The last American casual brand to leave our shores. Will we miss it?
It was bound to happen. But we did not think it would be on their 10th year here. A decade is a long time to be in any market. But there has been declining interest in Abercrombie & Fitch since at least five years ago. This week, at its sole store on Orchard Road (in what was formerly known as Knightsbridge), the calm and uniformity of the stretch of merchandise-free window is interrupted by a sale sign that says “entire store 50%”. This afternoon, two women rushing towards the entrance were heard saying, “quick, quick.” Although the store front was quiet, it brought to mind the long queues seen in the first week of its opening back in December 2011. There are those, however, who remember that during that week, the MRT broke down on three consecutive days, leading to massive public anger. At least five hundred thousand commuters, it was said, were affected during those days. Yet, those who rushed to and queued at the new store in town seemed unaffected by the train disruption and unconcerned that deep dissatisfaction with our mass rapid transit system was seriously mounting.
At the closing down sale, we sense a similar indifference to what’s even more severe than not being able to get home soon enough—an ongoing pandemic. Purchases had to be made. A sale had to be taken advantage of. Bargain hunters left no garment and price tag unchecked. One Caucasian woman with a Saint Laurent tote had both her arms, locked at the fingers, served as a basket. A young chap was scooping up so many track pants, you’d wonder if he wears anything else. Folks of the Merdeka Generation were so numerous, you would not have guessed A&F was once considered a teen brand. We notice that there was hardly any staff. Two were spotted, both manning the only cashier counter opened, on the first floor. A chat with one of them confirmed that the store will “close for good on 2nd May” (last day of sale). There was no mention of the closure on table/counter stands, except the half-price sale. Or, on social media. Why are you closing, we wondered. “They’re not making money,” she offered helpfully. Why, no one shops? “It’s because of the pandemic.” That was not unexpected. Is 50 percent off enough to clear the stocks? “We hope so.” Will you be out of a job next month? “We’ll be retrenched, I guess.”
The merchandise seemed to have ended its seasonal life last year. It is not unreasonable to assume that the stock replenishment and renewal exercise did not continue after the autumn/winter buy, possibly including their supply of environmental perfume. The store was surprisingly and welcomely unscented! You could depart with purchases not artificially fragranced. Much of what they were clearing were standard and familiar separates, but in thicker fabrics than what might be comfortable for our weather. Some shoppers had noticed that the holiday offerings of last December were noticeably unremarkable. Back then, there was already talk that the store would be closing permanently. When Robinsons was clearing out last November, some leasing managers were already saying that the next available large retail space on Orchard Road would be the corner that is Abercrombie and Fitch—2,000 sq m, all three levels of it. Similarly, when Gap bowed out in 2018, as well as American Eagle Outfitters and, two years earlier, Aeropostale, the question was, “when will it be Abercrombie’s turn?”
US casual apparel brands have lost much of its appeal from the time Gap arrived on our island in 2006 (even before the iPhone!) with a 836 sq m “Southeast Asia flagship” in Wisma Atria. Throughout much of the ’90s, when Gap was popular, most Singaporeans were buying their clothes when travelling. And they needn’t go to the US, as Gap and its ilk were available in Tokyo and—even nearer—Hong Kong, where once a little street in Tsim Sha Tsui called Granville Road gave Gap fans—and certainly Abercrombie—their fill of merchandise by way of outlet shops. By the time Abercrombie arrived here, the brand was not as new as it seemed since many of those who love the label had brought their share during their holidays in the US, or, for the less-travelled, across the Causeway in also-outlet shops such as the Reject Shop. Abercrombie, as did its compatriot brands, scored by selling basic merchandise characterised by conspicuous placements of logotypes, but with far sexier branding (campaigns were famously shot by the now-disgraced Bruce Weber). But the formula never changed, not even when copies such as Bangkok’s CC Double O emerged, complete with similar store interiors, to tempt visitors, such as those from our island. If we really required basics, and fashionable ones too, we already had Uniqlo—they were earlier than Abercrombie by two years.
