Wait, Is Abercrombie & Fitch… Cool Again?

October 15, 2021 Off By Mary Frances Knapp

By nature and design, the Rec Room team is always trying to find more ‘fits that hit in that intersection of mobster chic, 90s slacker, and Guy Fieri-cor. You know, the kind of button-downs that can say both, "I know the way to Flavortown" and "meet me at the skate park." We're partial to cardigans that look broken in by My Cousin Vinny, but were woven just yesterday. So when I recently came across this *chef’s kiss* bowling button-down, I thought for sure that it must be some Bodega-vetted streetwear brand. It was effortless. It was a balancing act of burgundy, creamy stripes, and relaxed cotton. It was the mid-century deli man shirt of my dreams—and it was made by… Abercrombie & Fitch?

“MA’AM! Where have I been?” I Slacked my coworkers about this plot twist; “Have you seen how good the stuff is on Abercrombie lately?” There wasn’t the same cringe, fake-outdoorsy-preppy energy on their website. Instead, it was replaced with an airy aesthetic that hit a sweet spot between Tony Soprano and a chill uncle from Connecticut. We went from “You can’t sit with us,” to full Gabagool Cool real fast:

The prep element is still there. We’re still standing on bedrock of argyle and houndstooth polos and pullovers, but in a way that feels far more Tommy-Hillfiger-meets-heritage-menswear than 2000s preppy. But it's clear that some major changes—and dare I say, upgrades—have been made since the brand's peak in the late 90s and subsequent downfall in the 2010s.

For starters, the brand has a far more inclusive size range (XXS-XXXL) than it did from 1992 to 2014, when former CEO Mike Jeffries was in charge, and its take on basics has branched out from Frat Boy Brad. “Abercrombie was once mediated through recognition of the brand, and the cultural cache it carried,” a company spokesperson told VICE about this shift, “[and] when Fran Horowitz became our CEO in 2017, she completely turned our company, and the Abercrombie brand, on its head.” In lieu of popped, fuschia polo collars, we now have “Vegan Leather Dad Coats” that lean into normcore aesthetics:

There are old school, long-sleeved rugby tees, and sweater vests just begging for a gorpcore bucket hat:

And don’t forget the smattering of neutral, soft (yet well-tailored) tracksuits that could give Skims a run for its money:

None of this is happenstance, of course. When Jeffries left Abercrombie, the company had some serious soul searching to do; the former CEO’s stewardship had helped turn the brand into an icon of 2000s style, for better and for (much) worse, through hyper-sexualized campaigns, a discriminatory “look policy,” and Jeffries’ proclamation that “a lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

I was a 2000s teenager once. Sometimes Gen Zers will ask me if things [points to Tara Reid on US Weekly circa 2007] were “really that rough?” I only went into an actual Abercromie store two or three times in my adolescence, and admittedly, my memories of life in the Fierce Cologne mists of Avalon aren’t great; there was a very real, unspoken social contract that this was where the Hot People came for a Tiësto sound bath, where employees must look like Laguna Beach extras, and that the customers must aspire to that standard. Which is rough, especially if you’re a string bean with a retainer.

Those were the Dark Ages. Everything the brand’s new team has done to move on from that weird period, explained a spokesperson, has been rooted in scaling back, becoming more inclusive, and celebrating what the brand did well in its infancy. When David Abercrombie founded the brand in 1892, it was an outdoor specialty retailer, and the company was all about providing quality camping, hiking, and fishing goods. By the early 20th century, it had established a well-respected brand identity around the ethos of escaping from the city for a jaunt in nature. It wanted young people, even those shopping in banal suburban malls, to feel like an elevated, city mouse in the country; its corduroy, knit, and flannel pieces felt cozy, classic, and as ready for a hike in the woods as they were for the dive bar. New Abercrombie is just Old Abercrombie, but better, because it’s forward-looking:

“We've worked to prove that Abercrombie is not the exclusionary brand of the past,” the Abercrombie rep told me, explaining that the designs we’re seeing now are the product of a new, more symbiotic relationship with consumers combined with the brand’s nod to its heritage pieces, which is a fancy way of saying: They’re giving the people what they want. “We’re dedicated to creating a sense of belonging vs. fitting in and [more] focused on how our customers feel rather than how they look.”

Are there still preppy fits? You bet. But we're happily nostalgic for these looks, even if we weren't big fans of the people who wore them in tenth grade.

The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story.