Despite the shameful mall brand that it has morphed into over the past couple decades, there was a time when Abercrombie & Fitch was great. More than great even, Abercrombie & Fitch was important, a brand that was as integral to our country’s culture of clothing as it was to our culture as a whole. This was a company that outfitted presidents and pioneers, authors and actors, explorers and icons. Today, the Abercrombie & Fitch clientele is decidedly less illustrious, and their products are about as American as a three Yuan bill. I oft wonder how many shoppers even realize that Abercrombie & Fitch were real people to begin with? Then again, it would be wrong to fault anyone for overlooking the real Abercrombie & Fitch. After all the philosophy upon which these two gentleman built their brand is wholly absent from the stores that bear their names today.
David T. Abercrombie, a Baltimore native, founded “Abercrombie Co.” on the shores of the East River, at 36 South Street in Manhattan on June 4, 1892. The store was informed by Abercrombie’s infatuation with the great outdoors, hawking all sorts of wilderness ready gadgets and gear. Abercrombie had an unflappable eye for high-end outdoor ephemera (you could say he was the first purveyor of “gentlemen camper” goods) which he used to punctiliously select items that were as upscale as they were utilitarian. This was the era of Teddy Roosevelt on safari, when dignitaries and celebrities would go on expensive outdoor jaunts, and the upper class still wanted to get their hands dirty. Or at least get their leather gloves dirty. And it was these affluent outdoorsmen (and women) that became Abercrombie’s audience. One such man was Ezra Fitch, a New York based lawyer and real estate developer who had grown tired of his day job and had taken to yachting, climbing, and fishing upstate. In those early years, Fitch was one of Abercrombie’s most dedicated customers, purchasing from the shop continuously until one day Fitch decided to buy something quite a bit larger.
In 1900 Abercrombie, after some convincing, allowed Fitch to purchase a major share into his company, thus becoming a part in the steadily growing label. Four years later the partnership officially went public as Fitch’s name was tacked on, giving birth to “Abercrombie & Fitch Co.” Over the next few years both men enjoyed great financial success, but their relationship began to erode rapidly. Fitch was more economically minded and wanted to continue expansion on a larger scale, while Abercrombie was content with staying a premium brand for those that were wealthy enough to afford it. In the end Abercrombie bowed out of the brand he founded after fifteen years, turning over complete control to Fitch in 1907. The “Fitch Years,” as they are affectionately referred to, were a time of great prosperity for the brand, during which time the brand published their epic four hundred plus page catalogs (which now fetch some pretty hefty sums on eBay), became the first store in New York to sell clothes to both men and women, and unveiled their legendary twelve story Madison Avenue flagship store. That store was a shrine to all things outdoors and encapsulated the brand’s over-the-top approach to retail during the early twentieth-century. It featured a shooting range, a bookstore, an art gallery, a watch repair suite, a golf section complete with a resident pro, and even a pool large enough to teach fly-fishing lessons in. These were the glory days of Abercrombie & Fitch, when the brand brought quaint outdoor pursuits to the opulent urban population in-spectacular fashion.
The Abercrombie & Fitch of this era represents a time when no one would dare to venture into the wilderness without the finest accoutrements and attire. Their catalogs would include everything from burly walking coats, to exquisitely decorated firearms, to imported pith hats, to Mahjong straight from China. A&F enjoyed great success for the better part of the next handful of decades, planting locations across the country wherever the adventurous (and the wealthy) might live. Throughout the fifties and sixties, they brand made a significant push to keep their quality high, even in the face of an increasingly cost conscious marketplace. By the seventies though, A&F had little fight left – people were losing interest in their high quality (and high ticket) wares and so it was time for them to adapt. They tried to restructure their model by adding in sale sections, and rearranging the stores to be less of a gallery and more of a familiar department store, but this simply did not work. In August of 1976 they declared bankruptcy and less than a year later they closed for good. What has happened to the brand since then is an all too familiar tale of a great American brand being savaged by those simply looking to make a quick buck. For a brand that once had more confidence and gusto than any given retail space could ever contain, A&F is now a brand devoid of any true integrity or admirable character. It is not worth allocating any more bandwidth to what A&F has become and so I turn back to David and Ezra. Two men who have forever shaped our relationship between function and fashion, and who certainly deserve to be remembered for more than the throwaway mall brand that now regrettably bares their name. —JG