Abercrombie & Fitch's history and beginnings as former CEO is accussed of sexual exploitation

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Abercrombie and Fitch has a historic legacy dating back to the 19th century

Abercrombie & Fitch is a brand that gained its popularity by selling sex appeal through provocative adverts and shirtless male models in stores.

But this surface-level aesthetic of the brand now provides a backdrop for the testimonies of eight men who have told the BBC about their alleged exploitation and sexual abuse by the brand's former CEO, Mike Jeffries.

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Jeffries, along with his British partner Matthew Smith, are accused of using a highly organised network including a middleman to find young men for sex events hosted around the world - according to a BBC investigation.

Mr Jeffries and Mr Smith have not yet commented on the allegations but the couple's middleman denied any wrongdoing and said men went into these events "with their eyes wide open".

The fashion retail world has been rocked by the serious accusations levelled against Jeffries who is considered pivotal to the brand's success from the 1990s onwards when it began to appeal to the teen market.

Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirts are displayed in one of its stores December 8, 2003 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirts are displayed in one of its stores December 8, 2003 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirts are displayed in one of its stores December 8, 2003 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images) | Getty Images

But Abercrombie and Fitch have a history that goes back much further than Jeffries' time as CEO. NationalWorld takes a look back at the brand's beginnings in Manhattan, New York in the 19th century.

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David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch

The brand was initially founded by David T. Abercrombie in 1892 who first worked as a surveyor and topographer before he established the brand as somewhere for New York's elite to buy clothing.

It was then known as a retailer of sporting goods and sold items ranging from tennis shoes to elephant guns.

The company's first store was on South Street in downtown Manhattan, New York, where Ezra Fitch was a frequent customer.

As he grew to enjoy shopping with the brand, he purchased shares in the brand in 1900 and became a co-founder, but the partnership was short-lived and, following disputes over the company's directions, Abercrombie eventually left in 1907 and sold his stake in the company to Fitch.

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The Fitch years

In 1909, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. mailed more than 50,000 copies of its 456-page catalogue worldwide. This was a costly initiative that nearly bankrupted the company, but also worked as an effective marketing technique to make others aware of the brand.

The catalogue featured outdoor clothing, camping gear, articles, and advice columns.

By 1910, the brand began selling women's clothing too and in 1913, the store moved to a more fashionable and easily accessible midtown address near Fifth Avenue at 55/57 West 36th Street, expanding its inventory to include sportswear.

But a move occurred once more in 1917. The store moved again into a 12-story building at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 45th Street. The store occupied the entire available space of 12 storeys.

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The Madison Avenue store included a basement with a floor for paraphernalia for skiing, archery, free diving, and lawn games.

The second through fifth floors were reserved for clothing that was suitable for different climates or terrains. On the sixth floor was a picture gallery, a bookstore, a watch repair facility and a golf school equipped with a resident professional.

The seventh floor included a gun room with hundreds of shotguns and rifles, decorated with stuffed game heads, as well as a kennel for dogs and cats.

Until the 1970s, the store’s apparel, guns, and other items were synonymous with the image of American opulence.

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People walk by an Abercrombie and Fitch clothing store May 10, 2007 in San Francisco, (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)People walk by an Abercrombie and Fitch clothing store May 10, 2007 in San Francisco, (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
People walk by an Abercrombie and Fitch clothing store May 10, 2007 in San Francisco, (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) | Getty Images

When it expanded, the firm tried to only open new stores in downtown areas of large cities and in resort areas. In the early 1970s Abercrombie & Fitch attempted to widen its customer base by adding less-expensive items to its stock and by moving into the suburbs

But this arguably came too late as Abercrombie & Fitch was in financial crisis and filed for bankruptcy in 1976 after 85 years in business.

A change in the 1980s

Oshman’s Sporting Goods bought the firm in 1978 but it changed hands ten-years later when Abercrombie & Fitch was bought by The Limited.

This company had previously had success building up brands like Victoria's Secret.

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The brand changed its image to become a “casual luxury” brand.

Michael S. Jeffries took over as president in 1992 and popularised the brand to a teen apparel merchandiser from an ailing sports brand.

He believed that focusing the A&F brand towards the American teen market would be financially beneficial as that sector was said to be growing at a record rate at the time.

The new Abercrombie & Fitch reopened shortly afterwards with a preppy outdoors theme reminiscent of the company's original roots.

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Abercrombie & Fitch clothing is displayed in one of its stores December 8, 2003 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)Abercrombie & Fitch clothing is displayed in one of its stores December 8, 2003 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
Abercrombie & Fitch clothing is displayed in one of its stores December 8, 2003 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Jeffries commissioned Bruce Weber - known for his sexual photography - as the chief photographer defining the ad campaigns for the brand in campaigns that won Abercrombie and Fitch a devoted gay following.

The apparel consisted of woven shirts, denim, miniskirts, cargo shorts, wool sweaters, polo shirts, and T-shirts and by the mid-1990s, there were dozens of Abercrombie & Fitch stores in the United States

Abercrombie & Fitch’s overhaul has long faced criticisms for its advertising and its clothing, which some thought encouraged its teen market to adopt a sexually promiscuous lifestyle.

2000 onwards

In 2000, A&F launched a new line for pre-teens - Hollister Co. - that remains popular to this day.

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More recently, the brand has faced difficulty in retail - as many others have.

On February 15, 2012, A&F announced plans to close 180 more underperforming U.S. stores by 2015 while continuing to expand in Europe and Asia.

In 2013, the company's image took a hit when comments made by Jeffries in 2006 that disparaged customers with body types that do not resemble Abercrombie & Fitch models resurfaced.

The Hollister flagship store in New York City was closed in 2019. By 2021, flagship locations in Dusseldorf, London, Munich, and Paris were all closed.

The brand now has a headquarters in New Albany, Ohio.

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