What Can Save Abercrombie & Fitch?

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

With investors backing quietly out the door and the search for a new identity by way of a redesigned logo, times are only getting tougher for Abercrombie & Fitch. While the 122-year-old company considers just how to make itself over, it might do well to take a page from Eddie Bauer, and look way back into its archives — and bring back its rugged, iconic, heritage outdoor clothing.

Abercrombie & Fitch was founded in 1892. Compared to L.L. Bean (1912) and Eddie Bauer (1920), they are one of the oldest American clothing companies founded for people that love the outdoors. Abercrombie & Fitch might not be able to pull off a total rebrand à la what Jenna Lyons has pulled off with a company like J. Crew, but with "Heritage brands" like the aforementioned L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, along with companies like Red Wing, Brooks Brothers, and Gant going back to their roots while at the same time not totally changing course, there's no time like the present for a grasp at newfound relevancy.

The company, which was founded over a century ago to outfit hunters with a little extra money to spend, filed for bankruptcy in 1976, and closed the doors to its flagship store in 1977. A Houston-based chain purchased the name of the company in 1978,  selling it to The Limited ten years later. A&F eventually spun itself off into a publicly traded company in 1996, and from there became a common sight (and scent) in malls all across America, as well as the brand of choice for preppy teens. The brand kept growing and expanding, eventually opening offshoot brands Abercrombie Kids, Hollister Co., and Gilly Hicks.

The 1990s were good to the company, but Abercrombie has had a rougher time in the last decade, including discrimination lawsuits, racy ad campaigns, and public fallout from comments made by the company's CEO, Mike Jeffries about the sort of customers the company targets: "That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores," he said. "Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that."

But the cool kids just aren't showing up as much as they used to. Abercrombie has seen a dip in sales, stock price, as well as relevancy over the last ten years, all things that the company hopes to turn around with a few tweaks to their brand, including removing logos from clothing

Logically speaking, it just doesn't seem likely that there could possibly be a third act in American menswear. If there is a hypothetical point of no return (i.e., bankruptcy), the Abercrombie & Fitch brand probably wouldn't be able to be resuscitated like it was in the 1970s, and while some might think we'd be better off without the company that literally pumps their cologne into the air for everybody to smell whether they want to or not. The thing is, we'd be losing a truly great American brand if A&F was gone, and realizing what made them great in the first place could be the key to turning things around.

Reconnecting the brand with famous names like Theodore Roosevelt to Ernest Hemingway, both of whom were well-known customers, could help to start rebuild the image, bringing it back to its rugged yesteryear roots. There are few companies with the historic background the likes of which Abercrombie & Fitch has, but which for some reason they choose not to exploit. A shame, and possibly a major wasted opportunity, because while the likeliness of there being a strong third act is doubtful, there is a chance to salvage this one before the curtain goes down a final time. 

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