Americana Gone Sour


14 July 2017

It’s a curious thing, stepping into Abercrombie & Fitch’s London store in 2017. Gone are the strapping greeters and their scripted shout-outs. Greatly diminished are the fumes of Fierce, the deafening decibels, and the overwhelming presence of bronzed and waxed pecs and abs. Lighting levels: relatively normal. Length of queue: insignificant. What’s left is fairly nondescript. A particularly bullish form of immersive retail is dead.

It’s hard to imagine this was ever cool. Not just the invasive in-store experience, but the whole shebang: baseball tees and Henley tops, trucker caps and sheepskin boots, surfer style and college prep, sweatshirts, sweatpants, sweaters.

You know what I mean. It’s the sartorial Americana of the early 2000s. Epitomised by a select number of brands, it was as diffuse as it was recognisable: Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister offered slouchy SoCal style; J. Crew a preppier variant; American Apparel the hipster-friendly alternative.

They were all doing so well, until suddenly they weren’t. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Abercrombie & Fitch surfed the waves of scandal: allegations of racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and the openly misogynistic messaging (a T-shirt for teenage girls read, “Who needs brains when you’ve got these?”) somehow only managed to bolster the hype. Similarly, the sexual-harassment lawsuits launched against former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney seemed to feed into the supposedly titillating atmosphere of ironic sexism that characterised American Apparel’s brand.

Then, in the mid-2010s, they all nosedived. After declining sales and the 2014 dismissal of Charney, American Apparel filed for bankruptcy on 8 November 2016. Abercrombie & Fitch’s shares fell by almost 56 per cent in 2016. J. Crew is $2bn in debt. Other retail giants have suffered comparable losses, with e-commerce frequently cited as the cause. But hasn't a broader cultural shift rendered the insistently all-American style unpalatable, even for mainstream consumers?

Maybe it’s the rise of tub-thumping US patriotism that comes across as distinctly uncool. Maybe the leniency of college student Brock Turner’s sentence for on-campus sexual assault has frat-boy culture feeling less aspirational. Either way, a shirtless in-store model shouting, “Party at my house!” on cue sounds not like a promise, but a threat.