Yesterday’s announcement that Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries had stepped down (effective immediately) after 22 years of service may have taken the Women’s Wear Daily newsroom by storm, but it was and is being relegated to the inside folds of America’s several remaining papers of record – to the places where lifestyle content lurks. It shouldn’t be. The tale of Jeffries, Oklahoma boy made rich, deserves a second look and probably a third or a fourth. The former king of King of Prussia didn’t just sell clothes; Jeffries sold an image that defined an era for a lot of Americans, an image that no one is buying anymore.
The first question to answer is this: What was Abercrombie & Fitch? The answer is complicated. A&F, which arguably makes better clothes now than it ever did previously, was a struggling outfitter that decided in the early nineties to appeal to a younger and broader demographic by selling pre-worn clothes with a distinctly American, Ralph-Lauren-for-beginners aesthetic. After that, A&F was a phenomenon. The brand became synonymous with mainstream, upper middle class culture in a way that even Gap never managed. And it introduced a generation to content-free signifiers.
Kids wanted to wear Abercrombie & Fitch despite the fact that wearing Abercrombie & Fitch – like attending “Dave” concerts – signified nothing other than a willingness to spend money. The company’s famous ads were all shot in California sunlight and New England visual shorthand (all that layering) in an attempt to capture the interest of Middle America. The label never implied allegiance to an idea or a perspective. The label trafficked in sexual imagery without selling sexy clothes.
Over the last few years, the company’s sales cratered. In big cities, the easiest way to find a tourist is to visit a shirtless-dude-flanked A&F boutique. The masticated version of Americana being regurgitated had become unpalatable to Bald Eagle-loving Yanks. This was not merely because fast fashion brands like H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo offer hipper products for less. Abercrombie-ness, that combination of status and stasis, no long plays.
The end of mainstream culture is now taken as gospel. American can agree on a few things (admiring Beyonce, loving Football, hating Congress), but we’re all basically doing us. That’s not shocking. What’s shocking is looking back not quite two decades and seeing the extreme degree to which that was not always the case. In the late nineties and early aughts, Clear Channel could make Americans listen to Nickelback and, more impressively, like it. “Friends,” a show that took the Seinfeldian concept of “being about nothing” to a logical and innocuous extreme, could rule TV. A diet fad (South Beach) could take the White House by storm.
In that atmosphere of prosperous monotony, Abercrombie made sense. Being cool didn't require having taste.
Mike Jeffries also made being cool about being good looking. His company’s hiring policy was famously prejudicial against the ugly (full disclosure: I could only get a gig at American Eagle) and would publicly state his discomfort with homely people wearing his clothes. No one so thoroughly believed in the importance of sitting at the cool kid table as Jeffries.
The fact that we live in a post-A&F world where rebellious kids can look like rebellious kids and non-rebellious kids can wear reasonably priced hoodies without taking any flak certainly looks like a cultural and fashion progress from here, but we couldn’t have gotten to this place without Mike Jeffries. He was the man who defined what we no longer wanted to be. We know how the executives who accepted his resignation felt. Time had come.
Photos by Richard Levine / Corbis