It’s fair to say that USC is dealing with a lot right now. Look at literally any other page of this issue and you will see a staggering number of stories and discussions on our scandal-ridden administration. As USC navigates the growing pains of a rising institution and attempts to reconcile with past mistakes, many students, staff and faculty are left wondering where they fit in as individuals and where the school’s priorities lie.
I was thinking about these same questions as I walked through USC Village a few days ago, when my deep train of thought was waylaid by a sign that shocked me more than any Board of Trustees announcement could. Across the way from Starbucks (no, not that Starbucks, or that one. The other one. No. 5, I think?), nestled between the Roski Eye Institute and BBCM was an empty storefront with a sign on the window reading “Abercrombie & Fitch, Coming Fall 2018.”
I gasped. My Hydroflask clanged to the ground as a flood of repressed mid-2000s memories rushed back to me. The Westfield Capital mall. Boys sporting spiked hair and fauxhawks. The catalogue, inches thick, all black and white. Headache-inducing perfume mists. Slatted black windows and rows of neatly folded sweaters priced at $100. Every mean girl in my seventh grade class with the A&F logo emblazoned across their chests.
Abercrombie & Fitch epitomizes everything terrible about my adolescence, and I was absolutely floored to see it here — on a campus I believed was a safe space.
In hindsight, I was naive. I should have seen it coming. Realistically, USC and A&F are not so different from each other. In fact, the installation of an Abercrombie & Fitch store on our campus feels like a beautiful metaphor for USC’s faults, and the ways that it is trying to improve itself. Both rose to prominence in the world of sports and built up reputations as bastions of adolescent wealth and privilege. Both realized that change was necessary, and are currently striving to show themselves as polished and mature while dealing with a somewhat regrettable past.
David T. Abercrombie founded the first store in 1892, only 12 years after USC was established. The original shop sold hunting and fishing equipment, and was successful for a time, but fell into disrepair by the middle of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1992 that Abercrombie & Fitch was revitalized, when Michael Jeffries was named CEO.
Jeffries created the A&F brand as we know it: the cool kid store, with an empire of preppy clothes worn low and tight and racy advertisements to match. The branding was straightforward and aggressive; Jeffries once referred to the brand as “the essence of privilege and casual luxury.” In reality, A&F was a symbol of exclusivity and conformity, two things that would have fit in well with the USC of the mid-20th century. During that time, the school hovered around a 70 percent acceptance rate and only made national rankings when the label “party school” was applied. But while the school started to turn the tide, recruiting award-winning researchers and rejuvenating stagnant academic programs, Abercrombie continued to falter.
A&F refused to sell items larger than a women’s size 10 until 2014 and was sued numerous times for discriminatory hiring practices. It flirted with controversy frequently, selling t-shirts with racist Asian caricatures in 2002 and thongs for preteen girls with overtly sexual slogans. It purposefully marketed itself as the brand for rich, attractive white teens who have nothing better to do than wear overpriced sweatpants and flip flops — not out of laziness, but to prove how effortlessly superior they are. By definition, it was the brand of spoiled children, and if one could travel back to McCarthy Quad in 2005, I am sure that they could not take three steps without seeing the iconic A&F logo. The values espoused by Abercrombie & Fitch were a perfect match for the USC of the past, the USC that we were trying to leave behind. Eventually, the company realized that they too had some growing up to do. While Abercrombie basked in the glory of plastic opulence in the 2000s, the bit got old by 2014. Consequently, Jeffries was forced out amid public criticism of the brand and its declining sales performance.
Now, Abercrombie & Fitch is trying to clean up its image by toning down their use of obnoxious logos and trying to sell less to preppy high schoolers and more to young professionals. The new A&F collections are filled with neutral pieces that are intended more for a business meeting than a yacht party. Its advertising has matured a bit as well, maintaining the classic black and white palette while keeping the models fully clothed.
So Abercrombie & Fitch is an institution trying to repair its image, masking its previous reputation as a shopping destination for spoiled rich kids. Simply put, it is trying to make the world forget about its mistakes and reevaluate its priorities as a brand in an effort to be more inclusive. It seems that A&F has seen a kindred spirit in USC, a school that, try as it might to dole out scholarships and focus on academic innovation, still has yet to fully shake its reputation as the “University of Spoiled Children.”
Now, as part of its rebranding efforts, A&F is opening stores adjacent to two college campuses, including USC. So we, as Trojans, must ask ourselves if we want to assist them in this mission. A&F is yet another overpriced retail location at USC Village, but it also, strangely, shares a problem analogous to USC’s. It seems that both of our camps are trying to mature and grow, to be more serious than they once were and move past the missteps of their previous leadership. The opening an Abercrombie & Fitch on our campus is oddly poignant in how metaphorically on-the-nose it is, and though I do not see myself shopping there any time soon, I do feel like these two brands are in this together.