Remembering Abercrombie & Fitch for What It Was | A Continuous Lean.

Remembering Abercrombie & Fitch for What It Was

Jan 13th, 2014 | Categories: History, Hunting & Fishing, Jake Gallagher, Men's Stores, New York City | by Jake Gallagher

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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.

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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.

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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

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Comments: 43

43 Comments to “Remembering Abercrombie & Fitch for What It Was”

  1. StevieTopSiders
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 11:55 AM

    Excellent post.

    I almost feel guilty when I remember my high school days, when I actually liked A&F’s products.

    This Christmas, I did buy myself a made-in-USA flannel shirt they produced, and I like it quite a bit. Would be interesting to see them take their heritage appeal much farther (while remaining ~authentic~).

  2. Casper
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 12:25 PM

    Its the same thing with Banana Republic back in the late 70′s early 80′s. Now look at it.

  3. James
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 12:25 PM

    I love how Fred Egan retweeted this…..he seems to confuse 2004-2009 A&F with the company you’ve profiled here. His delusion is boundless.

  4. Jake
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 12:34 PM

    @Casper I actually covered Banana Republic on my old site a while back http://wax-wane.com/2012/04/11/when-banana-republic-was-cool/

  5. Edward
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 12:51 PM

    I remember when A&F first opened in Kansas City. They had books, globes and all sorts of wonderful merchandise. A real outfitters store for the adventurous. I have a few silk ties from this period that I proudly wear and state that they were mid to late 80′s A&F.

  6. Ron Callahan
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 1:29 PM

    I fondly remember shopping at A&F during the late eighties to early nineties. They had great clothes for someone just graduating from college. I held onto those pieces for quite a long time, and I think that I might even have one of their ties still hanging in my closet after all of these years.

    Now, they’re not even worth the bother….

  7. Invictus
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 3:33 PM

    I love the look back into retail history. Hard to imagine current A&F as a blend of Orvis, Filson, and Cabela’s all-in-one!

  8. vanderleun
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 3:52 PM

    You let life long perverts of any stripe take over a company you can count on the A&F effect every time.

  9. Arsen
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 5:26 PM

    It’s certainly a shame that the brand is not as admirable as before. However, do you really believe it’s the brands fault? What about the new era, other companies’ ads, or the consumer?

  10. Arlo Smalls
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 5:59 PM

    My dad and I used to make a trip from Baltimore up to NYC every 6 months or so from the time I was about 12, until well after college. In no particular order the agenda called for a mix of Kicks games, burgers on the UES, early mornign runs through central park, steak dinner at Sparks, a new tie and ocbd from j press, poker on the qt in what used to be little Italy and most importantly, in the mid 80s, a few hours roaming the racks of the South Street Sea Port branch of Abercrombie & Fitch (post bankruptcy but pre-The Limited / current owners when it was still full of insane hunting gear). Full of elephant guns, water proof steamers, pith helmets, 50 cc camo-painted motor bikes, cross bows, dark wood and leather furniture… it was awesome. And this post totally brought that all back. Huge.

  11. Steve
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 6:16 PM

    I got a wool plaid jacket from A&F in Trump Tower before the brand change over. I wish I could still wear it!

  12. Jack
    on Jan 13th, 2014
    @ 7:33 PM

    @James – That guy is the worst. Why are you following him on Twitter?

  13. Dex
    on Jan 14th, 2014
    @ 3:49 AM

    You’ve overlooked one important iteration in the company. That was the time in the 80’s when the residue of the old company culture was still present. Yes, it was almost all sort of suburban or urban clothing (far less sporting goods — though some of it remained). But that was an interesting blip in A&F history, esp. considering what’s happened to the brand since.

    One could almost become cynical and look at the way meaning was completely evacuated from the brand when it met its most recent incarnation from in the 90’s to present. It shows that a brand name — as some sort of totem — is more important than the original substance, since removed, which gave it its meaning.

    It can become a totally different thing — but conditions that lead it to becoming ripe for an almost absurd “re-branding” were predicated on the fact that it once had this meaning that was quality and marketplace for the elite.

