Posted: September 29, 2015, 6:00 p.m.
by Luke Thomas.
Do you remember that really dark store in the mall? You know, the one that you could smell from the parking deck, where it sounded like a rave was going on inside. They sold pricey clothes with big logos and sometimes had a shirtless guy standing out front asking you, “Hey, what’s up?”
Since its (re)birth in the 1990s, this has been the quintessential image of Abercrombie & Fitch. Exclusive, expensive and sizzling with sex. It worked for a long time. The almost defunct former outdoors store had been transformed into one of America’s coolest brands. On the outside, A&F and its sister brands Hollister Co. and abercrombie kids use some pretty theatrical techniques to sell apparel, but take a step inside and you’ll see that the giant wall posters weren’t the only things A&F saw in black and white.
Everything in an A&F store is deliberate. I found this out when I was hired by Hollister Co. in 2011. Folded shorts are to be cuffed exactly half an inch. Cologne is to be spritzed at noon and 4 p.m. sharp. You are to tell everyone who walks through the door “Welcome to the Pier” and not a word different.
This kind of micromanagement has its benefits. But the trouble starts when it extends to employees. A&F has openly practiced hiring discrimination. Store managers were sent to scour the mall food courts and local college campuses looking for only the most attractive employees to staff its utopian-like stores. And when the company’s CEO, Mike Jeffries, candidly announced that A&F is not for the fat or not so cool kids, things took a turn for the worse.
In 2014, profits for A&F were about half of what they had been two years previously. Realizing that “too cool for you” was no longer posh in 2015, the company has turned down the music, turned up the lights and held off on the cologne to give customers what it hopes will be a breath of fresh air. It has also dropped the giant logos, since — unlike my generation — teens these days aren’t fond of being walking billboards. New designers from brands such as Ralph Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld have been brought on board to spruce up the apparel aspect as well.
But perhaps the most impactful change is the one involving people. A&F is done with recruiting pretty faces and bad stigmas. The last time I visited Hollister Co., I was (pleasantly) shocked to see an innocent “Now Hiring” sign on the door. The company has also partnered with Echosmith to support an anti-bullying initiative. And if you’re hired to work the sales floor, you don’t get to tell your friends you’re a “model” anymore — the company is retiring that title for the more modest “brand associate.”
As teens are becoming less interested in exclusivity and more interested in affordable, stylish clothing like H&M and Forever 21, it seems A&F is making moves in the right direction. It still has some cleaning up to do, but it’s clear the higher-ups aren’t taking this rebrand lightly. Shareholders are holding their breath to see if the public will accept the new image, but something else we may have to wait to see is if employees can accept this new culture themselves.