The shared restroom in my apartment building smells like an Abercrombie & Fitch store in 2007. The fragrance is just as all-consuming as it was in the stores, for whatever reason. Each time I enter, I’m transported back to my teenage years, at the mall, and the feelings of escape and exclusivity come right back. It still feels sexy, despite what I’ve learned.
The building is one of those generic, cookie-cutter buildings that are popping up like rodents. I’ve been wooed into this “luxury” through the marketing of a “lifestyle” that is both a welcome escape and disconcertingly exclusionary at the same time. It’s a reality that I’m currently living out while attempting to figure out how it is that I ended up here. While not the main point of this post, it provides an appropriate backdrop.
I have a huge amount of shame (don’t we all?). Some of mine is tied to my sexuality, some of it comes from not feeling good enough to participate in the world. Despite how personal it feels, I know that I didn’t bring about all of this shame on my own, most of it was inflicted upon me. I may have been more susceptible or willing to let it in, but that will never excuse it. It’s unfair and incorrect to pin blame on one company, especially when it’s a larger issue of marketing, but the history of Abercrombie & Fitch precisely so eloquently illustrates the issue. It would be a shame not to take advantage.
As many teens do, I discovered that I liked to go to the mall. As a non-athletic person, I had plenty of time to kill and loved to go places that were indoors. I frequently visited the nearest mall, White Oaks Mall in Springfield, IL, on the weekends in the mid 2000’s. It was around this time that I became aware of the fact that clothing mattered. Not to me, but to everyone else. Before this, I was innocently wearing whatever from wherever, and perfectly happy about it. Simpler times.
The mall, as it does, sold a lifestyle, and no stores sold it more effectively than Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister. You likely know exactly what I’m talking about, and if you don’t, just imagine a store taking “sex sells” to heart. As a teenager yet to fully realize his sexuality, stores with massive images of shirtless men were a confusing experience. Why did I like them so much?
I recently took my free time to jump back down the rabbit hole of the Abercrombie & Fitch company. We’re far enough removed from its heyday to take an objective look at why it worked when it did, why it stopped working, and all of the damage that it left in its wake.
First things first, the damage. I can’t really put a dollar amount on it, but the company inflicted a massive amount of psychological damage on so many of us. We’ll never be compensated properly. It sold an idealized version of the world, and it was easy to buy into it, myself more than I ever want to admit. It seemed harmless and fun! I was trying to figure out my place in the world, and despite the fact that I was so far from what they were portraying, I wanted in. It was a losing battle from the very beginning. They were selling what seemed like a method to acceptance, the one thing that I most desperately longed for. Except, subtly, I wasn’t invited.
The imagery used throughout the store featured people who were older than the store’s target demographic, the first impossible standard. Obviously the people buying the clothes were not going to look like late 20 or 30-somethings just yet. They were 18. Also, despite what they would have you believe, not everyone has a six pack. Nor is everyone the exact same weight. They sold a single, racist version of what they imagined to be the most attractive people. Let me say that one word again: racist. No one at the company actually had any grasp on the ideas of diversity and inclusion.
Secondarily, and perhaps the glue that kept the entire thing from falling apart, was the music. In Hollister, it was easy to imagine a surfer coming in from the ocean, picking up a guitar, and singing about a girl. There was nothing to worry about in his life, everything was easy, he just hung out! One of the songs on the playlist that most communicated this was “Let’s Just Fall Again” by Jason Castro. In Abercrombie, it was exactly the same guy, except he was in New York. Like, he got tired of of LA so he decided to just chill in a different unaffordable city for a bit. Be cool, brah.
Abercrombie & Fitch has a complicated story. Despite the fact that they claim their established date as 1892, the contemporary version of the company really only started in 1988. Not quite as sexy, for some reason. It was when the company brought on Michael Jeffries as the CEO in 1992 that things started to take off. I had searched for information about him in the past, but recently went searching again and was confronted with images of his horrible plastic surgery. I find that his appearance singularly communicates more about the company than anything else possibly could.
In the same way that Abercrombie created a false world for its customers, Jeffries lived inside a world completed disconnected from reality. As a gay man myself, learning about his story is difficult. His struggles are so common, and he was in a position to inflict a huge amount of his pain on others just like him. That is, gay kids. And that’s just what he did. Obsession with image, a carefree, idealized life. It’s what he wanted for himself, but likely didn’t have. It’s what we all want. We want to be beautiful, surrounded by friends, without a care in the world. As much as I despise Jeffries, I wish for him to be loved, for his walls to come down, for him to feel that he’s exactly enough as he is. Gay men need unconditional love more than most.
Jeffries built an incredibly successful company by giving into capitalism’s worst attributes. Sex sells. Preying on teenagers looking for a way to fit in. Creating an idealized image of what could be if you just make a purchase. Every trick in the book was deployed and turned all the way up. In all of this, the most distressing fact was that a gay man was leading a company to push an image of blatant heterosexuality. His homophobia was stitched into each and every piece of the company. Even worse, the messaging was delivered, influenced, and driven by gay culture. Internet commenters at the time who described Abercrombie or Hollister as “so gay” were, despite their immaturity, not that far off the mark. It was all gay. It was a gay man’s fantasy world of heterosexuality.