    Or, what I’ve written is complete drivel and A&F is just this floating signifier like any other brand and with enough distance and marketing, a concept or a brand or an institution can mean exactly what we want it (and them) to mean.

  14. Vecka
    on Jan 14th, 2014
    @ 5:24 AM

    I´ve always loved this brand, love its philosophy and style

  15. On Safari
    on Jan 14th, 2014
    @ 8:56 AM

    Charming piece of nostalgia. It was the best toy shop in the world. Holland & Holland, an outpost of the British shotgun people, operate a clone on E. 57th St. But nothing will ever replace the original.

  16. Gregor McNeish
    on Jan 14th, 2014
    @ 12:07 PM

    Much like the Alfred Dunhill Co of old. I once worked on a vintage whisky project for Dunhill where i got to wade through there archive of posters and memorabilia. Great era.

  17. Richard Thomas
    on Jan 14th, 2014
    @ 12:22 PM

    In addition to the gun room where I once watched Ernest Hemingway outfit himself for a
    safari, A&F was the only place in New York where you could buy a decent jaguar spear,
    hit golf balls of the roof and examine a line of cricket bats.

  18. Ray Hull
    on Jan 14th, 2014
    @ 3:22 PM

    I bought my first pair of Russell Camps mocs at A&F in 1970. Since then, I found at an antique auction a magnificent turned aluminum and brass folding pole (or maybe polo) seat…it has a collapsible pigskin seat and the metal work is magnificent. It is far too small for me but would be great for the National Museum of Thoroughbred Racing at Saratoga.

    Recently, I have also been eyeing (and would have bought had it been a >28″) A&F Flli Rizzini SxS shotgun. Flli Rizzini shotguns nowadays start at about $85k and run up quite quickly.

    And thanks for the recollection of Alfred Dunhill of the old days (above). Madison Ave shopping has slipped quite a bit in 40 years. Just walking in there was a stunning treat.

  19. Richard G. Williams, Jr.
    on Jan 14th, 2014
    @ 6:11 PM

    Quite interesting. Thanks for sharing. There is a company today which is, in some ways, attempting to bring back similar concepts and emphasis as the early A&F:

    http://buffalojackson.com/

  20. JuanDierection
    on Jan 14th, 2014
    @ 7:50 PM

    Great Article!
    For a person removed from such appreciation of this brand you’ve really made me stand attentive to what’s happened to it. Although the exclusivity of the past may have lead to its downfall, it’s a shame that it doesn’t still embrace that culture of quality and great American tradition. But I guess one can only hope for a time like that to recur. This was well written. Thank you.

  21. Casper
    on Jan 15th, 2014
    @ 9:36 AM

    @James
    Nice post. I was shown some old Banana Republic catalogues a few years ago by a very cool guy called Harry Wonder. He owns a fantastic store in the Netherlands called the Globe and his love is all the heritage brands.

    http://theglobe1969.tumblr.com/

  22. BlueTrain
    on Jan 15th, 2014
    @ 10:30 AM

    While presidents, writers, actors and Philadelphia lawyers may have shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch, more ordinary folks had never heard of it. They bought their sporting goods at Sears, which is the same place the rich people’s guides bought their stuff. The swells had Parker shotguns, the local guides had Winchesters.

  23. Uldis Skrodelis
    on Jan 15th, 2014
    @ 10:54 AM

    I have this very same 1910 A&F catalog in your first illustration of his post. It is just fantastic to page through. The store address was 57 Reade Street , here in NYC. . I also remember visiting the Madison Ave. store many years ago and spending a wonderful time browsing the Gun Floor looking at long guns on floor rack displays.

  24. heprof
    on Jan 15th, 2014
    @ 11:26 AM

    Also much like The North Face. I grew up in northern California in the seventies and remember first hearing about their tents and went to Berkeley to get one. Also picked up a jacket. Both are still in my possession…although too worn to be used, too many memories to throw out. They also show the high quality and craftmanship put into the gear before they were bought out, went public, and hired a CEO from a fashion brand to focus solely on raising profits. Somehow, the brand survived, but the spirit is dead.

