Gap peddles clothes, but Abercrombie & Fitch sells a technicolor teen lifestyle--one of the reasons it is the brand of the moment. At A&F headquarters near Columbus, Ohio, retailing has become akin to moviemaking. The theme is popularity, and it's packaged, marketed and playing at a mall near you. Every flannel and fleece pullover is choreographed to present the appearance of effortless cool. Yes, the tag on the $59.90 paratroop pants proclaims that they've been TESTED, but that's a prop, part of the romantic retail fantasy. "You buy into the emotional experience of a movie," says the director, CEO Michael Jeffries. "And that's what we're creating. Here I am walking into a movie, and I say, 'What's going to be the box office today?'"
At this point, Abercrombie & Fitch is a blockbuster. Its sales have jumped from $165 million in 1994 to an estimated $1.06 billion in 1999. Profits should reach an estimated $148.5 million. The company has expanded from 36 stores in 1992 to 230 this year. Its quarterly "magalog" has become a youth manual. In schools across America, Abercrombie is shorthand for popular. "They've shot out from nowhere to become part of teen culture," says Michael Woods, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited. Last year kids ranked A&F as the sixth coolest brand--up from 11th, and passing Levi's and Nintendo--according to a recent TRU survey. And A&F's place in youthography was officially sealed in the rap song Summer Girls, by Lyte Funkie Ones: "When I met you I said my name was Rich;/You look like a girl from Abercrombie Fitch."
It's not what you'd expect from a 108-year-old company that worshipped Wasp culture and outfitted Teddy Roosevelt's safaris. The Limited bought the once bankrupt company in 1988, then jettisoned it to shareholders in 1998. The youthful Jeffries, 55, resuscitated Abercrombie by preserving its East Coast roots but repositioning its focus from a group he refers to as "70 to death" in favor of the 14-to-22 set. A&F shrewdly understands that teens want to belong, and has captured their dollars by making sure they want to belong to the beautiful, exclusive world that the Abercrombie image projects. It's burnished by 3-D employees who have the requisite looks. The two-dimensional advertising version is supplied by photographer Bruce Weber's youth beefcake: frolicking models, draped in nearly as much eroticism (hetero and homo) as they are in sweaters. A&F merchandisers visit a different college campus every weekend to keep a close tab on what kids are wearing.
A&F isn't so cool on Wall Street. The stock was pounded last October on fears that the company's 30% annual growth might be slowing. Yet in the Christmas quarter, sales rose 27% on the strength of the magalog, themed Naughty or Nice, which gained notoriety with its racy pictures and an interview with a porn star, prompting public complaints from the attorney general of Michigan and the Lieutenant Governor of Illinois. The Establishment outraged--what better way to appeal to the youth market?
--By Stacy Perman/Reynoldsburg