Outdoors with Abercrombie
Abercrombie & Fitch. Hellion of the mall retail circuit, the bratty snob that takes daddy’s convertible to the prom and spends summers in Greece. Finely toned and without a dirty fingernail, A&F is the store all of its ilk longs to be. And, it’s the brand that every other stores wishes serious harm upon, the preppie bully in the room, the star pupil with the great tan. It’s the star quarterback that hasn’t worked a day in its life.
It’s a vast wasteland of expensive clothing geared toward the throes of college students trying to be different by buying the same things every other different-facing college student buys.
In fact, it wasn’t a clothing store at all when it started.
Surprised? Actually, it sold excursion equipment. It was like Cabella’s or Scheel’s. It was an outdoors catalog store.
Maybe you know this. But I didn’t. I equated the Abercrombie & Fitch name with washboard abs that creep up on you from within white, shuddered storefronts, nearly pornographic in its presentation, flaunting the high style and utter coolness from inside its barely negotiable trenches. Or so I’d assume – it looks crowded in there. I’ve never been in one.
So it was to my surprise that, while reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (1962) this past weekend, I came across the following sentence, just as Steinbeck was coming across a group of female moose:
“Some years ago at Abercrombie & Fitch I bought a cattle caller, an automatic horn manipulated by a lever with which nearly all cow emotions can be imitated, from the sweet lowing of a romantic heifer to the growling roar of a bull in the prime and lust of his bullhood.”
“He found that at Abercrombie & Fitch,” I thought, naively transposing my version – you know, dark and full of college kids, ripped jeans and $45 t-shirts – onto Steinbeck’s remembrance. It makes sense, when you think about it. Abercrombie & Fitch was an outdoors store, after all – one that originally catered to serious, professional outdoors-people.
And it sounded like a pretty cool one. Wikipedia says:
Fitch determined that the store ought to have an outdoor sexy feeling. Stock was not hidden behind glass cabinets. Instead, it was displayed as if in use. He set up a tent and equipped it as if it were out in the middle of the wilds of the Adirondacks. A campfire blazed in one corner, where an experienced guide was always in attendance, imparting valuable information to interested customers.
In the 60s, it faltered. Abercrombie & Fitch went bankrupt, and it was purchased by The Limited in 1988. It was rebuilt as a teen clothing store. And now, it’s loud and obnoxious.
It’s amazing to see what the things we hate may once have been. I don’t particularly like the pompous, overexposed, too-expensive college frat experience that Abercrombie & Fitch currently sells en masse to millions of already self-conscious kids. Even during that time in my life, I couldn’t handle it – the commercial brilliance, the murky glare of trendsetting, the idea that fifty dollars was an okay trade off for a name, for one bare glimpse of an image that, unfortunately, everyone else in the country already has.
But 50 years ago, I probably would have loved Abercrombie & Fitch and its combination of outdoors gadgets and rugged, camp-friendly fashion – a road weary catwalk, complete with tents and compasses.
It just goes to show you what lies deep in the histories of annoyances you take for granted every day.