    Curiously, Japan bought rights to revive the spirit of this label and now produce The North Face Purple Label. I recently bought a jacket from the Nanamica store and it reminded me of wearing my first North Face jacket purchased in Berkeley.

    My point, let’s hope that a Japanese company will buy the rights to rebrand A & F.

    BTW, I think the company that bought Belstaff is slowly killing that as well…will probably see them in Macy’s this year.

  25. Robert Easthope
    on Jan 15th, 2014
    @ 3:47 PM

    Clothes for the masses,no doubt made in China, I have some vintage shorts that are magnificent.
    Great article though, the doyens on Saville Row, cannot believe the store opposite the Burliington Arcade, scantily clad boys and girls, is obviously not what A and F were originally about.

  26. @JMVELARDI
    on Jan 15th, 2014
    @ 5:50 PM

    ‘Camp Outfits’ – the only part of its heritage alive today

  27. RKW
    on Jan 16th, 2014
    @ 1:41 AM

    When I was in NY, at my first training stay in 1977 for Merrill Lynch, my former company, I spent a great deal of time in the Madison Ave store. I ate minimal amounts from my per diem account, and saved up to buy close out sale items at the store. I still have some of them. Deerskin gloves, nice wool scarf I still wear, couple of polo shirts that refuse to wear out. Did buy a pair of Russell chukkas, which only last year sent back to Russell to have them re-soled. What a cool store it was. Only a couple of visits, and left me with a lifetime of memories. When I look at the current CEO of A&F these days, I have a feeling he would have been chased out of the original store with one of the few remaining elephant guns.

  28. hsc89
    on Jan 16th, 2014
    @ 4:01 PM

    Like a few others have already mentioned, I thought the “Oshman’s” era A&F stores were still pretty cool – even if they only provided a passing glimpse of the store’s former glory. In fact, I have an incredibly well-made field coat I bought at their New Orleans location back in the early to mid 80′s still hanging in my closet. I remember their carrying and displaying on the sales floor stuff like elaborate “picnic” sets and wooden folding tables that you might expect to see used on safari in the 1920′s. Very similar in many ways to the original Banana Republic at that point but with some real history behind the label.

  29. BlueTrain
    on Jan 17th, 2014
    @ 7:35 AM

    The original Banana Republic stores were essentially high-end surplus stores and had a built-in problem in that there isn’t enough high-end surplus available. However, the basic issue with A&F, L.L.Bean, C.C. Filson,Eddie Bauer and all the others, is the problems that occur with the passing or departure of the founder of the store. It happens in all sorts of businesses. There’s a kind of identity crisis and the company almost has to create itself all over again, particularly when there are no family members to carry on. There are many other factors, of course, such as changing market conditions, changing costs, fads and fashions and not least, simple and pure competition. There are also pressures on companies to grow or they will fade away into a niche market selling expensive goods to a dedicated and exclusive clientele, which in a way, A&F already was. But even such a narrow market can evaporate. Russell Moccasin is another company that now might be a niche market and in fact, any company still making dress shoes in this country is selling to a niche market, which doesn’t include me. I do buy White’s Boots as well as Chippewas, which don’t seem outrageiously expensive.

  30. James Phinney Baxter White
    on Jan 18th, 2014
    @ 4:03 PM

    Would love to hear if anyone out there has any Pre-Fitch product. We checked our archive and we only have one “David T. Abercrombie Company” item. It’s a beat to shit hand warmer but it still works fine! We actually used this artifact in our photo shoot for the Fist Mitts on our website.

  31. Mark
    on Jan 19th, 2014
    @ 10:21 PM

    Do any of you pining for the days of the old A&F own a shotgun? I think not.

  32. vanderleun
    on Jan 20th, 2014
    @ 12:49 PM

    I think so, Mark, unfortunate lad. I own several including a Mossberg over the front door. Want to drop by?

  33. Bert
    on Jan 23rd, 2014
    @ 11:09 AM

    Watch “Man’s Favorite Sport” (1964) Rock Hudson film. In the movie he works for A&F. Fair romantic comedy with cool stuff in it.