When Abercrombie opened, national pride could be sensed as the store was only the second to launch in Asia after Japan. The opening was not without fanfare, and was certainly more attention-grabbing than any witnessed till then. It was conceived to be remembered. Half-naked men—with only red track pants—paraded the store front daily, amenable to gawkers who must take selfies with them and to those who can’t resist appreciating their musculature by running their fingers down their abdomen. Many onlookers, including those that would be known now as the “Pioneer” generation, showed that we have arrived at a time when what was considered indecent was being redefine. As SOTD contributor Mao Shan Wang recalled, “even my mother wanted to touch them!” These weren’t shirtless men at a construction site (already rarely seen); these were men showing off, aware of their good looks, and their magnetism attracted both men and women to the store, even long after their sojourn. They were not guys seen on paper bags; they were flesh and gut. “From now till the opening,” one enthusiastic report at the time went, “you can expect these sexy hot bods to be in attendance.” If you really didn’t know better, you’d be wondering what the store was selling.
Abercrombie opened on our shores just two years after the Obama presidency. The first African-American to be elected president had promised “hope and change”. The US of A was to experience seismic shifts: demographically, socially, and technologically (Twitter was only picking up pace, no one was imagining a TikTok). Casual American fashion was slowly losing its wholesome appeal to not only the Americans, but also those abroad who were being converted by the Swedes and the Spaniards (and to an extent, the British) into fast fashion fans. H&M was selling retro-print T-shirts (so too was Uniqlo), but Abercrombie was stuck to the aesthetic dullness of its previous, controversial CEO Michael Jeffries, still banking on its appliqued graphics, heavy on the A&F logo. And, not forgetting how tight the clothes were (especially for the men). Mr Jeffries, himself a mature—and a bottle blond—personification of his Abercrombie ideal, told Salon in 2006 that his brand was for “cool” people, which presumably did not include the “overweight or unattractive people” he did not want seen in his clothes. Even before wokeness was a word, this did not score well with many people. Although Mr Jeffries issued a public apology when the comments were made known in 2013, the impact of his tone-deaf comments on Abercrombie could not be blocked or reversed.
Those heaving, bare-chested chaps on the pavement of Orchard Road only served to augment the positioning of the brand. Shoppers who did not care about their sexualised image, the dark-as-Zouk interior of the store, the dance music even at eleven in the morning, and the bothersome all-over scent that makes even Lush smelled discreet, just avoid it, like a bad joke. One segment of consumers who seemed more lured by it than others were gay boys. They wore the athletic, bicep-enhancing tees and polos as date clothes as much as club wear. Abercrombie made casual sexy and youthful insouciance equally so. The trick is to appear in the threads not self-aware, as though you’re naturally as glowingly appealing as those blonde gods lensed by Mr Weber. Or the store’s if-you-are-not-good-looking-you-can’t-work-here staff. The Abercrombie moose logo, whether on a plain crew-neck tee or a polo shirt, was like a badge that indicated you belonged to a club, one that honours only physical perfection. This ideal, often without sartorial merit, was eventually also appreciated by the masses, who had yet seen the fading glory of American preppy for a largely white consumer. Abercrombie was not hard to understand just as Americana, decades earlier, was not hard to digest.
But times do change, as well as consumer tastes. President Obama’s place in the White House elevated America’s image outside the US. But, when Donald Trump took over—to the horror of the world, that no longer held true. Which non-American would want to don anything that blatantly aligned the wearer with the MAGA States? In fact, Abercrombie’s still-blatant “all-American” branding was, and still is, its undoing—USA is no longer a seductive sell. Although its brand image was rehabilitated after Michael Jeffries’s departure (“ousted”, as was reported) from the company in 2014, things would not be the same for the brand. The cool that it so naturally exuded weaken, the clothes looked dated, and the store still dark, as if it could not come out of a doomed gloom. They did not, to borrow from an old phrase, get their mojo back.
Update (18 April 2021, 6.30pm): Abercrombie announced on Instagram earlier today that “the store is closing on 2 May 2021”, adding, “we’ve enjoyed being your Abercrombie”
Photos: Zhao Xiangji