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Why I'm Somewhat Nostalgic for the Old Abercrombie & Fitch

Why do I miss a brand that made me feel less than?
Gone are the days of shirtless models. Photo: Abercrombie & Fitch

Gone are the days of shirtless models. Photo: Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing company ubiquitous in malls and, at one point, in teenager’s closets, reinvented itself in 2015. After years of financial troubles due to the shifting tastes of young consumers (H&M is trendier and cheaper), as well as some statements questionable in both philosophy and economics made by former CEO Mike Jeffries ("We want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that"), the clothing company began retooling last year via a new executive leadership and design staff. Goodbye, cargo shorts and flip flops. Hello, bright, beaming, 21st-century retail future.

This fall, the brand unveiled the "new Abercrombie" at a menswear showroom launch in New York City. Though it might be "new" for the retailer, the clothes displayed there were anything but novel by most standards. Gone were the flashy, tight polo shirts and ripped jeans that defined Abercrombie’s youthful past, replaced with safe white henleys, bland navy jackets and sweaters in that shade of flat slate grey you'd recognize from the piles of product in every average-priced store in the country. Looking at these clothes, you sense something of the hardening of the modern American uniform: Simple clothes for complicated times, slim fit and fine (but never, ever flashy) outfits that you can wear on Casual Friday and to your Tinder date. They are respectable and adaptable. They remind you of responsibilities you have, meetings you need to take, brunches you promised you'd attend, Capital One credit bills you must pay. The identity is no identity. You could find these clothes anywhere, and do. You wonder if Abercrombie is just hoping you'll wander into their store and buy their version instead of Club Monaco's. Thus far, this aesthetic shift seems to be working, with the company's sales figures slowly creeping out of the hole into which they'd fallen.

Much of this shift is a sign of progress. Increasingly, it seems that the days of Abercrombie's offensive slogan tees and discriminatory hiring practices are behind it. It's promising for a company to abandon its "cool" elitism in favor of opening itself to everyone, an indication perhaps that the world is in a better place than it was when Abercrombie's body shame-inducing ads — famously featuring the young, beautiful and naked frolicking on docks with footballs in hand — and all-American whiteness were seen as selling points as opposed to oppression. You could even praise the sheer taste of the clothes, and be happy that a decade of "Mad Men" tailoring and attention paid to menswear has finally trickled down to the mainstream store, making it possible and even mandatory for guys to wear well-fitting, smart and, most of all, quiet clothes. Perhaps, too, basic clothes are a symbol of a time when people hope to stand out more than their outfits. Blank clothes for bright people.

And yet, if you're around my age, I'm guessing that a strange nostalgia and ennui tugs at you when looking at this new Abercrombie. At the time I was spending my weekends at malls in the late '90s, Abercrombie was at its absolute peak. Its catalogue, the "A&F Quarterly," was required reading in certain adolescent bedrooms, filled with photos shot by Bruce Weber of impossibly gorgeous models wearing (and not wearing) Abercrombie's crinkled plaid button-down shirts and Christmas red track pants. These models seemed enviably free — they, at least, did not have math homework. You could say the clothes were beside the point. Though the college tees and hoodies were more colorful and more fun than almost everything else on the market, you were, most importantly, buying into a lifestyle. Abercrombie was the first "brand" I can say I recall holistically: A full package in which fragrances, ads, models and clothes swirled together in my mind in a haze of desire.

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It was the era of frosted tips. I remember forcing my mother to drive me out to the suburbs so that I could walk around the vast, gleaming, white malls that we did not have in my relatively urban neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh. The highlight of these trips was always a stop into Abercrombie, which had chic dark walls, tables and tables of soft cotton and stiff khaki and, famously, huge photos of muscled men that excited me in ways I didn't completely understand at the time. It did not look like any other store in the mall. Once you were inside, you were somewhere else, a place with everything a pimply kid wants at that age: Loud, cool music, naked people older than you but not yet old, sweatpants. Those Abercrombie boys were the first ones I had crushes on — I did not know at the time that Bruce Weber was masterfully and intentionally stoking the homoeroticism in his photos, along with my burgeoning same-sex hormones. I just knew I wanted what I saw. Shopping there was a full-body experience, lighting up every sense, and I still remember the smell and the big white smiles of the boys in the ads. They sprayed the sticky Abercrombie cologne all over the store. It was Christmas, spring break and summer camp all the time.

The old Abercrombie symbolized, more than anything, popularity — a trait that eluded me in my middle school days but that I was, like so many kids, obsessed with. The feeling that Abercrombie was meant for some better class of people than me was both punishing and promising, that strange American brew of self-hate and self-love, longing and ambition, that drives consumerism. Abercrombie was just a little more expensive than my mom would have liked, and I remember thinking that if she'd just fork over the cash for me to get that rope belt that some hunk was wearing in one of the ads, I would look in the mirror and instantly appear like him: A tan, fit, healthy American man, and not the husky, awkward seventh grader I was around the time of my bar mitzvah.

Good riddance, in many ways, to the old Abercrombie. It's ultimately for the best that it had to be put to sleep. Companies that rely on elitism should have no place in the culture. There are things about the desires it used to stoke in me that now trouble me in retrospect. Why did a dorky Jewish boy from the city crave this suburban gentility? Why am I nostalgic for a company that made me feel less than? Here I am, not as awkward as I was but still not a beefcake, using my brain instead of good looks and youth to get through the day, needing a different kind of subtler clothes for a different kind of subtler life — the kind, in fact, that the new Abercrombie seems suited for. And judging by the realities of this new Abercrombie, the popular jock also had to grow up and realize that looking cool wasn't enough to pay the bills. Once starkly different, we're now equals, just two guys looking for a sensible chino to roll above our Clarks. We all live under the same sun of business casual.

But even if the old Abercrombie didn't always encourage the best impulses in my adolescent life, at least it incited something. To want to be somebody is at the very core of American capitalism. We shop to become the person we hope we are, dress for the job we want, and Abercrombie sparked those kinds of feelings in me, waking me up to the possibility of different ways to live and present myself. This new Abercrombie, with its normal clothes that whisper rather than scream, says something else: Blend in, be humble, don't make any sudden movements. It's wonderful that Abercrombie is shedding its most toxic attributes, but couldn't it have replaced them with something a bit more imaginative? I don't know what a seventh grade me would see in the new Abercrombie, but I can't imagine that desire would be any part of it.

I always think of Ralph Lifshitz — a Jew from the Bronx who, so in love with some concept of preppy, rustic Americana that he did not have in his own urban childhood, became Ralph Lauren — as proof of the Gatsby-ian power of clothing to transform who we are. His designs speak to that very American engine of striving that has motivated so much in this country. And yet for all of the good that comes with the fact of Abercrombie transforming itself, this new Abercrombie can not offer its customers the same power of metamorphosis. It is, alas, a new Abercrombie for the same old us.