    Also recall Charles getting an A&F winter parka from his parents in MASH.

  34. Aaron Farley
    on Jan 23rd, 2014
    @ 11:42 AM

    I had always heard they used to be a small, high end outfitter. This is really interesting, and sad – really. I imagine the clientele of this A&F meeting the clientele of today’s Abercrombie…that would be fun ;-)

  35. Mark in Texas
    on Jan 23rd, 2014
    @ 11:56 AM

    @Mark – yes, I do own several shotguns. Beretta or Benelli – what’s your flavor? And yes, the barrels get heated up regularly.

    Great piece. And I’m sure there’ll be another similar one about Eddie Bauer before long…

  36. Brian
    on Jan 23rd, 2014
    @ 12:17 PM

    Great read. I love hearing the history of companies and A&F sure has a very interesting one.

  37. James Phinney Baxter White
    on Jan 23rd, 2014
    @ 2:23 PM

    Regarding the shotgun discussion I would like to point out that LL Bean recently marked their 100th anniversary by selling commemorative shotguns– Sweet limited edition double barrel Merkel’s!
    And regarding Man’s Favorite Sport check out the Rock sporting cool A&F attire:

  38. JFPisa
    on Jan 24th, 2014
    @ 7:46 AM

    What has the world come to?

    Wish I could’ve visited A&F and the like in their heyday. The commercialization of literally *everything* in society today is extremely sad. There is no soul left in anything.

    Is nothing sacred?

  39. BlueTrain
    on Jan 27th, 2014
    @ 11:52 AM

    Ah, but the world keeps turning. There was a time when there was no Lord & Taylor, Brooks Brothers, L.L.Bean, Tiffany and all the rest. Those companies are all still around and selling to a different market than they did when our grandfathers were around (but shopping at none of them at the time). Woolrich is another good example. What happened?

    What happened was that one day they got up and realized they weren’t selling wool coats and blankets they way they used to. People were buying down jackets (possibly from Eddie Bauer), nylon windbreakers and electric blankets. Woolrich is still in business but they’ve changed their product line-up (some would say for the worse) just so they can stay in business.

    There are still companies making woolen products just like Woolrich did, if you’re really interested. Check out Johnson Woolen Mills, Bemidji Woolen Mills or Empire Wool and Canvas Company. Not available at your local mall.

  40. James Phinney Baxter White
    on Jan 28th, 2014
    @ 5:54 AM

    Can you give me a url for “Canvas Company”?

  41. Claude
    on Jan 28th, 2014
    @ 4:18 PM

    This article is an excellent read. It is also greatly saddening to read how it all began and have to see it painfully ending (apparently again) around the corner from my apartment.

  42. BlueTrain
    on Feb 3rd, 2014
    @ 11:22 AM

    I was referring to the “Empire Wool and Canvas Company: http://www.empirecanvasworks.com/

    They’re rather a specialized company but I’m sure they’d appreciate your business. Russell Moccasin is still in business, too.

  43. DofC
    on Feb 4th, 2014
    @ 1:29 PM

    I had heard stories of the NYC flagship store from my Connecticut-raised father and uncles. My grandfather purchased at least one hunting rifle from that store, to take into the Vermont and Adirondack woods. No longer in the family, sadly. When the Limited first bought the A&F name, I remember that they did aspire to recreate the atmosphere of the original store, designing their showrooms with dark leather chairs, canvas, globes, vintage books, trophies, flyrods, etc. That quickly changed.

    At the time I was living in Limited’s home base of Columbus, OH, working at a Polo Ralph Lauren store, and we saw some highly entertaining practices by the new A&F execs as they were making over the brand. Each season, as soon as new product would hit the RL shelves, someone from A&F would come in and buy a size run. A few months later, like clockwork, an almost identical item would appear in the A&F stores, only re-branded with their name and at 1/2 the price (e.g. the brass decoration on the 1-1/2 inch wide leather belt was the same size and in the same location, but now stamped with “Abercrombie” instead of “Polo”). I recall being simultaneously amazed and amused. I moved back east soon after and stopped paying attention; no clue who they’re stealing their designs from these days.