When did abercrombie accutally start?
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Jan. 24, 2006 | Mike Jeffries, the 61-year-old CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, says "dude" a lot. He'll say, "What a cool idea, dude," or, when the jeans on a store's mannequin are too thin in the calves, "Let's make this dude look more like a dude," or, when I ask him why he dyes his hair blond, "Dude, I'm not an old fart who wears his jeans up at his shoulders."
This fall, on my second day at Abercrombie & Fitch's 300-acre headquarters in the Ohio woods, Jeffries -- sporting torn Abercrombie jeans, a blue Abercrombie muscle polo, and Abercrombie flip-flops -- stood behind me in the cafeteria line and said, "You're looking really A&F today, dude." (An enormous steel-clad barn with laminated wood accents, the cafeteria feels like an Olympic Village dining hall in the Swiss Alps.) I didn't have the heart to tell Jeffries that I was actually wearing American Eagle jeans. To Jeffries, the "A&F guy" is the best of what America has to offer: He's cool, he's beautiful, he's funny, he's masculine, he's optimistic, and he's certainly not "cynical" or "moody," two traits he finds wholly unattractive.
Jeffries' endorsement of my look was a step up from the previous day, when I made the mistake of dressing my age (30). I arrived in a dress shirt, khakis and dress shoes, prompting A&F spokesman Tom Lennox -- at 39, he's a virtual senior citizen among Jeffries' youthful workforce -- to look concerned and offer me a pair of flip-flops. Just about everyone at A&F headquarters wears flip-flops, torn Abercrombie jeans, and either a polo shirt or a sweater from Abercrombie or Hollister, Jeffries' brand aimed at high school students.
When I first arrived on "campus," as many A&F employees refer to it, I felt as if I had stepped into a pleasantly parallel universe. The idyllic compound took two years and $131 million to complete, and it was designed so nothing of the outside world can be seen or heard. Jeffries has banished the "cynicism" of the real world in favor of a cultlike immersion in his brand identity. The complex does feel like a kind of college campus, albeit one with a soundtrack you can't turn off. Dance music plays constantly in each of the airy, tin-roofed buildings, and when I entered the spacious front lobby, where a wooden canoe hangs from the ceiling, two attractive young men in Abercrombie polo shirts and torn Abercrombie jeans sat at the welcome desk, one checking his Friendster.com messages while the other swayed subtly to the Pet Shop Boys song "If Looks Could Kill."
If looks could kill, everyone here would be dead. Jeffries' employees are young, painfully attractive, and exceedingly eager, and they travel around the campus on playground scooters, stopping occasionally to chill out by the bonfire that burns most days in a pit at the center of campus. The outdoorsy, summer-camp feel of the place is accentuated by a treehouse conference room, barnlike building and sheds with gridded windows, and a plethora of wooden decks and porches. But the campus also feels oddly urban -- and, at times, stark and unwelcoming. The pallid, neo-industrial two-story buildings are built around a winding cement road, reminding employees that this is a workplace, after all.
Inside, the airy and modern workspaces are designed to encourage communication and teamwork, and everywhere you look, smiley employees are brainstorming or eagerly recounting their weekends. "I'm not drinking again for a year," one young employee said to another as they passed me in the hall. There are few "offices" and even fewer doors at A&F central. Jeffries, for example, uses an airy conference room as his office, and he spends much of his days huddling with designers who come armed with their newest ideas and designs.
The press-shy Jeffries rarely grants interviews, but he invited me to A&F's Ohio headquarters to promote the opening of his first flagship store, a four-story, 23,000-square-foot behemoth across the street from Trump Tower in Manhattan. To celebrate the opening, in November Jeffries threw a packed, ritzy, invitation-only party at the store, at which slightly soused women paid $10 apiece to have Polaroids of themselves taken with shirtless A&F model Matt Ratliff. And why not throw a party? Life is good for Jeffries, who in 14 years has transformed Abercrombie & Fitch from a struggling retailer of "fuddy-duddy clothes" into the most dominant and imitated lifestyle-based brand for young men in America.
Valued at $5 billion, the company now has revenues approaching $2 billion a year rolling in from more than 800 stores and four successful brands. For the kids there's Abercrombie, aimed at middle schoolers who want to look like their cool older siblings. For high schoolers there's Hollister, a wildly popular surf-inspired look for "energetic and outgoing guys and girls" that has quickly become the brand of choice for Midwestern teens who wish they lived in Laguna Beach, Calif.
When the Hollister kids head off to college, Jeffries has a brand -- the preppy and collegiate Abercrombie & Fitch -- waiting for them there. And for the post-college professional who is still young at heart, Jeffries recently launched Ruehl, a casual sportswear line that targets 22- to 35-year-olds.
While Wall Street analysts and the companies' many critics gleefully predict A&F's impending demise every year or so, they have yet to be right. The company struggled some in the post-9/11 period, when, unlike other slumping retailers, it refused to offer discounts or promotions. But A&F's earnings have nonetheless increased for 52 straight quarters, excluding a one-time charge in 2004. "To me it's the most amazing record that exists in U.S. retailing, period," says A.G. Edwards analyst Robert Buchanan.
As his A&F brand has reached iconic status, Jeffries has raised prices, only to find that the brand's loyal fans will gladly pay whatever he asks. Total sales for November 2005 increased 34 percent over the year before, more than five times the gain made by A&F's main competitor, American Eagle. And while many retailers struggled during the Christmas season, Abercrombie thrived -- it scored year-over-year gains of 29 percent in December, compared to 1.5 percent for other specialty retail stores.
Next, Jeffries plans to open his first store overseas, in London, and continue the transformation of A&F from American frat-bro wear to luxury lifestyle brand. I wouldn't bet against him. If history is any indication, Jeffries won't let anyone -- "girlcotting" high school feminists, humorless Asians, angry shareholders, thong-hating parents, lawsuit-happy minorities, nosy journalists, copycat competitors or uptight moralists -- get in his way.