Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Abercrombie & Fitch's Identity Crisis: From Clueless Preppy to Sullen Teen

"That's wasn't too painful," an executive said at the end of today's earnings call

Abercrombie & Fitch used to have an identity: cool, preppy, sexy. It used to have a chief executive who enforced that identity down to the size of the cuff on the jeans: Mike Jeffries. The retailer's image hasn't enthralled teens or young adults for years, and Jeffries left the company in December. Abercrombie now seems lost and a little depressed. What does it want to be when it grows up?

Read the Bloomberg Businessweek cover story.

The executives tasked with reporting financial results on Wednesday morning, March 4, tried to put a bold face on Abercrombie's current predicament. Arthur Martinez, the chairman of the board, said the retailer's leadership is confident and optimistic. But it wasn't truly convincing. The conference call ended with the chief operating officer, Jonathan Ramsden, making what he thought was a private remark: "That's wasn't too painful."

Actually, it was. The company reported that overall sales for the year fell 9 percent, to $3.7 billion; sales declined 8 percent at established stores. Abercrombie didn't do well in the U.S. or internationally, closing 51 stores last year and moving to quit Australia altogether. The only real achievement, if you can call it that, was cutting expenses by a quarter-billion dollars and preparing to open more outlet stores in the U.S.

But executives couldn't give many details about most of what they're doing. In fact, they aren't offering the usual financial predictions about the coming year at all. Nor did Martinez suggest when Abercrombie might appoint a new chief executive, saying only that the search was continuing at an "acceptable" pace.

The company is shedding its old skin, so to speak, by selling the Gulfstream jet that had become a symbol of Jeffries's controlling management style. Airplane crew had to follow a 40-page instruction manual that covered such details as where the former chief executive's dogs should sit and what music could be played. The stores are also becoming less intimidating in the post-Jeffries era. "We are changing the music," said Christos Angelides, the new-ish president of the Abercrombie brand, "trying different levels of noise—uh, music." The stores probably won't be nightclub dark, the clothes will be easier to find, and the fitting rooms more welcoming.

The biggest change in the stores may be this: Managers will be responsible for how much the store sells. Incredibly, this wasn't the case in the Jeffries era, when managers focused on how the store—and the employees—looked

The real question is: What will Abercrombie & Fitch stand for? It's not as dependent on the once brand-defining logos. It has introduced black. Abercrombie will, for the first time, sell jeans with zippers instead of only button-fly, Angelides said. Presumably the clothes will be available in sizes larger than 10, too. He described the new Abercrombie look as: "Original, iconic, new, aspirational ... with attention to detail, fabric, wash, and fit. Then making sure they’re trend relevant. We will also have core classics priced competitively." And, he said, some of the clothes will draw on Abercrombie's heritage as a purveyor of outdoor gear for adventurers.

What won't Abercrombie be? We won't really know until August, when the back-to-school shopping season begins and the new clothes reach the stores.  

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