Corporate Comebacks: Abercrombie & Fitch
Brand overcomes lawsuits, controversy, and Dwight David Eisenhower.
Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) was founded in 1892 by David Abercrombie - a miner, trapper and engineer who began manufacturing and selling camping, hunting and related equipment. Ezra Fitch was an attorney and one of Abercrombie’s best customers. A few years later, Fitch bought into the enterprise, and in 1904 Abercrombie & Fitch was born.
In 1907, the partnership soured. Abercrombie left as Fitch found new partners and opened a Manhattan outdoors emporium, which was, at the time, the largest in the world and counted Teddy Roosevelt, Clark Gable, John Steinbeck, Ernest Shackleton, Dwight Eisenhower and Amelia Earhart as customers.
Amelia Earhart’s Abercrombie & Fitch suede jacket worn on her 1932 solo Atlantic flight (from the collection of Purdue University)
By 1977, A&F was in bankruptcy. After a failed attempt by Oshman’s Sporting Goods to resurrect the brand, the company was bought in 1988 by The Limited. After a top-to-bottom overhaul in 1992 under the tutelage of newly installed Chairman and CEO Michael Jeffries, the new Abercrombie & Fitch was doing $1.6 billion in sales -- with newly-created line extensions Abercrombie Kids, Hollister Co., Ruehl No. 925 and Gilly Hicks adding another $2.1 billion to that number -- and out-hipping competitors like the Gap (GPS), Urban Outfitters (URBN) and J. Crew (JCG).
Abercrombie & Fitch went from losing $25 million a year with 20 stores on revenues of $40 million to raking in billions thanks to the curious Mr. Jeffries. Jeffries "parks his Porsche at the same angle in the company parking lot every day and leaves the car unlocked, and never looks at the firm's numbers without donning "the same pair of 'lucky shoes, which he keeps in his secretary's desk."
Has it worked? Apparently. Industry analysts have identified something called “the Abercrombie Effect”. DNR, a fashion and retail trade publication, observed that “not since Ralph Lauren’s ascent in the 1980s has a single brand perfected a lifestyle-based look so often alluded to and imitated.”
So, what’s the secret?
Say what you will, but it’s certainly not authenticity.
Let’s start with Ruehl No. 925. Beginning with the first Ruehl store in 2005, A&F attempted to corner the 22-to-35 demographic by marketing the line on the back of “the rich cultural and social history of the Ruehl family in New York City.”
The Ruehl family?
The clan’s “rich cultural and social history?”
According to Abercrombie & Fitch’s PR department, the Ruehl family “immigrated to the West Village (a division of Greenwich Village). There, they moved into 925 Greenwich Street and opened up a leather goods shop.
Their first customer was a little “inquisitive” bulldog, who walked in with a “steadfast demeanor” and a “confident attitude.” The Ruehls' son later moved next door into No.923 and took over the business. Being inspired by the fashion of James Dean, he introduced Ruehl jeans. Afterwards, the grandson moved into the present 925 Greenwich Street, bringing together all the previous elements of the business with his interests in the finer aspects of life: books, music and art. In 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch bought the rights to the family’s name.”
Only problem is, there's no Ruehl family. And there never was.
Oh, well. Good marketing doesn’t always spring from wells of truthfulness - just like the Wong Brothers Laundry Service, which never existed either.
In 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch sold a shirt featuring the slogans “Wong Brothers Laundry Service" and "Two Wongs Can Make It White." It featured depictions of Asians in stereotypical conical hats.
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