Somewhere among the boxes of photos my mom keeps is a photo of me from around 2008, age 12 or so, standing next to a preposterously good-looking man outside Abercrombie & Fitch’s 5th Avenue location in Manhattan. In addition to employing this man to pose with nervous preteens like myself, Abercrombie also employed a photographer whose job was to take photos of us. The model’s pants were so low that it was clear he must completely remove his pubic hair — two other trends we’ve since gotten rid of. His job was essentially to lure young women (and their mother’s wallets) inside, and wordlessly remind the less-attractive that the brand wasn’t for them.
I remember little else of the labyrinthine store, except that I wasn’t able to buy a thing.
Pre-2010, there was no cooler icon for a middle schooler to don than a little embroidered moose. Never mind that other stores might sell T-shirts that looked exactly the same at half the cost: If it wasn’t from Abercrombie & Fitch, it was almost embarrassing.
Abercrombie & Fitch did a lot to build this clout. Their stores were dark and loud, with a distinct cologne scent that could be detected dozens of yards from its entrance, able to overpower even the smells of soft pretzels and Cinnabon. The clothes sold were almost entirely nondescript, prep-school-on-a-weekend apparel, priced just out of budget. But most importantly, the people who worked there were gorgeous. So gorgeous, in fact, that Abercrombie often had their male employees stand shirtless outside the storefront in an effort to lure people in. The message that this all sent was essentially that you, an ugly nobody, could be graced by the presence of all this beauty — visual, olfactory, auditory — if your stupid little brain is even capable of comprehending it. Maybe, if you’re not as worthless as you look, you can afford to buy their lacey camis or branded hoodies.
Abercrombie has since done away with nearly all of this. Even their clothes, while still evocative of Newport, Rhode Island, are no longer covered in logos and have been cut back in price. The store still likely employs beautiful people, but they no longer seem to use them as live bait. But what happened to all those guys?
Edward Telarroja, 30, from L.A., worked at an Abercrombie in Rancho Cucamonga from 2007 as a senior in high school, to 2009 as a sophomore in college. He worked primarily as a “floor model,” the brand’s term for their average retail employees, as well as a cashier and front door model. He was also part of the store’s “cast team,” which “was the popular, pretty group that took photos for who knows what reason,” he says.
“I liked the store I was working for,” he tells me. “My managers were great people in their mid-20s who did a good job keeping teenagers on task.” The downsides of the job were in line with those of any retail gig, like not getting scheduled enough hours, though the modeling part of the gig also involved using some pretty cringe-y taglines. “Do you want to be a star?” and “Have you met Chase?” are two that Telarroja recalls being required to say to customers in order to sell fragrances (one of which was named Chase).
Telarroja eventually quit, but he suspects that most of the store models began losing their jobs around the same time he left. “The tent-pole stores kept models a lot longer than the suburban stores, I believe, but I presumed they originally did away with models in 2009 due to the recession and how hard retail was hit,” he says. “But I’d make the case that a change in C-suite management, and the removal of the CEO who over-sexualized a teenage brand, is a key reason.”
He’s likely correct in his assessment. In 2014, Abercrombie’s controversial CEO Mike Jeffries stepped down. During his 22 years with the company, Jeffries was responsible for many of the facets of the brand that defined it. According to Business Insider, Jeffries “turned the brand into a retail powerhouse by plastering the Abercrombie logo all over its offerings, focusing on a more preppy, casual aesthetic, and then sexing it up with racy advertising and selling it at steep prices. … He made Abercrombie seem like an exclusive club that bestowed its logo on thin, tan, popular teens with lots of cash to spend.”
And indeed, Jeffries was explicit about this strategy. In a 2006 Salon profile, he’s quoted as saying, “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”
Unfortunately to Jeffries’ credit, the strategy worked — until it didn’t. When the recession hit, Abercrombie’s sales tanked along with most other retail stores, but Jeffries refused to lower prices or offer sales. Eventually, it seems, consumers got sick of being told how stupid, ugly, and now, broke they were.
So, Abercrombie slowly made changes. In 2015, they announced they’d be ending their practice of having shirtless men stand at the entrance of their stores, and more significantly, no longer hire based on looks at all. Today’s store employees are no longer “models,” but “brand representatives.” In the last few years, they’ve closed a handful of stores and redesigned the ones that remain to be less migraine-inducing, with more reasonable lighting, quieter music and un-perfumed air. Their ads are much less overtly sexy, and they regularly offer sales.
It’s not clear whether this is all enough, though. While Business Insider labeled them “Retailer of the Year” in 2018, both for their changes and a 25 percent growth in share value, on Monday, the brand announced it would be closing more retail locations and shrinking the size of the ones that remain.
The current CEO has stated that the brand is now far more inclusive, but for many shoppers, Abercrombie is still associated with an exclusionary veil of “coolness” that’s now laughably uncool. On Twitter, I asked my peers if they’d shop at Abercrombie if the price and style were right for them, and 64 percent of them said no. “My immediate thought was, ‘If it was perfect in every other way but the name I’d be down,’ but it’s kinda like, ‘I’d totally date him if he was taller, smarter, nicer, richer, treated me better, had a better family and didn’t wear hideous shoes,” says Shelby, 26, from Florida. “Like, it would have to be cheaper, better made, more size-inclusive, more race- and gender-inclusive and a completely different style than it is now, but yeah, then I would!”
It seems that, for the most part, consumers have moved on, along with Abercrombie’s models. Many of these former models went on to continue modeling, or make the jump to acting, a lot of them extraordinarily successfully. Channing Tatum, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones and Karlie Kloss are just a few of the people who once used to sell blue jeans. Telarroja himself now works at NBC.
Today’s teens surely have some other aesthetic marker of class to separate them from their peers. Even if diversity has become more celebrated, it’s still cool for kids to be rich, thin and attractive. Perhaps the difference is simply that it’s no longer cool to say it. And for decades, it’s something that Abercrombie screamed.