitigating its fashion misfires.

“In most cases,” Crystal Spence, Senior Consultant at Vivaldi Partners wrote to Business Insider, “an updated merchandising strategy really can work, especially with the right targeting approach.” But that’s not even Abercrombie’s biggest problem.

“People don’t dislike Abercrombie because they don’t have the right look — it’s a much deeper challenge that links to consumer values,” Spence added. “People are learning to celebrate inclusion and diversity, empowerment and integrity. For consumers to be proud to wear the brand, they have to be focused on these attributes and looking towards these emerging values.”

Fortunately, the company has begun to show that it’s responding to how consumers are changing — between campaigns such as the recent Aaron Levine lineup and last fall’s women’s campaign, starring model and activist Neelam Gill, who made history as Burberry’s first Indian model to star in an ad.

Many of these initial shifts seemed evident when the brand tapped a new Creative Director, Katia Kuethe, in June 2015. (According to her LinkedIn profile page, she left in December.)

Neelam Gill Abercrombie & FitchDan Martensen/Abercrombie & FitchNeelam Gill starred in a toned-down Abercrombie & Fitch campaign.

But no matter how trendy the apparel is or how contemporary its ad campaigns are, these efforts still might not be enough to get people to shop at Abercrombie & Fitch. After all, the retailer faces some additional challenges beyond its own history, problems that are just the results of the current state of the retail industry.

Most of the styles are readily available at companies with famously streamlined supply chains, like Zara. These fast fashion retailers can churn runway-esque looks out at rapid fire rates and significantly cheaper prices than their traditional counterparts, making it all the more important the Abercrombie & Fitch gives consumers a real reason to shop there. It’s hard enough to get consumers to spend money on apparel as it stands.

“For Abercrombie, challenges are not just the supply chain, but really nailing the brand, price, consumer combination. Retailers like Zara and H&M are giving you a certain look for a low price and if Abercrombie wants to be competitive, they have to recognise retail isn’t what it once was in 1999 ‘when boy bands ‘liked girls who wear Abercrombie and Fitch,” Spence wrote.

And the company hasn’t completely shed its more recent roots; the infamous logos still exist to some extent, though the retailer had claimed that it would begin to phase them out in 2014.

Abercrombie & Fitch men's spring 2016Zackery Michael/Abercrombie & FitchThe company still sells some logo.

The changes that Abercrombie has been making, however, do appear to be paying off. Though sales are still down, they have slowly begun to improve from earlier in the year. The brand’s comparable sales were down 9% in the first quarter of fiscal 2015, and they were down 2% for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2015. The parent company’s comparable sales were up 1%, making it the company’s first positive quarter since 2012.

And Chairman Arthur Martinez appears to be aware of the challenges facing the brand as it undergoes this renaissance.

“As we look ahead to 2016, it is likely to remain a challenging environment, but we believe we are on the right track and we will continue to focus on delivering a customer-centric shopping experience and compelling assortments based on clearly defined brand positions,” he said in a recent press release.

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