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Abercrombie & Fitch: The Story Behind the Story of an Iconic American Brand

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 14, 2024 3:01 am

Abercrombie & Fitch: The Story Behind the Story of an Iconic American Brand

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 14, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Abercrombie and Fitch stores conquered malls in the late '90s and early '00s with gorgeous models, pulsing dance beats and a fierce scent. What people don't know is the story of the company that was founded in 1892 in New York City.

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All you can stream with Zoomo Play. And we continue with our American stories. Abercrombie and Fitch stores conquered malls in the late 1990s and early 2000s with gorgeous models, pulsing dance beats, and a fierce scent. But over time, revelations of exclusionary marketing and discriminatory hiring practices began to engulf the popular brand in Scandal. What most people don't know is that the company was founded in 1892 in New York City as an outfitter for elite outdoorsmen. Here to tell the whole story is Ashley Lebinski. Ashley is the former co-host of Discovery Channel's Master of Arms, the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearm Museum, and she's the co-founder of the University of Wyoming College of Law's Firearms Research Center.

Here's Ashley. The name Abercrombie and Fitch, especially today, doesn't always invoke the most positive image. If you've been into the store, you know that it's known for being darkly lit and heavily perfumed and not very inclusive. I always call it the trendy teenage clothing company that got into a lot of trouble for not necessarily welcoming a lot of different people into their store. And I can say that from personal experience because I work for Hollister and Abercrombie. But in the recent years, they have decided to do a rebrand. And within that rebrand, the clothing line is a little bit more grown up.

They have real normal sizes that you can wear. But what's so fascinating to me about this whole thing is that there have been documentaries about kind of the drama behind the company. But what they often ignore is the fact that for almost a century, Abercrombie and Fitch was considered one of the best sporting goods stores in the world. And they actually had international reach back in the early 1900s. And they catered to presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. They actually outfitted Charles Lindbergh.

And they also provided clothing for Amelia Earhart. The company was founded on June 4th, 1892 by David Abercrombie. And the kind of concept behind the store was to bring a little bit of wilderness into the urban environment of New York City.

So this started in New York City, which used to house a lot of different firearms related products, outdoor products, despite the fact that it was in the city. And it was an outdoor retailer that focused in camping, hunting and fishing gear. In 1904, the other company namesake that we know, Ezra Fitch, became a partner in the company. And that's when kind of the iconic brand was born.

Unfortunately, though, the relationship was kind of a rocky one. And so Abercrombie ended up walking away from the company in 1907 and left Ezra Fitch as the sole owner. And they call those the Fitch years. The brand wasn't limited to one store, though, in New York City. One of Fitch's pet projects was the fact that he wanted the company to have broader appeal. So he had his employees create, and think about this, this is early 1900s. He had his employees create a 450 plus page catalog in 1909 to distribute around the world.

And it wasn't the greatest financial decision the company could make because of the expense to produce it, but they ended up making over 50,000 copies of this catalog. And their client base wasn't just limited to your average sportsman. So Abercrombie and Fitch today isn't always associated with inclusivity. However, they saw back then the value in marketing to sports women. In 1910, Abercrombie and Fitch became one of the first companies to sell their products to both men and women. And these investments actually paid off because in 1913 they were considered, quote, the greatest sporting goods store in the world.

In 1917, Abercrombie and Fitch expanded to a 12 story building at Madison Avenue and East 45th Street in New York City. And this store was quite the production. So they owned the 12 story building and they actually utilized the whole building.

And I don't know, that seems kind of hard to believe back then. And then to make it even more ridiculous, in the basement of the store, there was a shooting range. The mezzanine sold gear for skiing, archery, diving and lawn games. The second through the fifth floors had gear for various terrains and temperatures. The sixth floor was a picture gallery and they had a sporting arm focused bookstore, a watch repair shop and a golf school. And the golf school even came with a golf pro. The seventh floor was home to their gun room and also randomly kennels for animals.

The eighth floor was for fishing, camping and boating equipment, as well as a desk that had fly and bait casting instructors who gave their lessons at, wait for it, the rooftop pool of the building. And their fishing section alone had over 48,000 flies and over 18,000 fishing lures. And if you think about it, the store by today's standards is massive, let alone the fact that it was around in 1917. Now Abercrombie and Fitch would ultimately be labeled by Forbes later in its life as a quote, hodgepodge of unrelated items, end quote. And that was kind of towards the end of its sporting brand.

But the foundation for that assessment certainly flourished far earlier. So you've got all of these sporting goods items, you've got shooting ranges, you've got pools, you've got golf pros, but it was also the first store to import the Chinese game of mahjong. And Fitch even went to China.

So one of their customers was like, I found out this game, I think it's really cool. And so Fitch went to China to acquire the game and to get an English translation for it. And they would ultimately sell over 12,000 sets.

In 1928, Ezra Fitch retired. So this is kind of the first ending of the company as we know it. But then he sells it to his brother in law, James Cobb. And so he decides that he wants to continue to expand the company. And they end up acquiring multiple sporting arms related companies.

They acquire a store that dealt in high end European sporting arms and fishing tackle. And they even acquired Griffin and Howell, which is incredibly well known even today. And before the Great Depression, Abercrombie and Fitch was boasting $6.3 million in sales with half a million dollars in profit. Of course, the Great Depression, though, hit everybody hard. And Abercrombie and Fitch was no different to that. But then they also managed to continue to expand. And over the following decades into the 1960s, ultimately, stores are popping up all over the country from New York to California and everywhere in between.

I think there is even one in Beverly Hills. So you get cities that you do not associate with sporting arms, and they have these giant stores. And Abercrombie and Fitch does something really smart to kind of later in its history and they secure a deal with the Rock Hudson film, Man's Favorite Sport, and it serves as a venue for the movie. So this company has been around for a really long time.

They've got this sporting reputation. They're kind of hemorrhaging money a little bit, even though it seems like they're expanding. And so they're trying to kind of keep the brand relevant as we start to come into a more modern America in the post World War Two period. But ultimately, the company is not going to survive as the sporting goods store of yesteryear. And as it's starting to struggle financially, a Texas based company known as Oshman Sporting Goods buys it and tries to kind of keep that momentum going. But by the late 1980s, they're acquired by a company called Limited Brands.

Limited Brands had a lot of different kind of companies under its belt, including Limited and also Limited II, which was a clothing store, a kid's clothing store when I was a kid that turned into Justice. And at this point, you know, in the late 1980s, the company kind of bids adieu to its wilderness days and they no longer set their sights downrange, but rather at a new target, which is the mainstream clothing market. I mentioned that most of the recent documentaries pick up the storyline from here, although they may mention in 30 seconds or less kind of the original intent of the company. But obviously today's drama tends to fuel a lot of viewership on things like Netflix and Hulu. And so they focus more on the former CEO who made some rather colorful comments about who he does not want to own the brand.

And fortunately for them, they are starting to pull themselves out of it. But it's as a historian, it's fascinating and it's also disappointing that almost a century of history and legacy was ultimately washed away by acid wash jeans, graphic tees and the most potent cologne on the planet. And a terrific job on the editing, storytelling and production by our own Greg Hengler. And a terrific job, as always, by Ashley Lebinski.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-14 04:25:19 / 2024-05-14 04:30:45 / 5

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