Ivy Notes S1 E4 – G. Bruce Boyer Corrects Me, A Brief History Of Abercrombie & Fitch, and The Great Alpacuna Debate
January 24, 2022
Editor’s Note: In the Facebook Group, we are treated to fantastic articles by the only purveyor we allow to advertise to the group, James Taylor of Waterhollow Tweed. He recently gave us permission to reprint two such pieces.
Let’s have a smidge of retail history–the “Abercrombie & Fitch” that exists today is NOT the original company that bore this name.
The original A&F was founded in 1892 as “David T. Abercrombie Co.” after its founder, who sold expensive sporting goods. It became “Abercrombie & Fitch” by 1904 when a prominent lawyer, Ezra Fitch, bought into a partnership with Abercrombie in 1900. Fitch was less conservative than Abercrombie–who disliked innovation–and became whole owner of the company in 1907, retaining both names.
He retired in 1928, but the company continued on the path he had set: high-end sporting goods, and innovations in fabric and equipment. So successful was this mix that A&F became THE sporting store, selling not just clothing for domestic field sports, but safari gear, Heuer watches for flying, yachting, and exploring–and an extensive selection of guns for every conceivable use.
Naturally, such a company had an impressive clientele. They supplied Amelia Earhart with her flight jacket. Ernest Hemingway had an account with them, although he was only happy when buying guns… although the pigeon gun (a W C Scott Monte Carlo B) with which he killed himself in 1961 was bought in Udine, Italy–although A&F did some work on it. (Thanks to Theo. Nittis’ for help here, citing Silvio Calabi in “Hemingway’s Guns”). And JFK made their khakis famous.
But nothing lasts forever, and with the slow swing of fashion and opinion against field sports and gun use the company went bankrupt in 1976. The name was then bought and resurrected by Oshman’s Sporting Goods in 1978, who sold it on to The Limited in 1988…. and you know the grim results!
So, how to tell a REAL Abercrombie & Fitch item? Fairly easily, as the store had a distinctive label: Abercrombie & Fitch in green script on either a white or a black background. (There were, of course, variants of this, but this was their standard.) That’s the REAL Abercrombie….. Long gone as a purveyor of wonderful, functional clothing–but some of the clothing is still around…..
Editor’s Second Note: I am looking at the images of these women camping and I note that I had to drive my daughter down her school driveway this morning, maybe two blocks long, because it was cold out, but she refused to wear a jacket.
Again from Mr. Taylor:
Founded in Philadelphia in 1914, Jacob Siegel Company specialized in making classic overcoats for sale at places such as Rogers Peet, Brooks Brothers, and B. Altman.
In 1930 they developed a cloth made from alpaca, mohair and wool bonded to a cotton backing. This coat was designed for warmth and longevity, and was–like all of Siegel’s coats–extremely stylish. Siegel called these coats the “Alpacuna”, and they retailed for around $40 (roughly $650 in 2022 dollars.)
This name got them in trouble.
In 1944 the Federal Trade Commission found that the name “Alpacuna” was misleading and deceptive as it implied that the coats were made from in part from vicuna… a far more costly fibre than any of those that were actually used. Siegel’s was ordered to cease using the name immediately.
Siegel’s appealed in 1945. They cited a wealth of evidence that no-one really believes that their coats contained vicuna, including surveys conducted in stores that sold Alpacuna coats, testimony from tailors’ unions, testimony from people in the trade, and a letter from the only US manufacturer of vicuna coats noting that they had no objection to the name. (They also noted that their vicuna coats were $900, and not $40!)
But this was all to no avail–the FTC had their own evidence that showed that people were confused by the name.
However, Siegel did win a compromise. They were allowed to keep the name Alpacuna–which by then was well-recognized and valuable–but had to include under it on their labels the disclaimer “Contains No Vicuna”.But while the Alpacuna coats might have given the impression that they were more luxurious than they actually were, Siegel’s “flagship line of coats were nothing less than their tagline advertised–“The Luxury Coat”.
Siegel’s flagship line was the “Regis Rex” line of coats. Introduced in 1934, these were “The Luxury Coat”. Beautifully cut from pure fabrics these coats featured pick stitching throughout, and occasionally came with striking linings–scarlet, gold, and paisley. Their elegance and quality made them a favourite in the 1950s and 1960s with the Ivy set, who purchased them from Brooks Brothers, Rogers Peet, and B. Altman. But the large stores weren’t the only ones to carry these coats–smaller, upscale local stores did too. These catered to the local Ivy set, but also–in places such as Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx–to the jazz musicians and Italians who also adored these coats for their style and swagger.
Unfortunately, despite their success in the 1950s and 1960s–success which continued into the 1970s and 1980s through contracts to supply coats to Brooks Brothers and Nordstrom–by the early 1990s Siegel was in trouble. After a last-minute refinancing the company shifted all of its production off-shore in 1992. They also negotiated with Brooks Brothers and Nordstrom to produce… less espensive coats for the new trend towards more disposable fashion. These moves saved Siegel as a company… But the expense of it as a clothier.
It still continues, but, like Talbott and Banks before it, as merely a shadow of its former self.