In my high school, there were a couple of people who dressed almost exclusively in Abercrombie or Hollister clothing. They became the people that Jeffries was as well, caught up in a desire to be part of the fantasy. The clothes didn’t change who they were inside, but they certainly revealed aspects of their character. What, at the time, seemed like a move to exude confidence and masculinity, was largely a cry for help. None of us, as teenagers, could hear it.
In spite of the toxicity, there were aspects of both Abercrombie and Hollister at their height that were amazing. They were fantasy, a carefully told story, and just really, really cool. The music at Hollister was warm and, if you could tolerate the volume, inviting. Both stores exuded a laser focused brand. It seemed as if a higher power had descended to earth and somehow allowed you to come into its exclusive club. In the same way that Disney World has absolute control over your experience through each of the senses, so too did Abercrombie and Hollister.
Despite the story of the stores, the reality of their products wasn’t so glossy. I owned some jeans from both Abercrombie and Hollister, and they were very difficult to walk in. Even after lots of wear, they were just so stiff. I struggled through. Some of their shirts featured sewn on appliques, which frayed at the edges after a few washes. Their polos suffered the same fate as most polos, fading and shrinking in unattractive ways. The zippers on their hoodies worked until the first wash, after which they became stuck at random places and largely looked like an aerial shot of a winding river. The only redeeming feature, for myself personally, was the sleeve length, a godsend for someone will longer than average arms.
This all gets to the point that the marketing of a product is so divorced from the actual experience of the product, and it’s super hard to quiet the marketing in your head. Abercrombie’s marketing was super loud. Apple today suffers a similar fate, in which they continue to loudly market something that in reality has quickly faded. It’s really hard to keep the curtain from being pulled back and revealing the people desperate to maintain an image behind.
Despite everything that I’ve touched on so far, you could make the case that this is a lot of concern over one clothing company. Just some mall stores. In the grand scheme of life, how could they really cause that much harm? Well, I think back to my life in 2007. I had hardly been out of my small home town. The internet was nothing like it is today. I wasn’t on social media yet. My view of the world was through television, my classmates, and the mall. Culture as people in cities experienced it just wasn’t accessible to me. A single mall store took up a shockingly large part of my existence. To act as if it wasn’t big enough to be harmful completely ignores the day-to-day life of many rural people, who are most susceptible to influence.
Today, Abercrombie is much different from what it was just ten years ago. For a while, they were searching for a buyer. I’m not sure who would be dumb enough to pick it up. They’ve essentially started over with their image, but continue to sell much the same product. In my opinion, it’s time to pack it in, give it up, and start over. They’re relying on kids coming up today who do not know about their history. For someone who’s seen the whole story, it’s hard to coalesce.
Let’s get back to my apartment building. I have a hard time getting comfortable or finding a place for myself inside of the bland apartment buildings of today. Much like Abercrombie, many of them sell a singular vision of the world. When an apartment building is selling this vision, or lifestyle, it ignores the life that its residents have already created for themselves. The communal spaces of my building play pop music, which gets louder at certain times. It wants to be for everyone, but isn’t really for anybody specifically.
As humans rely more and more on corporations just to exist in the world, it’s the individual stories that get pushed to the wayside in favor of modularization. My style or preferences mean little when so much is predetermined in my environment. In the past, I bought into the vision that commerce sold me, and it hurt me. Now, in a larger way, I’m physically living in that vision, and it only serves to alienate me from myself.
For the population at large, these issues are minuscule, but for those at the margins, it can be life or death. If you believe that you do not fit in, and all of the marketing surrounding you reinforces this idea, you’re going to feel such despair. Even the place that I currently call home is causing me anguish, and it’s in a gay-friendly neighborhood. I don’t fit the marketing image, so what am I doing here? I just need a place to live. I don’t see myself reflected in any of the mall stores, so where do I shop?
The story of being a gay man is one of psychological struggle. As we’re trying to find a place to sit, we’re listening to culture. We just need it to tell us what we need to do to fit in. All we want is to participate like anyone else. Abercrombie & Fitch told us that there was no room for us. Looking back, the company was so sad and antiquated. It was the reason that they fell, and fell hard. Brands nowadays attempt to be super inclusive, but it’s the same dirty trick. Are gay people welcome at your store or not? Why is this even a discussion?
The overarching message that I want to share is that we must be cautious about what we let into our lives. Something like a clothing store is harmless itself, unless we give it too much power. Expand this out to include any piece of marketing, it’s best not to believe in it too much. Don’t listen too closely, and do everything you can to just remove it from your life. Fortunately, malls are dying and being replaced by different methods of commerce. Online stores are less about their story and messaging, and more about just offering up goods and letting you tell the story. The world is evolving into a safer place, but still, the harm of the past needs to be inspected, healed, learned from, and let go.
- The Aging of Abercrombie & Fitch at Bloomberg Businesweek
- The deeply controversial CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch just stepped down at Quartz
- Why Abercrombie Is Losing Its Shirt at The Cut