Your Grandfather's Abercrombie & Fitch Would Be a Hit Today

Old catalogs show that the retailer's turnaround plan may have been published 50 years ago

Abercrombie & Fitch needs a plan. It needs to reinvent itself. It needs fewer logos and abs. It needs new styles, female shoppers, and brighter stores. This is the narrative that has followed the struggling retailer since it began a protracted swoon in the spring of 20071.

Clearview Head Net
Clearview Head Net
Source: Abercrombie & Fitch Co. 1949 Fall Catalog

Whether Abercrombie & Fitch can turn things around is debatable, but a time machine would certainly help. It is difficult to overstate what an empire the retailer was 50 to 100 years ago. At the company’s 12-story flagship on Madison Ave., one could take a fly-fishing lesson, get fitted for a polar expedition, have a dog groomed, and buy a bocce set, all before it was time for a sundowner and some oysters Rockefeller.

Not only was the company hugely successful in the first half of the 20th century, but that version of Abercrombie—the vintage retailer bristling with Orvis fishing rods and swaddled in down and tweed—would arguably be far more successful in today’s market than the current version.

For one, it was a so-called lifestyle brand when Martha Stewart was still a toddler playing house. Its products were all gateways to an experience, tailor-made to trigger the slightly deeper emotions2 that brand loyalty is built on. Its stores were full of sailboats and cars, and its catalogs were full of funny cartoons and original commissioned artwork. In a 1923 ad, the company called itself the "city center of this open-air world." In short, Abercrombie & Fitch was far more than just a place to buy stuff.

Secondly, vintage Abercrombie had a lock on the urban outdoorsman, a style and type of consumer that accounts for a sizable share of today’s menswear market. You’ve seen these guys and, occasionally, girls. They winter in Fair Isle sweaters, and they summer in waffle-knits. The Red Wing boots seldom come off, and don't get them started on bourbon, Persol sunglasses, or selvedge denim. The most ardent among them blog at length about "heritage" and "authenticity" and Steve McQueen or advise companies on how to do so.

Water Skates
Water Skates
Source: Abercrombie & Fitch Co. 1964 Catalog

In an entirely unscientific exercise in aesthetics, we bought a couple of old Abercrombie catalogs—one from 1949 and one from 1964—to see how the SKUs stack up. What we found was page upon page of gear and apparel that would fly off the shelves of a Brooklyn boutique these days (apart from all the guns and ammo, of course).

The sheer amount of bric-a-brac was captivating. A mosquito-net hat fitted for a pipe? Check. A traveling martini satchel? You bet. Double-decker camping cots? Affirmative. This was a retailer focused on a brand and a style, not a "vertical." If it was fun and outdoorsy, Abercrombie carried it. It had a line of axes and archery gear that would put today's Best Made Co. to shame. There was a device that launched empty (and possibly full) beer cans like clay pigeons, something called "water skates," an inflatable boat, and a range of tiny outboard motors for that boat that seem impossibly affordable3.

And then there was the apparel and footwear—a closet full of classic styles that still sell briskly today ... just not at Abercrombie & Fitch.

Old Abercrombie had a killer hooded rain poncho; virtually the same garment is now available at J. Crew.

Source: Abercrombie & Fitch Co. 1949 Fall Catalog; J.Crew

A rugged "wool hunting coat" now fetches $340 for Filson.

Source: Abercrombie & Fitch Co. 1949 Fall Catalog; Filson

A pair of "moccasin boots" look like they are straight off the Red Wing website.

Source: Abercrombie & Fitch Co. 1949 Fall Catalog; Red Wing Shoes

And a rustic, strapped backpack is on offer for $695 at Billy Reid, a Florence (Ala.) design shop favored by the GQ set.

Source: Abercrombie & Fitch Co. 1964 Catalog; Billy Reid

 To be sure, Abercrombie is trying to get some of its Americana back. It is changing the “scent” and lighting levels of its stores. It has a partnership with Woolrich, which makes enough fuzzy plaid to outfit 1990s Seattle (and 1890s Seattle, for that matter). It is even back in the axe game, in a way.

Varsity Onesie
Varsity Onesie
Source: Abercrombie & Fitch

The company is, however, still selling a pair of bro-pajamas called the varsity onesy ($41), as well as a cologne named Fierce (and that's "fierce" in the hairless Adonis sense, not the Jeremiah Johnson 4 sense). 

At the very least, maybe Abercrombie still has a storage room stacked with old catalogs. If prices on EBay and Etsy are any measure, those things are more coveted than any of its clothes at the moment.

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  1. 1 Abercrombie & Fitch shares have slid almost 50 percent in the past 12 months and about 74 percent since May 2007.
  2. 2 One of Abercrombie's first marketing coups was outfitting Charles Lindbergh for his historic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.
  3. 3 Starting at $1,074 in today's dollars.
  4. 4 In a 1996 internal manual, Abercrombie & Fitch said its sales staff couldn't have beards or mustaches.