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Can Abercrombie and Fitch really emerge from its PR mess?

Those with an eye for style, and even just one solitary finger on the pulse of the world’s headlines, are likely to have noticed an influx of news stories this week surrounding one of the most controversial clothing brands in the world, and the steps it’s taking to right a decade-spanning wrong in the eyes of many.
We are, of course, talking about Abercrombie & Fitch. Since the early-90s, CEO Michael Jeffries  consistently proved how what we wear doesn’t necessarily reflect what we believe in. Overtly sexualised marketing campaigns, even more suggestive gift cards, crimson-enducing shopping bags and arguably the strictest staff dress code ever conceived by a fashion brand all meant that although sales continued to increase, everyone from the feminist front to the male intelligentsia had a big problem with the overall company stance.
Put simply, stores were defined by ‘beefcakes’; half naked men who would stand outside to welcome customers. Inside, strong fragrances, dark, nightclub-style lighting, and more pheromones and testosterones than at a college keg party were part and parcel of the USP. Meanwhile, clothing designs made it very, very clear exactly which stable you were buying into.
Times, as they say, will always change.
Over recent years, the A&F share price hasn’t been on the wane so much as in freefall- a 39% loss of value in the last 12-months alone is proof enough of that. In 2014, the announcement came that the iconic logo would be removed and the branding made more subtle to try and appeal to an older, or at least more contemporary clientele, who didn’t necessary want to be a walking advertisement for where they bought that hoody.
It was a logical step in many ways. Loosely speaking, the higher value an item of clothing is, the less likely it is to contain bold external reference to who designed it. To use an extreme example, look at the difference between Prada’s off the rail wares and its eye-wateringly expensive haute couture garments. Yet this didn’t stop the overall value of the company from continuing to drop, and the perception of a brand in perpetual decline continued.
With this in mind it’s no surprise the aforementioned Jeffries decided to step down. “I believe now is the right time for new leadership to take the company forward in the next phase of its development,” the big boss was quoted as saying as he left back in December. Maybe that’s true, maybe not, either way we’re quite sure the departure was at least partly to do with him running the company into the ground- both in terms of stakeholders and public perception.
The latter being the core reason why A&F has this week taken the decision to turn its back on the policies of old. After the Supreme Court heard a religious discrimination case against the firm for not giving a job to Samantha Elauf on the grounds she wore a hijab to the interview, the firm’s rules were relaxed (before that staff were not allowed to wear black, or indeed any headwear). Yet the sexualisation continued, until now.
So, along with less overt branding, there will no longer be those half-naked guys at the door, potential employees who do not fit in with the Abercrombie image of a perfect model figure will still be considered for a job, and the overall objectification of America’s youth, apparently, will cease. The question being, will this actually do any good when it comes to saving a failing business that, although still profitable, hasn’t been particularly relevant, en vogue or cutting edge for well over a decade now?
Well, it’s certainly a step in the right direction- as is making a very public statement about how the company had, for too long, been suffering at the hands of ‘Jeffries’ whims’, thus attempting to distance the old A&F from this new shining beacon of morality and equality. There is a problem, though. The situation smacks of inconsistency and about turns. After making a business from shock headlines and questionable attention grabbing policies, to now try and come across as neutral is, in itself, questionable.
Already we’ve seen stories suggesting the whole thing is a PR ploy. And anyone who read our recent post- How to do PR in a post-PR world– will understand that as soon as people feel like the wool is being pulled over their eyes you’re on track for a massive public relations failure. To borrow from what may well be our most-used conclusion ever, time will be the real testing ground  as to whether these steps wind up taking the new, tamer A&F in the right direction, or simply help  prolong what many have mooted to be the inevitable (last year, for instance, The Guardian asked if the logo removal was “a sign that the end is near“).
Either way, we’ll be watching with keen interest.

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