Bloomberg Business Week recently ran it's first ever 'topless' cover, featuring a slightly sagging 70-something torso. That was a reference to a brilliant feature story about the decline of Abercrombie & Fitch, and the ouster of the brand's CEO Michael Jeffries.
Jeffries, who is 70 but desperately clings to lost youth, took over the brand 22 years ago. Depending on your point of view, he was either a creepy, micromanaging narcissist or a retail genius. I'd say both. You should definitely read the entire story, by Susan Berfield and Lindsey Rupp, to fully appreciate this character, who turned a moribund sporting goods brand into a multibillion-dollar homoerotic fantasy. He had a Gulfstream jet with a four-man cabin crew—all male models who were told what underwear to wear. (Boxers.)
It's easy to read this great Bloomberg piece as Greek tragedy—or at least an updated tale by Theodore Dreiser—and miss a message that I find a little bit heartening.
Jeffries built what is arguably the most youth-besotted brand in America. Visitors to the flagship store in New York were actually greeted by shirtless male models with bodies as hairless as a salamander.
Until recently, the company refused to carry anything larger than a size 10, even though the average U.S. woman is size 14. Music volumes and light levels in the stores were set to drive out older consumers; all part of a plan to ensure the shoppers were young and thin. Over the years, the company settled lawsuits alleging both ageism and racism, which I suppose is not surprising considering that it existed primarily to allow spoiled upper middle class high school students from midwestern suburbs to fantasize that they were, in fact, the children of Hamptons billionaires, afflicted with terminal ennui.
What's heartening about that? Mainly that, eventually, it failed. After explosive growth in the late '90s, the company's profits trended down. Some of that was inevitable; the company had targeted a demographic that's notoriously fickle. But A & F's problem was mostly self-inflicted. Dickish comments Jeffries'd made blew up on Facebook. A recent survey of teenaged girls asked, "What brands have you stopped wearing?" and two of the top three answers were A & F and it's subsidiary, Hollister. Eventually, even kids in the clique tired of that exclusionary vibe. A & F's subtext went from 'affluent' to 'asshole'. Investors began complaining about his $140M/year compensation, and the un-approved management role taken by his life partner.
Late last year, the brand's parents — in the form of Arthur Martinez (ex-CEO of Sears and Chairman of the Board of A & F) grounded the high-flying Jeffries—literally, taking the keys to the Gulfstream—and firing him a few months before his contract was up. The company's looking for a new CEO.
Good luck to him (or her.)