Abercrombie & Fitch, the face of preppy America, famous for its vapid obsession with ‘beautiful people', has received some ugly press of late.
Last week the retailer was ordered to pay £8000 to a former member of staff at its Savile Row store. The woman, who uses a prosthetic arm, said she resigned after being forced to work in the shop's store room because she violated Abercrombie & Fitch's ‘look policy'.
This stipulates that all employees ‘represent Abercrombie & Fitch with natural, classic American style consistent with the company's brand', and states that staff should ‘look great while exhibiting individuality'. Workers must wear a ‘clean, natural, classic hairstyle' and have nails which extend ‘no more than a quarter-inch'.
The employment tribunal found the retailer guilty of not complying with employment law in the manner in which it dealt with her case and ruled that she had been wrongly dismissed.
While the company was cleared of disability discrimination, there are other reasons why it has attracted unfavourable headlines. In the year to July, its global net sales declined by 23%, feeding speculation that the chain has merely dipped its toe in the UK market and might not progress much further in this country or beyond.
So what does Abercrombie & Fitch need to do to be beautiful again? We asked Archibald Ingall Stretton creative partner Steve Stretton, who has worked on Levi's, and Nick Gray, managing director of Live & Breathe and a former marketing director at Ben Sherman.
Steve Stretton creative partner, Archibald Ingall Stretton
When a brand is defined by its staff's jawlines, it's hard to change. For 10 years now, Abercrombie & Fitch has meant beautiful people, hard bodies, perfect skin, white teeth, loud music, dark stores... oh, and clothes.
Very expensive, baggy, logo-heavy clothes. Clothes that, 10 years ago, I really liked. Liked enough to nearly miss a flight back from New York
as I filled those big black-and-white carrier bags.
Those clothes are on their last legs now and I'm not sure about replacing them, for various reasons.
The first one being, I'm 10 years older and the staff are 10 years younger. But that's not really their fault. The second reason is that, in the superficial world of fashion, 10 years is a hell of a long time. Everybody knows the logo and lots of people wear it - maybe too many. Ubiquity is the enemy of originality.
The final reason is that the world has changed. The economic downturn has given us images of joblessness and homelessness. How appropriate do the pictures of semi-naked, preppy junior bankers feel right now?
- Ironically, Abercrombie & Fitch needs a face - it needs to feel good to be seen in Abercrombie & Fitch again, and it's time for a relevant brand ambassador. The Kate Moss effect, without Kate Moss. Choose somebody who gives a toss about other people and may actually care more about the world than about their teeth.
- The store has got darker, the music louder (yes, I know I've got older). It is time to open up, warm up, and stop being so cool and aloof. In other words, Abercrombie & Fitch needs to get inclusive.
Nick Gray managing director, Live & Breathe
The big queue I declined to join outside Abercrombie & Fitch's London store recently is proof that it is doing some things right, but there are areas of the business that might not be as flawless as the all-American models on whom the chain pins its clothes.
Abercrombie & Fitch is part of a genre of overpriced collegiate wear that encompasses brands such as Jack Wills and Henleys, and it can be very difficult to distinguish between them. Abercrombie & Fitch doesn't have a strong DNA - it just falls into a category.
There has been little product evolution since the brand launched, so you know what to expect. It reflects what we already know, which might quickly mean people drop it. A good example of this is Ruehl, a more expensive Abercrombie & Fitch sub-brand, launched in the US in 2004. It was recently announced that all Ruehl stores would close by January 2010, because the experiment hasn't worked. Consumers simply see it as a pricier version of Abercrombie & Fitch.
The chain does not offer the same combination of fashion and value that brands such as Zara, for example, can. Unless it makes some changes, it will become an expensive Gap at best.
Plunging figures from the US could indicate trouble is on its way in the UK. Abercrombie & Fitch needs to learn from its Stateside mistakes and keep in mind that UK consumers are very discerning.
Continually develop the fashion element of the product and introduce a top-level range that elevates the brand as a whole.
If it does launch more sub-brands, it should differentiate them from itself.