The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie’s Incredible, Risky Print Magazine

By Ella Riley-Adams January 21st, 2016

In the 2003 “Sex Ed” issue of A&F Quarterly, the words of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek are printed in large orange letters: “Sometimes in the news you don’t even know what is publicity and what is news … What do I see? A truly modern synthesis. Shit, why not have a cake and eat it too? You can have critical theory and nudity and enjoy it!”

Spun the right way, his optimistic perspective sounds like every content marketer’s dream—you can have your journalism and your marketing working together. But the statement is also indicative of the pages in which it’s printed.

From 1997 to 2003, Abercrombie & Fitch printed A&F Quarterly as its cultural manifesto—at once a magazine and a catalog. The idea is familiar to us now, with publications like Net-a-Porter’s Porter and Casper’s Van Winkle’s. But surprisingly, Abercrombie & Fitch showed up early to the content marketing party, a decade ahead of its time.

In 2014, Savas Abadsidis, the Quarterly‘s former editor-in-chief, told Racked that Mike Jeffries, the company’s CEO, was inspired to create the magazine by Disney head Michael Eisner. At Disney, Eisner branched into retail so customers could have a variety of ways to buy-in, merging entertainment and retail in the process. For instance, Eisner turned The Mighty Ducks, a small sports movie, into a marketing empire full of merchandising and media that eventually led to the creation of a professional hockey franchise. Jeffries hoped to adopt that ambitious spirit.

“Part of Mike’s genius was in pioneering the most dramatic retail theater in the business,” Craig Brommers, the head of marketing at Abercrombie, told The Cut. Beyond the brand’s shirtless poster boys and loud stores, a print publication had the potential to advance the Abercrombie fantasy.

Take the “Back to School” issue of 2000, set in New York City. After a spread of (all white) models posing with their pants down in Times Square, the magazine features a guide to navigating New York’s strip clubs and “back rooms.” Then, on page 241, Amy Sedaris interviews Bret Easton Ellis. On page 248, Margaret Cho talks about back-to-school shopping and her appreciation for Madonna. Next, Jimmy Fallon plays around with a kite in Tompkins Square Park.

Most of the issue’s other 280 pages portray scenes from a carefree youth, shot by photographer Bruce Weber. Models wrestle in a Central Park fountain, or make out over coffee. Where American Apparel traded on empty-eyed pretty young things in the Internet age, Abercrombie had them gallivanting outdoors, staying true to the brand’s safari-gear roots.

The magazine was popular enough with its intended demographic that, at its prime, circulation hit about 200,000 copies, buoyed by subscriptions and a presence in Abercrombie stories.

A few years later, writing at the time of the magazine’s final issue, David Carr called it “something of a marketing innovation, in part because it sold advertising to other companies, including SoBe beverages and Sony.”

The editor’s letter in the 2003 Christmas edition, which was the magazine’s last, included a tongue-in-cheek request for forgiveness from “some of the people we’ve offended over the years,” including the Catholic League, the Mexican American Legal Defense, and vegans. Readers could then venture into the magazine to discover a bevy of blondes skinny dipping in a river, along with advice on group sex.

Despite drawing protests from the aforementioned groups, Abercrombie’s “gleefully offensive vibes” were tolerated by most consumers well into the 2000s. But as young buyers became interested in inclusivity, Abercrombie fell out of fashion. Flipping through A&F Quarterly today, the reader comes across an interesting dynamic. On one hand, it’s strong evidence of the brand’s myopia, portraying a singular “young American” existence, one in which everyone is thin and rich and overwhelmingly white. On the other, A&F seemed to have a sophisticated understanding of how to think about content a decade before other brands started to catch up.

After six years, the magazine was put down due to a combination of overzealous sexuality, offensiveness, and high costs (Racked cites total production costs of $100 million over the years).

Since then, Abercrombie has undergone a slow transition toward acceptability. Mike Jeffries retired amidst controversy in December of 2014. By April 2015, the retailer announced a move away from sexualized marketing, instead focusing on “showcasing products and trends.”

Rather than revisiting the idea of A&F Quarterly for a socially conscious generation of social media natives, the company has resorted to Instagrams with meaningless captions like “Spotted on the horizon: #weekend.” and “Go the extra mile in transitional #sweaters.” There is no sign of a blog, much less a voice.

This summer, the company hired Katia Kuethe, the former creative director of Lucky, as its new creative director. According to The New York Times, the choice “reflects a real understanding on the part of Abercrombie’s management of the need for change that goes beyond the look of the stores to the ethos of the brand.” Keuthe will be charged with building a new version of the brand’s all-American appeal, and, given her background, it seems likely that she will go down some kind of editorial path.

If she can draw from A&F Quarterly‘s blend of sex and substance while broadening its scope, don’t be surprised if Abercrombie decides to fire up its printing press again.

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