The Strange Journey of Abercrombie & Fitch

By Gayne C. Young

The clothing store you’ve come to associate with posters of half-naked teenagers in its windows in rapidly deteriorating shopping malls across the country was once the premier hunting and fishing outfitter in the world.

The story of Abercrombie & Fitch began in 1892, when outdoor enthusiast David Abercrombie opened an upscale sporting goods company at 36 South Street in downtown Manhattan, New York. Abercrombie, a former wilderness surveyor from Norfolk & Western Railroad, found most outdoor gear and clothing lacking in performance and of poor quality so he decided to design and outsource his own. He sold these goods to New York’s elite, backed by great customer service and an extremely knowledgeable staff. One such elite was wealthy New York lawyer Ezra Fitch who loved Abercrombie Co. so much that he purchased a share in the growing company. The incorporated and renamed Abercrombie & Fitch was unveiled in 1904. The partnership was short-lived however as Abercrombie and Fitch argued over the direction the store should take. Abercrombie felt the store should remain upscale and exclusive. Fitch believed the store should move towards appealing to the masses. In the end Fitch won the argument—or Abercrombie quit, each had a different story to tell of what transpired—and he bought out Abercrombie.

To better reach these masses, Fitch mailed out over 50,000 456-page catalogs at such an astronomical cost (the equivalent of nearly $2 million in 2024) that it almost bankrupted the company. The brand expanded and in 1910 began selling women’s clothing. This made them the first major retail store in New York to go coed. A & F grew further and proclaimed themselves in 1913 “The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World.” In 1917, the company moved to a 12-story building on Madison Avenue. Each floor provided separate amenities. The basement featured a shooting range. The second through fifth carried clothing with each floor specializing in a different climate or terrain. The sixth floor housed a sporting library. The seventh floor carried firearms and a vast display of trophy mounts, while the roof was equipped with a pool where customers could try out any of the store’s vast collection of fishing rods, 48,000 flies, and or 18,000 lures.

A & F never skimped on quality and, because of this, outfitted some of the most famous expeditions in history. The company outfitted Theodore Roosevelt’s African safari, Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean, Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s expedition to Antarctica, and many others. This brought the company more publicity and allowed them to open stores across the United States. Abercrombie further expanded by booking hunting and fishing trips the world over.

In 1964, A & F became Hollywood-famous when its San Francisco store featured predominantly in the Rock Hudson / Paula Prentiss romantic comedy film Man’s Favorite Sport? This very early example of product placement saw Hudson portray Roger Willoughby, A & F’s resident angler and top salesman, compete in a fishing tournament. Despite this successful brand integration, A & F began falling on hard times as customers began shopping at discount stores looking for cheaper prices rather than seeking costlier high-quality craftsmanship. A & F filed for bankruptcy in 1975 then folded completely in 1977.

The company was purchased in 1978 by sporting goods retailer Oshman’s. The new Abercrombie & Fitch now focused on tennis and exercise equipment. The move was short-lived and the stores went under again. Oshman’s sold Abercrombie’s name to The Limited in 1988. Famous for owning Victoria’s Secret, Lerner, Bath & Body Works, and a host of other fashionable stores, The Limited rebranded Abercrombie as the premier store for young adults. Stores quickly became favorites of tween’s, teens, and young adults who turned skintight T-shirts and low-rise jeans into must-have commodities. The company was also famous for presenting an overly-sexualized image. The chain further came under fire for carrying only limited sizes, not including minorities, and hiring models that had a certain look rather than actual salespeople. Contempt for the brand grew so much that in 2016 the American Customer Satisfaction Index rated Abercrombie as the most hated retailer in the U.S.

The company changed its brand image slowly in the years since and in 2023 gained 285% in the stock market. A&F now aims to carry classic styles rather than sexy ones. Whether Abercrombie can survive another 130 plus years however is up in the air as most brick-and-mortar retailers are going the way of the dinosaur thanks to online shopping. The only thing certain of Abercrombie & Fitch’s future is that their days of being the world’s most famous outdoor outfitter are long gone.

From the FE Films Archive

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